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
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.