The Conradian: Review

By Frances Wilson, London

David Miller, Today. London: Attlantic Books, 2011. 176 pp. .£12.99

David Miller’s remarkable novella, Today, has several beginnings. It begins first on the title-page, in the form of some lines from Conrad’s story, “To-morrow”: “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.” It begins again in the epigraph, this time with a quotation from a poem by James Fenton: “Stay near to me and I’ll stay near to you,” which is followed by one from John Burnside, “Perhaps, if we died of anything, we die / Of distance.”

There is then a considerable Dramatis Personæ– forty people are due to appear in 160 well-spaced pages – which suggests that what follows will be a play and not a novel, with the characters speaking their own parts. All these voices, all these starts, frame a meditation on the impossibility of speech when faced with the emptiness, and embarrassment, of endings.

Today takes place over three days. On Saturday, 2 August, Lilian Hallowes (the central observing consciousness of events, described in the Dramatis Personae as “54, a ‘typewriter’”) is preparing to join a family lunch to celebrate the eighteenth birthday of her employer’s son, John (“a student, latterly an architect”). Meanwhile, her employer – Miss Hallowes is Joseph Conrad’s secretary – suffers from a seizure while taking a drive with Richard Curle (“41, a journalist and friend of the family”) and is lying, barely able to breath, on his bed. Conrad, it seems, will have no speaking part.

The following morning he dies, falling headfirst from his chair and landing on his hands and knees, looking “like a mantis or a cricket.” “Get dressed,” said Borys (“26, a war veteran, car mechanic, a son, a father”) to his younger brother, John, “Your father’s dead.” John’s fingers, as he dresses himself, feel “thicker” than they did the day before. The house seems suddenly useless, superfluous; nothing happens and nor will anything ever happen there again.

Watching a fly walk on the carpet, the dog scratch at the door and steam rise from his mother’s teacup, John “swiftly realised that he would feel like this for a while: things would happen to him before he could happen to things again.” A policeman appears on the scene and asks about Mr Conrad’s last meal; his sons snigger at the thought that he has been done in by the maid’s kedgeree. The boys squabble over the cost of a coffin; they try to find a way of dealing with what has happened, of moving forward. The doorbell rings and standing there are two prospective house purchasers, Jimmy and Clara de Bois (“American aristocrats in their mid-40s, friends of John and Nancy Dowell of Branshaw Teleragh,” but really Miller’s joke. The couple are the critic James Wood and his wife, Clare Messud: the literary establishment paying their first carrion call). Miss Hallowes – called by Borys “the stork” – arrives to find the family in shock; she stays for a while and then returns to her own home.

The third day, Thursday, 7 August, is the occasion of the funeral. A handful of people attend, including Edward Garnett (“56, a publisher’s reader, later a critic, married to a translator”) and Cunningham Graham (“72, a former MP, a socialist, a writer, a traveller, a friend”). Borys forgets to bring change for the collection. “You are the elder,” says John, handing him a note. “Be seen to be.”

John thinks about his own funeral, where “his sons would shave the night before, or bring their own money to church, or, just, be better.” From the wings, Lilian Hallowes watches, as for the last time, the players strut the stage. She begins to cry, and “Cunningham Graham took her hand, then held it firmly as she placed herself back into decency.” Later, when the vicar takes her hand, she says, “Don’t touch me,” before explaining to him “what I hate about your God.” Adjusting her hat, she once more leaves for home where she remembers that she has forgotten to buy a birthday present for John.

Miller observes with astonishing delicacy the characters as they move through the initial stages of grief; beneath the numb weight of their sorrow they take on the stature of emblematic, mythical, beings. The book is a superb work of imagination and empathy; this is, one feels, exactly as it must have been on the day Conrad dies. How could it be otherwise?

The prose is tight, precise, exquisite, each word a bulls-eye, every observation of the sudden loss of meaning and connection in the lives of those bereaved painful in its accuracy. Neither [brother] seemed to have a thing to say to one another now their father was dead, and John realised that his journey marked a line beyond which they would never really speak to one another as brothers again, merely as men who had one had the same father.

David Miller’s interest in Conrad is, unusually, not in exploring the strange worlds of either the mariner or the novelist but in the greatest mystery of all: Conrad the bourgeois husband and father, the man who made boats for his boys to sail on the pond, who lived around clutter, who ate kedgeree, who died in a bedroom chair and was mourned by his secretary, his wife, and his sons.

Miller does for Conrad what Colm Tóibin does for Henry James in The Master: he takes the writer’s least knowable side and places it at the centre of the story. Today begins with a story, a poem, and a play, and ends by giving us something else entirely: it is David Miller’s achievement to give us that glimpse of the domestic truth for which we had forgotten to ask.

© 2011 Frances Wilson






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