The name says it all in mis­an­thrope’s re­treat

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Don An­der­son

Rick Gekoski, Amer­i­can-born, Eng­land-domi­ciled, an en­ter­tain­ing pan­el­list at the Syd­ney Writ­ers Fes­ti­val a few years back, is an em­i­nent rare book dealer, a for­mer lit­er­a­ture aca­demic — he taught at War­wick Univer­sity, with Ger­maine Greer — a pub­lisher, bib­li­og­ra­pher, broad­caster and now, at 72, a first-time nov­el­ist. As Edgar says to Lear, “Ripeness is all.” His BBC ra­dio se­ries Rare Books, Rare Peo­ple was saluted by Bri­tain’s The Daily Tele­graph as “one of the gems of ra­dio”.

Gekoski’s en­ter­tain­ing and eru­dite elu­cubra­tions have been col­lected in Tolkien’s Gown (2005), billed as “twenty great works of lit­er­a­ture as texts and ob­jects”, and Nabokov’s But­ter­fly: And Other Sto­ries of Great Au­thors and Rare Books (2004), in which the ti­tle es­say re­lates to pur­chas­ing from Gra­ham Greene his first edi­tion of Lolita, with Nabokov’s sig­na­ture draw­ing of a but­ter­fly in­side, and the next day sell­ing it to El­ton John’s lyri­cist at a €10,000 profit. Or so the story goes. The Tatler has dubbed Gekoski “the Bill Bryson of the book world”, which we are to as­sume is in­tended as a com­pli­ment.

And so to Darke, which is both the ti­tle of Gekoski’s maiden novel and the name of his nar­rat­ing mis­an­thrope. It seems a pity that Moliere got in first to claim that ti­tle. Gekoski would have known that, both he and his novel be­ing so lit­er­ary and learned, if lightly so. The novel is larded with al­lu­sions, overt and covert, to “dark” and “dark­ness”, from Mil­ton to TS Eliot, from Corinthi­ans to Dy­lan Thomas, though St John of the Cross (‘‘ en una noche os­cura’’) ap­pears to have been over­looked. Darke is truly an in­stance of nomen est omen, as those old Ro­mans used prover­bially to say.

The novel be­gins dra­mat­i­cally and all but cli­mac­ti­cally, with Dr James Darke im­mur­ing him­self in his London house, hav­ing en­gaged a handy­man to ful­fil five re­quire­ments: re­move a brass let­ter box from his “hand­some Ge­or­gian door”, fill in re­sul­tant hole, prep and paint in Far­row and Ball Pitch Black Gloss; in­stall a “melo­di­ous, in­of­fen­sive” door­bell that rings once only; in­stall a Dial 6mm-x-200-De­greeBrass-Door-Viewer-Peep­hole-with-Coverand-Glass-Lens; in­stall a new key­hole and change lock; re­move the brass door-knocker, and make good. These tasks suc­cess­fully completed, this Darke English­man’s home must be his cas­tle.

Darke is di­vided into three parts, of which the first, with its un­bri­dled mis­an­thropism, is the best.

There is a tra­di­tion in the English novel of the previous cen­tury, usu­ally penned by men, wherein the cen­tral char­ac­ter, while scabrous and misog­y­nis­tic, seems against all odds to emerge as honourable and es­timable. Con­sider An­thony Burgess’s En­derby nov­els, and the works of Amis pere and fils, es­pe­cially the for­mer’s One Fat English­man and his Booker Prize-win­ning The Old Devils, thought by his son to bear com­par­i­son with any English novel of the 20th cen­tury.

In his ac­knowl­edg­ments, Gekoski salutes his wife, Belinda, who ini­tially did not like Darke “one lit­tle bit”. A tractable hus­band, Gekoski rewrote part one, in which Darke is “con­sid­er­ably toned down from his first and dark­est in­car­na­tions, in which his dis­gust with him­self and his fel­low hu­mans was more pro­nounced”. Would he have done bet­ter to have ob­served Os­car Wilde’s ad­vice, “Noth­ing suc­ceeds like ex­cess”?

Well, Darke is a tri­umph of the im­mod­er­ate as it stands, through­out part one. Parts two and three are, in effect, an ex­pla­na­tion of the Darke-ness of the first sec­tion. They are a wrench­ing ac­count of the death from can­cer of Darke’s wife, Su­san, and her re­fusal to “go gen­tle into that good night”. Then of Darke’s grief, which his ob­nox­ious daugh­ter Lucy re­fuses to ac­knowl­edge.

Then there is Darke’s grand­son Rudy, whose com­pany he “en­joys in small doses”, think­ing his read­ing habits sub­verted by his so­cial-worker fa­ther. Why “Rudy”? Here’s a the­ory. This is an al­lu­sive, lit­er­ary novel. Gekoski as dealer has han­dled a signed first edi­tion of Joyce’s Ulysses val­ued at $450,000. Not something you would for­get. Con­sider the fi­nal lines of the Joyce’s Circe chap­ter, in which Leopold Bloom en­coun­ters the ghost of his dead son, a pere et fils to out­shine the Amises.

“BLOOM ( Won­der­struck, calls in­audi­bly) Rudy!

“RUDY. (Gazes un­see­ing into Bloom’s eyes and goes on read­ing, kiss­ing, smil­ing. He has a del­i­cate mauve face. On his suit he has di­a­mond and ruby but­tons. In his free left hand he holds a slim ivory cane with a violet bowknot. A white lam­bkin peeps out of his waist­coat pocket.)”

There are thoughts that lie too deep for tears, as Wordsworth bore wit­ness. Darke in his mis­an­thropy lacks the lachry­mose, per­haps not shed­ding tears even for Suzy, who would not have ap­proved. taught Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney for 30 years.

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