Author: David Miller
Genre: Family/Drama/Slice of Life
Review: Today is an epic in miniature, with its 160 pages of breathable prose containing thirty-nine characters. They are detailed in a witty dramatis personae (“Scallywag (‘Scally’), 77 (or perhaps 84), a family pet (canine)”) which also discloses the centre of the book: “JC, 66, a seaman, a writer, a husband and father, a dying man, a corpse.” The story is set on three days (three todays): his last day of life; the day of his death; and the day of his burial.
Today is a superbly crafted book. Miller’s Conrad is silent, in the wings, while his secretary/ “typewriter”, his cook, his wife [who is decidedly not based on Woolf’s description of her as his “lump”], his daughter-in-law, his grandson and sons and friends – like those flawed, failed characters who peopled his fiction – are foregrounded during three todays: the day before and after his sudden death and the day of his funeral.
It would be possible – just – to read the first part of the book without knowing who JC is: clearly he is important, a father figure, the star around which all the characters orbit. These comprise his family, his secretary, household staff, and – among others – the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. Who is this important man? Can any good news come from so many people gathered together as a sick man lies upstairs?
One family friend suspects not, when a telegram arrives: “the world – come to pay them a visit.” Only when their ostensible host dies the next morning – “he had fallen from his chair, headfirst” – is he named as Joseph Conrad. In death he becomes fixed, recorded, a reflection of a artist’s permanent legacy (“escaped into legend,” as Salter wrote of Gaudí). “The dead live longer than you think,” his secretary Lily recalls.
An epigraph from Conrad’s short story, “Tomorrow”, sets the tone, subject, theme and the angle of vision for the opening scenes of Lilian Hallowes’s journey to Conrad’s home for a family birthday-lunch:
“It was as if all the hopeful madness of the world had broken out to bring terror upon her heart, with the voice of the old man shouting of his trust in an everlasting tomorrow.”
The quotation is from the closing lines of “Tomorrow”, spoken by Bessie Carvil, a spinster living in the seaside town of Colebrook. She is the put-upon carer for her blind father and the next-door tenant of Hagberd. Retired sea-captain, Hagberd came to Colebrook in search of Harry, his errant, probably long-dead son and stayed on, waiting, in hopeful expectation, for his imminent return – “tomorrow”. Events are brought to a head when Harry returns: tomorrow becomes today and the fictions they constructed become a reality they each must face.
“Tomorrow” informs Today – spinsterish, dutiful secretary, Lilian, Conrad’s “typewriter” who both opens and closes the book, mirrors Bessie Carvil, both in her self-denying sense of duty and also, in her strength; Conrad’s sons, whose sibling rivalry comes sharply into focus, mirror Harry’s desire to strike out independently but also in his weaknesses; Conrad’s desire for a stable family-centred ‘English’ home is held up to scrutiny —for everyone, today arrives too soon. Duty, faith, sons and fathers, women and responsibility—above all, doing the right thing—all come starkly into focus when Conrad dies suddenly.
Today isn’t just a Conradian novel in theme and characterisation: Miller gets under Conrad’s writerly skin. With his explicit detailing, multiple viewpoints and introspection, he conveys Conrad’s struggle to find a new way of seeing:
“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask”. [‘The Task of the Artist’, Conrad. 1898] – Lilian Hallowes recalls the final words in the opening pages of Today.
We ‘see’ in microscopic detail:
“There was nothing, no sound, simply numbness. John watched small things happen around him – a fly ambling on the carpet, Scally greedily snuffling and grunting at the gap at the bottom of the closed bedroom door, the steam from his mother’s teacup- and swiftly realised he would feel like this for a while: things would happen to him before he could happen to things again.”
More, though, we see, through Miller’s Conradian aesthetic, a human tragedy: “a seaman, a writer, a husband and father, a dying man, a corpse.” With great acuity, Miller depicts the tensions that surface when the personal becomes public and where, trying hard to live up to expectations, everyone fails themselves and those around them. Miller’s carefully nuanced depiction of how death affects close family and friends rings true – not for him weepy drama – but contrasting emotions evoke the pain of sorrow: shocked sadness erupts into hysterical laughter; baby Philip “belche[s] with comic vigour and volume” at a deeply serious moment.
By making Conrad the absent centre of the book, Miller can focus on the many surrounding characters. The book is heavily populated, but he knows his characters so well that he can pare them back to a minimum but still keep them distinct in the reader’s mind. Prominent among them are Conrad’s sons, Borys and John, whose sibling friction is one of the highlights of the book. John, the younger of the two brothers, feels his first intimations of mortality: the funeral is “the beginning of some storm that would not end.” At the precocious age of eighteen, he contemplates his own funeral. Other characters are outlined with equal deftness. When we first see Richard Curle, family friend, he is sitting in Conrad’s study while the man lies sick – dying – upstairs. “Forty-eight panes in all; he had counted them: sixteen, sixteen, sixteen, making forty-eight. And then again, one by one, making forty-eight.” I don’t think it is just my recognition of such displacement activity in myself that makes me think this gesture tells us a great deal about Curle before he has even spoken. Miller can also drop the just-so description with apparent effortlessness, as when “puddles seemed to simmer like the surface of a stockpot” (the perfect last word elevating that simile into poetry, as well as efficiently giving us an insight into the character who makes the observation).
Nice touches of human connection and disconnection thread through Today giving coherence to its fragmented scenes: on the train to Canterbury, Lilian Hallowes picks up an abandoned copy of Forster’s recently published novel, A Passage to India, and it’s this same novel that Conrad is reading the night he dies, a fact, which, if not true, feels right in its period detailing and in the way Miller delineates their close literary-centred relationship. Conrad’s sons move apart over the three days as John, the youngest achieves maturity. He chides Borys— ‘You arethe elder. Be seen to be’ and decides:
“When he was a father, John thought, with dimmed anger – when he was buried in half a century or so – his sons would shave the night before, or bring their own money to church, or just, be better.”
Conrad once explained to H. G. Wells how their writing differed: “You don’t care for humanity but think they are to be improved. I love humanity but know they are not.” In Today, Miller gives us Conrad’s messed up, flawed characters as well as his deep compassion.
Such a subtle and beautiful thing as this novel will not stand my tramping over it with too many plot spoilers, though plot is not the prime mover anyway. As well as being a satisfying story and multiple character study, Today is – as we might expect from an authors’ agent – a very knowing literary work. It is a miniature of the English country house novel, a fitting form for Conrad who “wasn’t an Englishman [but] wanted to be.” Its subject matter and length suggest The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Conrad in the preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ wrote that the writer succeeds when he provides “that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.” The phrase is explicitly cited in Today, and aptly so. The book acknowledges too the limitations of fiction and the very language of which it is made, as Conrad’s secretary Lilian recalls his frustrations as a writer: words were “the great enemies of reality”. The good writer, of course, transmutes these frustrations into a seamless experience for the reader, the threatening storms of composition becoming the thrilling swells of literary achievement. While I hope for more riches from Miller the agent for many years to come, I hope that his talented clients ease off the accelerator from time to time, to give him the space to give us more.
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