Com­fort­able, com­pla­cent solem­nity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stella Clarke

RIPENESS is all. In the north­ern hemi­sphere, Oc­to­ber is the sea­son of mel­low­ness: har­vest is done, sum­mer is ended and the sun with­draws. It is an ele­giac and painfully am­biva­lent month, golden be­cause of the soft­en­ing light that rec­ol­lects sum­mer but her­alds win­ter. Richard B. Wright’s vet­eran nar­ra­tor, Cana­dian James Hil­lyer, is no stranger to the po­et­ics of time, be­ing a re­tired pro­fes­sor of English lit­er­a­ture, with a spe­cial fond­ness for Al­fred Ten­nyson. In Oc­to­ber , mem­o­ries of love are mixed with a recog­ni­tion of mor­tal­ity.

This is strong stuff, too sweetly han­dled. I found the novel quaf­fa­ble, with the cloy­ing, mel­liflu­ous hit of a mid­dling sherry.

Wright is an au­tum­nal nov­el­ist. Born in 1937, he is the au­thor of 11 nov­els, gar­landed with Canada’s elite Giller Prize, and an Or­der of Canada for his ser­vices to lit­er­a­ture.

He has been com­mit­ted to the craft, re­li­able, ver­sa­tile and en­gag­ing.

In Canada, Wright­ness is all. He has been pop­u­lar, win­ning late suc­cess with books such as the award- win­ning best­seller Clara Cal­lan and Adul­tery . He should not, by the way, be con­fused with black Amer­i­can au­thor and so­cial critic Richard Wright. Richard B. Wright’s writ­ing is re­mark­able for its sub­tle han­dling of or­di­nary strug­gle and in­tri­cate emo­tional dilem­mas, but don’t ex­pect sur­prises.

Oc­to­ber is, like its nar­ra­tor, man­nerly and es­sen­tially be­nign. Granted, the novel deals with sad and dif­fi­cult mat­ters, but it does so in a safely ma­ture way. Hil­lyer is a good per­son; he con­ceals nei­ther his or­di­nar­i­ness nor his faults, his em­bar­rass­ments nor his worth. He is hon­est, thought­ful and sen­si­ble. It be­comes clear that this is no per­for­mance; Hil­lyer’s is a po­litely em­brac­ing voice, old- school and in­ef­fa­bly quaint. He is a sea­soned and de­pend­able wit­ness to his own and oth­ers’ lives. Do you want to be made this com­fort­able?

The tale that Hil­lyer tells us ( and it is de­cently and af­fa­bly con­fessed) in­volves two im­pend­ing deaths, three if we in­clude his con­tem­pla­tion of his own. He is nei­ther mor­bid nor maudlin about them.

First, he re­ceives news that his daugh­ter Susan, in her 50s, will soon die of can­cer; she is brave and no- non­sense about it all. She prefers not to go through the ter­ri­ble, and most likely un­help­ful, rigours of chemo­ther­apy, and she doesn’t need her age­ing fa­ther hang­ing about in Eng­land.

Soon af­ter this news, Hil­lyer en­coun­ters a very sick old friend from his youth in Que­bec, Gabriel Fon­taine. Gabriel has cho­sen to die in Zurich, where eu­thana­sia is le­gal. Both suf­fer­ers, Susan and Fon­taine, are choos­ing death, as op­posed to med­i­cal pro­lon­ga­tion of pain. Hil­lyer feels he should come to terms with their choices. Wright ven­tures into mod­er­ately con­tro­ver­sial ter­ri­tory, in a mod­er­ate fash­ion.

Hil­lyer quickly opts to ac­com­pany Fon­taine on his dis­mal mis­sion, as Susan can’t be helped. Their un­ex­pected meet­ing has sent him back to an emo­tion­ally charged hol­i­day in his youth dur­ing World War II, which was spent be­ing Fon­taine’s re­sent­ful side­kick at a posh ho­tel in Que­bec. He and Fon­taine were in com­pe­ti­tion for the af­fec­tions of pert French- Cana­dian cham­ber­maid Odette Huard.

Here Oc­to­ber be­comes Hil­lyer’s re­mem­brance of things past, though his prose never fully lodges him in the present. His back story is lu­cid and ro­man­tic, but prim. Dust set­tles over its nos­tal­gic patina.

The novel dis­plays a quirk no­table in con­tem­po­rary Cana­dian au­thors who aren’t much in­ter­ested in con­tem­po­rary Canada. Though mainly set in mid- 20th cen­tury Que­bec, its hori­zon is con­ser­va­tive Euro­pean.

Susan is head­mistress at a ven­er­a­ble private school for girls in Ox­ford­shire, its grounds laid out by Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown, its au­gust airs astir with yelps from the hockey field. The spruce but crum­bling old rake Fon­taine turns up on an au­tumn af­ter­noon, mak­ing an en­trance at the Dorch­ester ho­tel in Lon­don. Wright ob­vi­ously sub­scribes to the idea that such set­tings douse a tale in charm and grav­ity.

Fon­taine has al­ways been rich, smart and spite­ful. A vic­tim of boy­hood po­lio, he did not, as a young man, let his dis­abil­i­ties un­der­mine his charisma. His ham­pered swag­ger de­liv­ered him more sex than Hil­lyer’s de­cency. Glam­orous, capri­cious Fon­taine bragged of his in­ti­mate ac­cess to the elu­sive Odette, while Hil­lyer

could only fuss im­po­tently about her rep­u­ta­tion.

Once in­tol­er­ant of Fon­taine’s dis­so­lute be­hav­iour, the ripen­ing Hil­lyer has be­come a com­pas­sion­ate and ju­di­cious gen­tle­man, free to savour the tug of lost time and come to terms with the com­plex stew of feel­ings he once en­dured around Fon­taine, like Ten­nyson’s ‘‘ con­fu­sions of wasted youth’’.

The novel records his ar­rival at an apex of per­sonal evo­lu­tion and com­bines it with a gra­ciously han­dled, low- dose polemic in favour of eu­thana­sia. Ul­ti­mately the af­flicted Fon­taine passes peace­fully away in Zurich. No more sex with cham­ber­maids for him. There’s no hint of gloat­ing from Hil­lyer, of course. He pro­ceeds with his wist­ful and lyri­cal rem­i­nis­cences, and signs off on his daugh­ter’s death.

At the end, Hil­lyer is all calm­ness and rhetoric. His nar­ra­tive breathes seren­ity, and a mod­est wis­dom, though not to the pitch of Ten­nyson’s match­less In Me­mo­riam ( in­voked early in the novel). With ap­peal­ing ( or, for me, ap­palling) sin­cer­ity, Wright moves Hil­lyer through the ache of mem­o­ries to a fi­nal, ex­pan­sive and hu­mane ac­cep­tance. Who are we to think we have solved life’s mys­ter­ies? Much along the lines, then, of what Ten­nyson said, ‘‘ We have but faith, we can­not know, for knowl­edge is of things we see’’, and so forth. Hil­lyer’s ru­mi­na­tions are not as pat as ‘‘ The sun is set­ting in the sky, Tele­tub­bies say bye- bye’’, but for me there is too much com­pla­cency in his solem­nity. The novel is res­cued from dig­ni­fied trite­ness by res­o­nant in­sights, po­etic sen­si­bil­ity and its re­strained love story.

Maybe Oc­to­ber will give you food for thought, if you are not be­grudg­ing of all the ripeness. Shuf­fle it to your bur­row and bed down with po­etry- lov­ing Jim, no need to search for more ’ til spring, if hi­ber­na­tion is your thing. Stella Clarke is a Melbourne lit­er­ary critic. She has a PhD from War­wick Univer­sity.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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