Te­dious nar­ra­tor in line for a swift club­bing

Re­mem­ber Me . . . By Melvyn Bragg Ha­chette Livre, 551pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kathy Hunt

MELVYN Bragg was born in Wigton, Cum­bria, in 1939. Sub­se­quently, in the words of The New States­man, he ‘‘ has es­tab­lished his place in English let­ters to the ex­tent that his Cum­bria is as po­tent a lit­er­ary re­gion as Hardy’s Wes­sex, Lawrence’s Mid­lands and Hous­man’s Shrop­shire’’.

Af­ter read­ing his­tory at Ox­ford, Bragg joined the BBC, even­tu­ally be­com­ing con­troller of arts at LWT, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Academy of Writ­ing and chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Leeds. Since 1986 he has been pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Cam­paign for the Arts and in 1998 he was made a Labour life peer. We in Aus­tralia are familiar with his television in­ter­views in which he grills high- end celebri­ties while barely dis­guis­ing the urge to slap them.

In his 20th novel, Bragg re­turns briefly to Wigton, the spring­board for him and his char­ac­ter Joe. Joe is first seen gaz­ing into an Ox­fam win­dow and brood­ing on a girl called Rachel whom he has loved and lost. It is 1961, a week be­fore Christ­mas and Ox­ford is in flux. A friend in­vites Joe to ‘‘ a gen­tle party for the left­outs and left­overs’’. Bragg is per­haps writ­ing from ex­pe­ri­ence. Across a crowded room Joe sees Natasha, dressed in deep pur­ple and sit­ting el­e­gantly on the floor be­side a log fire. Told in ret­ro­spec­tive chunks to their daugh­ter, the story is ‘‘ one of the old­est . . . in the world’’, says the me­dia re­lease, the story of love, a love story.

Of all the el­e­ments that make up a nar­ra­tive it is the story that is the most fun­da­men­tal. E. M. Forster calls it atavis­tic, run­ning all the way back to the cave where, af­ter a hard day’s hunt­ing, early hu­mans gath­ered around the fire. There, ‘‘ among their of­fal and bones’’ the prim­i­tive au­di­ence lis­tened to sto­ries, ‘‘ only kept awake by sus­pense. What would hap­pen next?’’ Pity the tribal nar­ra­tor, for ‘‘ as soon as the au­di­ence guessed what hap­pened next, they ei­ther fell asleep or killed him’’.

From the first page of this te­dious story, I wanted to take a club to Bragg and all his char­ac­ters, be­gin­ning with Natasha, a su­per­cili- ous French dilet­tante who re­fuses to use the name Joe. ‘‘ I pre­fer Joseph,’’ she snorts through clouds of Black So­branie cig­a­rette smoke. But Joe is hooked: ‘‘ There was the mys­tery of her . . . the dif­fer­ence about her.’’ Natasha has just ended an af­fair with a fel­low art stu­dent, an Amer­i­can called Robert, ‘‘ the best artist in the Ruskin’’. The worst au pair in Ox­ford, she has taken to her bed ‘‘ ut­terly con­sumed by her loss’’ and haunted by her por­trait of Robert, which dom­i­nates the at­tic room in Ban­bury Road. It is a mir­a­cle that she and Joe con­nect at all, but they do and we have 500 pages to go.

As Joe presses his suit and par­al­lels Bragg’s jour­ney from Ox­ford to the BBC, we are left, like re­luc­tant babysit­ters, with Natasha. It is un­fair of Bragg to make her French. Three times in Paris, the lo­cals have res­cued me from phys­i­cal dan­ger and so­cial death and I am grate­ful. The na­tion­al­ity, how­ever, does give Bragg an ex­cuse to hop across the Chan­nel and re­port anaes­thet­i­cally on the vis­tas of north­ern Provence. One tor­tu­ous sen­tence is 88 words long.

Mean­while Joe is fit­ting in sur­pris­ingly well with the in- laws. His French has come up to speed and he seems not to no­tice that Natasha’s fa­ther is the most in­tol­er­a­ble prig in mod­ern English fiction. Natasha her­self is no slouch when it comes to pa­tro­n­is­ing the smarter- thanaver­age Wigton Man who, de­spite his hum­ble back­ground, finds a Bragg- like suc­cess as a nov­el­ist and doc­u­men­tary film­maker; a painter, poet and nov­el­ist, too. This is still a gloved slap in the face of the proud and an­cient lin­eage that Natasha both val­ues and dis­counts but which tips, ever so slightly, the bal­ance of power. There is no sat­is­fac­tory word in the French lan­guage for wedge but that is what we have here.

Joe and Natasha seek help from ther­a­pists. Natasha’s kills her­self and I can see why. Joe hits the bot­tle and sleeps with some­one called He­len. She is not as ex­otic as Natasha, nor is she as re­lent­lessly om­ni­scient. ‘‘ Beauty,’’ Forster writes, ‘‘ ought to look a lit­tle sur­prised: it is the emo­tion that best suits her face.’’ Noth­ing ever sur­prises Natasha. And back in the cave the snores are deaf­en­ing. What hap­pens next? Read it and sleep. Kathy Hunt is a lit­er­ary critic based in rural Vic­to­ria.

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