There but for the

I find there is often an uncanny play between what I’m reading and what’s going on in my life. I suppose that’s one of the things that led me to begin writing this blog …

For instance, as you saw in this post a couple of weeks ago, it was while I was overexcitedly in the grip of wedding fever that I read Diana Athill’s fantastic memoir (yes, VS Naipaul, you are very wrong indeed) about being jilted by her fiancé. Or, last week, I saw Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne, only to then start reading Jiri Weil’s Mendelssohn is on the Roof, in which Don Giovanni features rather heavily.

So, while reading Ali Smith’s brilliant There but for the, which centres on a man who locks himself in a room and, for several weeks, refuses to come out, I couldn’t help but see the parallel between this man, Miles, and my fiancé, who has refused to leave the flat for a similar period of time. Perhaps I exaggerate a little. I try to make him leave the flat once a day, for twenty minutes or so. But it’s not easy. He’s got his final architecture exam next week, and has been working so incredibly hard, feeling that each moment counts for so much, that even taking twenty minutes off feels like an eternity of potential Rhino clicking time wasted.

Miles is the strangely absent centre in There but for the, the lynchpin that holds the novel together. We are told little about him, but each of the, otherwise disparate, main characters knows him in some way. Yes, the fiancé is most definitely strangely absent at the moment, existing mostly in a world of 3D modelling and shortcut keys. Perhaps it would have been a more intriguing period if I’d come into contact with lots of peculiar people with whom he has a tenuous link, like the characters in Ali Smith’s book. I would certainly have liked to meet someone like Brooke Bayoude, a funny, precocious, inquisitive girl, who free-puns her way through the book. She reminds me a little of Jessica Vye from Jane Gardam’s A Long Way from Verona – geeky and cheeky, filled with exuberance. And yet, with a hidden thread of unhappiness and loneliness that fuels their non-stop performance.

There but for the is quite a mad book. In a good way. In that, the whole premise is a bit bonkers – a man going to a dinner party and then locking himself in their spare room for a few months. Another character, Mark, is haunted by his dead mother, who he can hear aggressively hassling him in rhyming couplets:

He couldn’t remember, but the writer, whoever he was I hate to be reminding you again / that writers are not fucking always men described Queen Elizabeth the First quite unforgettably …

(Yeah – boo sucks VS Naipaul.)

It’s funny. It’s mad. It’s playful. And this wayward style, the energy from it, the life, makes for incredible, highly-charged, exciting writing. What a feat.

Yet I think Alex Clark in the Guardian nailed it when she described There but for the as ‘seriously playful’. For underpinning all the word play and puns and silliness, are quite chilling reflections on society and character. ‘Reason in madness’ as Shakespeare put it.

The petty, sniping meanness of the middle classes comes into play at the vile dinner party, from which Miles retreats into the spare room. (The dinner party, incidentally, is hosted by Jen and Eric – generic – good one.) There is the loneliness of little Brooke, who is seen as being too clever for her own good. And the quiet rebellion of old May Young, who is in a nursing home and refuses to take her medication:

She could prove for sure she was not dead yet because there, sweaty in the old claw of an old hand, whose old hand? her old hand, her own, go on open it, proof: the balled-up tissue which held what she’d managed to get out of her mouth of the stuff they gave her to make her forget to remember the day, the month, the prime minister, make her drop her bowl with the custard in it, stuff which she had not swallowed, would not swallow, which she’d held under her tongue when the nurse, Irish-Liverpool, always a cheery word, gave her, and if it wasn’t Irish-Liverpool it was Derek the male nurse, lovely boy from the Caribbean, with May nodding and sending them on their way with a friendly eye.

May’s spirit of defiance – ‘she had not swallowed, would not swallow’ – is all the more affecting due to her age, her ‘old claw of an old hand’, her difficulty in opening it, in getting the stuff out of her mouth. All this text, all these thoughts of May’s are hidden to the nurses, the outside world, masked behind her seemingly innocent ‘friendly eye’.

As well as, obviously, making me think of the fiancé, There but for the reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, another masterpiece which revolves around an absent centre. Her absent centre is, rather more heroically, called ‘Percival’. He is the only character who isn’t given a voice, yet he is the one who holds the other characters together: ‘without Percival there is no solidity’, and:

We are drawn into this communion by some deep, some common emotion. Shall we call it, conveniently ‘love’? Shall we say ‘love of Percival’ because Percival is going to India?

Perhaps Miles is Ali Smith’s Percival. And perhaps There but for the is today’s The Waves. The Waves is a remarkable distillation of modernist writing, and There but for the is a similar achievement for our time. For There but for the seems to me to be everything a novel of today should aspire to be – intelligent and insightful, provocative and critical, yet also witty, playful and, above all, wonderfully, self-consciously wordy.

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