Tedious narrator in line for a swift clubbing
Remember Me . . . By Melvyn Bragg Hachette Livre, 551pp, $ 32.95
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.