Aria of adul­tery

Adam Thorpe’s ar­ti­fice dis­guises the way his fiction presents read­ers with rich and com­plex char­ac­ters in sit­u­a­tions of in­tense hu­man drama, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IT is one of the mi­nor mys­ter­ies of con­tem­po­rary English lit­er­a­ture: why Adam Thorpe, poet, drama­tist, au­thor of seven nov­els and two vol­umes of short sto­ries, re­mains un­no­ticed by a wider au­di­ence de­spite the ev­i­dent bril­liance of his work and the cor­re­spond­ing praise of his peers.

But his latest fiction, an un­ex­pect­edly mov­ing love story set in Es­to­nia and Bri­tain, pro­vides some clues. There is an un­demon­stra­tive qual­ity to the intelligence at work here, a sub­tle teas­ing of nar­ra­tive con­ven­tions, along with a will­ing­ness to dis­solve the au­thor’s voice in those of his char­ac­ters.

In Be­tween Each Breath it is the gen­tle­ness of Thorpe’s stylis­tic suc­cesses that counts against him. One critic called him the Alec Guin­ness of English let­ters, which sounds about right, since his ge­nius lies not in dom­i­nat­ing his cre­ations but dis­ap­pear­ing into them.

Fol­low­ing on from Still ( 1995), Pieces of Light ( 1998) and Nine­teen Twenty- One ( 2001), this is the fourth novel where Thorpe has writ­ten from the point of view of an artist — a com­poser this time — and it is a choice that gives him an op­por­tu­nity to ad­dress a peren­nial con­cern: how ex­pe­ri­ence is turned into art.

The agent of this latest in­ves­ti­ga­tion is Jack Mid­dle­ton, a man blessed with a seem­ingly charmed life. He’s an ar­che­typal ‘‘ white work­ing- class boy made good’’, feted as the most promis­ing English com­poser of his gen­er­a­tion. His mar­riage to heiress Milly du Crane has also meant a happy an­nex­a­tion to her fam­ily’s ‘‘ an­cient and self- ex­pand­ing uni­verse of English wealth’’. Ex­cept he isn’t happy.

The young man ‘‘ bound for the glo­ries al­ready bub­bling in the caul­dron of his gift’’ finds him­self, at 37, in a creative slump. And the bloke who com­pla­cently an­tic­i­pated a large fam­ily has so far failed to pro­duce a child. He still has Milly and their cos­seted, north Lon­don ex­is­tence, but even this good life seems to stymie him.

In mo­ments of clar­ity, Jack ap­pre­ci­ates that he is ‘‘ sep­a­rated from the world by this one shit thing: money’’.

In search of in­spi­ra­tion, he trav­els to Tallinn in Es­to­nia, coun­try of his hero, com­poser Arvo Part. And in­spi­ra­tion he gets, though not in the way he in­tended. Jack ends up hav­ing a pas­sion­ate en­counter with a beau­ti­ful young vi­o­lin­ist, who takes him to her home is­land Haare­maa in the Baltic Sea. It’s an af­fair that wakes in him some­thing like true love, as well as an idyll that re­sults in the best com­po­si­tion of his ca­reer. Yet it is an ex­pe­ri­ence that threat­ens his cosy ex­is­tence. He fobs off the girl with a false name and flees back to his wife.

Six years on and Jack’s sense of com­fort has deep­ened, along with his tor­por. Mu­sic com­mis­sions have dried up and the in­vis­i­bil­ity cloak of mid­dle- age has set­tled on him. The ac­ci­den­tal death of his and Milly’s un­born child re­mains the sole blem­ish of their oth­er­wise gilded ex­is­tence, that and the shadow of Jack’s adul­ter­ous lie.

In fact he has been so suc­cess­ful in for­get­ting that mag­i­cal in­ter­lude that when Jack’s mu­si­cian friend Howard de­scribes his new vi­ola stu­dent — an Es­to­nian child prodigy whose mother’s name is the same, Kaja, as his lover — Jack can barely muster the cu­rios­ity to won­der if the child is his. When it turns out that she has cho­sen Howard on pur­pose to re­new con­tact, he can barely rouse him­self to con­tain the fall­out. Thus, the largest events of the novel un­fold de­spite him.

As a por­trait of male pas­siv­ity, Jack Mid­dle­ton feels mad­den­ingly true. He knows him­self to be stunted, un­fin­ished, a Peter Pan who watches life pass by ‘‘ on the far side’’. While he is ca­pa­ble of hon­est self- ex­am­i­na­tion — he can see his un­der­achieve­ment is bound up with his do­mes­tic sit­u­a­tion — he re­mains un­will­ing to re­lin­quish it. His means of re­treat from wife, fam­ily and friends is into an art that is more a prison than a sanc­tu­ary: ‘‘ All he knew was mu­sic. In a sort of swollen, over- de­vel­oped way. Par­al­lel to life. Its own world. Like maths.’’

But as Amer­i­can poet John Ber­ry­man sug­gested, ‘‘ We must travel in the di­rec­tion of our fear’’, and Jack’s art proves to have a cun­ning and an im­pe­tus of its own. ‘‘ One evolves,’’ he sug­gests. ‘‘ One re­solves prob­lems by tak­ing this route or that one route, each mi­nus­cule de­ci­sion build­ing like cells into a dif­fer­ent crea­ture.’’ His re­fusal to de­cide be­tween wife and lover, life and art, has made him into one per­son. The ques­tion re­mains whether the cri­sis he pro­vokes will make him into an­other.

There is a lovely satir­i­cal dig at the heart of this novel. It is a ‘‘ Hamp­stead novel of adul­tery’’: that much- de­rided genre meant to typ­ify the sub­ur­ban in­ward­ness of much post­war English fiction.

In Thorpe’s hands this nar­row premise opens like a com­pli­cated flower. The in­flux of ac­ces­sion- state mi­grants to Lon­don brings in­ti­ma­tions of a darker his­tory than any­thing ex­pe­ri­enced by mid­dle Eng­land.

Al­though their past suf­fer­ing means lit­tle to the rich of the me­trop­o­lis, the legacy they carry is, for Jack, that cru­cial third di­men­sion with­out which art — art be­yond the merely trite — is in­con­ceiv­able.

Be­tween Each Breath is a novel ( to use Jack’s vo­cab­u­lary) played iron­ico where you ex­pect grave. Its nar­ra­tive shifts be­tween first and third per­son to great ef­fect, while the di­a­logue re­veals an ear with per­fect pitch for those di­alects that de­mar­cate class and cul­ture in Eng­land to this day. Don’t trust the light­ness of tone, though: it’s a trick to draw the reader close for the sucker punch. In an el­e­gant bit of struc­tural en­gi­neer­ing, the book opens with a brief chap­ter seem­ingly un­con­nected to the rest of the story. It is re­called to sig­nif­i­cance only later on, grant­ing the con­clud­ing chap­ters real emo­tional force.

Like so much of Thorpe’s best writ­ing, this mo­ment of gen­uine hu­man feel­ing is con­structed from fic­tional ar­ti­fice. In­deed, his great virtue as a writer grows from em­brac­ing this para­dox. His nar­ra­tives may be elab­o­rately crafted lies, but they are de­signed to set the truth free. Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is a Syd­ney- based lit­er­ary critic.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Michael Perkins

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