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.