David Miller: Today (2011)

Today

August 1924. John Conrad arrives at his parents’ home on the outskirts of Canterbury, where family and friends are assembling for the bank holiday weekend. His crippled mother has been discharged from a nursing home, his brother drives down from London with wife and child. But as the guests converge, John’s father dies. Today follows the numb implications of sudden death: the surprise, the shock, the deep fissures in a family exposed through grief. But there is also laughter, fraud and theft; the continuation of life, all viewed through the eyes of Lilian Hallowes – John’s father’s secretary – never quite at the centre of things but always observing, the still point in a turning world. Today is a remarkable debut, an investigation of bereavement, family and Englishness, beautiful in its understatement and profound in its psychological acuity.

Has the question why an author chose a certain subject matter ever overshadowed your reading experience? In the case of Today that question certainly distracted me quite a bit. It’s not the first time that I’ve been asking myself this question and usually it means that I had a problem with the book. It happens mostly with books that are inspired by true events or real people, but I’ve been wondering in other cases as well.

The book starts with a dramatis personae that lists no less than 39 characters. In a novel of barely 160 pages that is a lot. Most of these characters  appear only very briefly, nonetheless, the point of view changes almost every time, sometimes even twice in one passage. That’s a lot of moving around. Despite of the great number of characters there are a few main protagonists. The most important person however, Joseph Conrad, is looming in the text but absent. We never get to see him directly. At the beginning he’s resting in his bedroom. He had an episode of something, what exactly isn’t entirely clear, but when he dies one day later, it’s obvious that he had a heart attack.

Joseph Conrad dies on the day of his youngest son’s birthday. Because of that birthday there are far more people in the house than usual. The relationships are tense and this sudden death on a day that was meant to be a day of celebrations is awkward at best.

This could have been a nervous book, with all this jumping around from one character to the next, but it’s actually very calm. I guess that’s because most of these people are shown during introspective moments. On the first day, when Conrad is resting, it rains endlessly, and the people walk around, thinking of their relationship with the famous author, or exploring how helpless they feel.

I liked reading this book, liked how it showed how disruptive and unsettling death is, but I couldn’t understand why this had to be the story of Conrad’s death. It could have been anyone. There is no real need for this story to be about a famous person to be poignant. On the very contrary. I would say, this would have been far better, if it hadn’t been about someone famous.

Because I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this slim, lovely, but puzzling book, I looked for reviews and found two by professional critics. I must say that was enlightening for a few reasons. Both reviews were negative, and, in my opinion, overly so, but both reviews were also faulty and that in an embarrassing way. One reviewer said the book was set on Conrad’s birthday, while it was Conrad’s son’s birthday. That’s bad but the other error is really appalling. At the begging of the story, Conrad’s secretary, Lillian Hallowes finds a book on a train and starts to read it. The author isn’t named but the beginning of the book is quoted: “Except for the Malabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.” It’s a quote from one of my favourite authors E.M.Forster, so I recognised it right away and knew from which novel it was taken. Even when you’re not familiar with his work, you’d probably assume it’s taken from a Passage to India. Not so our reviewer. He wrote that it was taken from Howard’s End. Call me narrow-minded, but I find that shameful, especially when you write such a negative review.

David Miller is the literary agent of some of the greats of British literature like Cynthia Ozick, Tim Parks, Magnus Mills, and others. Today is his first novel. It is a quiet, thoughtful book, with lovely passages. I wouldn’t say it’s a must-read but it’s nice and I enjoyed it. I’m interested to see where Miller goes from here. While Today has awkward elements, the writing is promising.

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26 thoughts on “David Miller: Today (2011)

  1. I loved this. So small and neat and measured! I commented yesterday on the vast (and satisfying) scale of Vasily Grossman, but the opposite can be supremely effective as well.

    Funny, I never asked the “why Joseph Conrad?” question – which is not to say that it’s not a fair question. I presumed it was because Miller admires Conrad, and is quite cleverly writing about some of the things Conrad himself considered important and worth exploring.

    • The book is far better than I made it sound. I think it just distracted me that I couldn’t find a good answer why Conrad. I just thought it was unnecessary but maybe I’m not familiar enough with Conrad. It puzzled me to think of this giant of literature, that whole life, and all he focussed on were his very final moments and the funeral. But I’d be very interested to read something else by him.

  2. Wonderful review, Caroline! Glad to know that you liked David Miller’s novel inspite of some of the limitations. 39 characters in only 160 pages – that is a lot! I liked what you said about how the story could have been about anybody and it would have still worked, instead of trying to make it about a famous person. I love the cover of the book. Looks quite a mysterious place where potential supernatural elements could be in play :)

    I am sorry to know about the reviews. I am surprised that the reviewers got away by quoting incorrect facts. I used to read a lot of critics’ reviews once and get influenced by them and picked a book or otherwise based on what the review said. But when it started happening that sometimes I liked books which critics had panned, I decided to take critics’ reviews with a pinch of salt and try books on my own with an open mind.

    • Thanks, Vishy. The cover is beautiful, isn’t it? It does capture the mood. Maybe the fact that he chose Conrad made more sense than I could see. I know he quoted Conrad but still.
      I don’t often read English critics, I prefer the German ones. I’ve never come across an error like this before. It struck me as really odd that both reviewers didn’t like the book but didn’t even read it properly. I suppose it has a lot to do with the fact that Miller is an literaray agent. I couldn’t help thinking they were jealous.

    • Yes, I did and whenever I finally “got to know” one of them, he/she was removed again. I think this book should have been much longer to be fully satisfying. And I’m not saying that often as I tend to prefer novellas.

  3. That is a LOT of characters–would probably drive me batty trying to keep them straight, but you said they only appear briefly. I too would like to know why he chose Joseph Conrad.
    That’s sad about the reviews. If you’re going to do a hatchet job, it had better be accurate.

    • I guess that’s why he added the list. I had to consult it often, just to make sure I got who he was mentioning.
      I have no clue why it’s Conrad. Sure, he probabaly admired him but . . .
      Those reviews made me snigger. I thought it’s poetic justice, being unfair and at the same time so incompetent. :)

  4. As of late there seems to have be a lot of fiction books being written somehow revolving around the real lives of real authors. based on the fictional aspects of the plots, I sometimes wonder why they are connected to a real person. This seems the case here.

    I have not read much Conrad, perhaps his fiction would provide a clue.

    • I suppose it would provide a clue but I can’t help thinking it would have been just as well withouth that connection. I do see the appeal to write a story about someone real, an author or painter, or . . . but I would have chosen a bigger part or at least given him some presence. On the other hand the absence is magnifying in some ways.

  5. I want to read The Shadow-Line by Conrad because of Philip Roth, but that’s something else.

    When I started reading your review, I was wondering if the Joseph Conrad was the real one or an homonym. It was already distracting. I guess I would have wondered too, “why Conrad?”

    39 characters is a lot of names to absorb. Do you think it was done on purpose to give the reader the feeling that the house was filled with people passing by and giving the family a hard time to sort out which ones were really important and actually grieving the loss of Conrad? In other words, it crowed the book and the reader as much as they crowded the house and the family.

    PS: I understand your irritation about the critics you’ve read. The first one gives the impression he/she hasn’t read the book, even if it’s a minor slip. The second one could have googled the sentence and double-checked he/she was right. (Don’t we do that when we write posts?)

    • The fact that he added the dramatis personae at the beginning made me aware of the number of characters. mayn appear only so briefly – a doctor, a priest, a grave digger – you notice them and move on. The list was useful and annyoing at the same time.
      But the question “why” really distracted me. As you see, leroy loved it and I’m not surprised because it has wonderful elements but asking myself this made me like it less. And I believe it’s a weakness of the book.
      I think the critics irritated me more i this case because it’s such a short book and when you mess up things in a book like that you’re really not doing your job well.

  6. I think the character list is a bit of an in-joke. Like in any book, many characters only appear incidentally – or are referred to without “taking part” in the action. And of course one is a cat! I suppose what it does show is the scale of thought and the apparatus required for such a small book.

  7. 39 characters. Gosh, that’s a lot. I would lose track if I was reading, let alone writing it. Will check this one out. I’m curious about the fact you think it would have been better without Conrad.

    • I’d be interested to read your thoughts. It’s a quick read and really lovely, so you won’t feel like losing your time. Maybe you can make more of the Conrad angle.

  8. I looked up the professional reviews of Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing of Esme Lennox, and out of 6 reviews, 4 contained serious errors: people were wrongly related, they died of the wrong illnesses, there were mistakes in recounting the plot… I was a bit astounded. If someone paid me to write a review, the first thing I’d do is be accurate! This sounds an intriguing novel, but I baulk a bit at the character list, and can see exactly what you mean about Conrad.

    • I’d be interested to hear what you think of this should you ever read it.
      It’s so astonishing about those reviews. I know it can happen and I’m sure I’ve made mistakes but these seem rather huge.
      I think when you review professionally you probably review so many books you’re not really interested in.

  9. 39 Characters in 160 pages? wow!! how can they develop well? The Stand by Stephen King has lesser main characters than that but the book strecthed to 1000pages. I dont think I will like this kinda book as character is one of my fav things in stories.

    Ah…I rarely asked what the author was thinking when writing the book I was reading because I often read Stephen King’s books which are mostly scary…they are just pigmens of his imagination

  10. I often wonder too why authors don’t just fictionalize their characters when it doesn’t matter to the story just who they are. Interesting question–and this sounds like an interesting read. It is embarrassing that both reviewers had such glaring mistakes–you do wonder if they even read the book, and if so, doesn’t seem like they bothered to go back and check their references! Unfortunately this has not been published in the US, but I have noted the title and will watch for it!

    • Maybe he didn’t trust his story enough. Or, like leroy wrote, there is more of Conrad in the book than I detected. I’m not so familiar with him. In any case, you can read and enjoy it, even if you don’t.
      The reviews shocked me a bit. I know I wouldn’t want to do it as I don’t want to be forced to read. I think these mistakes clearly say, they didn’t care but had to.
      It also shows that a quite, introspective book, will not be everyone’s cup of tea. I think you’d like it.

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