Comfortable, complacent solemnity
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.