Chapman's Odyssey by Paul Bailey – review
Paul Bailey's writing is infectiously entertaining but marred by the weight of literary allusion
Sunday 9 January 2011 00.05 GMT
rom its title onwards, this attractive if slightly limp novel claims kinship with Paul Bailey's more robust exercises in male self-inquiry, Peter Smart's Confessions and Gabriel's Lament. It follows the same recipe of commotion recollected in tranquillity, but opts for the less intimate third-person and places as much emphasis on the circumstances of recollection as on the memories themselves, which once again relate to a grim upbringing in south London and the escape route offered by literature and music. The earlier heroes were named after tangential figures in literary history – Christopher Smart's father, Edmund Spenser's best friend – and while Harry Chapman in the new book has no such forebear, his surname enables the book's playful title. Chapman's Odyssey alludes to a famous translation (by George Chapman) that figured in yet another Bailey novel (Sugar Cane).
|Paul Bailey in his library. Photograph: Martin Argles|
It also prompts memories of a famous poem, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer", in which Keats celebrates the elating and transporting effects of literature. This is what Bailey aspires to do here, though his nerdish jokes make a stronger impression than his attempts at depicting and articulating Chapman's gratitude.
Harry is an elderly writer in hospital after a period of illness. During his stay he conjures up his saintly aunt and his reproving mother as well as people he never knew, such as Fred Astaire, and imaginary figures from his favourite books, including Melville's Bartleby, and Jane Austen's Emma. Between his nightly dream-memories and his waking exchanges with doctors and nurses, the book covers the social, sexual and professional high-points of his life, as well as hinting at "the blessed days, months and years when Harry Chapman did nothing more adventurous than reading and wondering" – his experiences as "a hero-worshipper of those who use words or notes or brushstrokes to convey something of the mystery and wonder of human existence".
Those phrases are typical of Bailey's verbal habits in this book, which tend towards cliche. Harry is visited by "Philip Pirrip, he of the great expectations", lies awake to the sound of "Mrs Stubbs, she of the moaning and the Brünnhilde shriek", and encounters "the wicked Maurice – he of the impossible positions". There is also a hefty helping of pedantry ("cathetered – if such a verb existed", "umpirical – was there such a word?") and allusion: "looked on the bright side when there was no brightness visible" (Milton), "alone and palely loitering in what appeared to be a limitless desert" (Keats), "Why, this was hell, nor was he out of it" (Marlowe).
Bailey has crowded this novel with words from elsewhere, even quoting whole poems in full, and at one point riffing on the opening sentence ofGabriel's Lament. It is unclear whether this is a case of an author who just cannot help himself, or of a novel, like Michael Cunningham's new study of a "corrupted imagination", By Nightfall, bent to the perspective of a character "never at a loss for a connection between literature and life". There is some supporting evidence for the second, more charitable view. Harry is incapable of talking to a doctor without telling him that he reminds him of a figure in a Renaissance fresco; he imagines Prince Myshkin at his funeral. But it is Bailey who places Harry in a ward named after a neo-classical painter (Johann Zoffany – discussed briefly in Gabriel's Lament) where he meets a former employee of Lloyd's who claims to be in possession of TS Eliot's false teeth. For every detail that suggests Harry is the narrow-minded obsessive, there is another that places the blame squarely at the author's feet.
But when he isn't oppressing the reader with little jokes and book-titles and famous poems, Bailey proves himself capable of imagining a busy mind caught between memory and dream. Towards the beginning, Harry sees himself as a schoolboy walking quickly home through a poisonous fog only to find that "number 94 and 98 stood next to each other, with nothing in between". And later he sits in the stands at Wimbledon watching a men's final in which the players keep on changing, so that a match opens with Roger Federer, continues with Jaroslav Drobny, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Bill Tilden, before ending with John McEnroe.
Bailey's imagination, that amazing breeding-ground for image, anecdote, and caricature, is not as fecund as it once was. And where, in middle age, he was able to recover the spirit of past excitements, he now comes over all misty-eyed. But it is nevertheless a privilege to be in his company. His high spirits are infectious, and he is one of the few modern writers – the late Robertson Davies was another – who strives to emulate Dickens's mixture of comedy and pathos rather than simply being, in one broad feature or another, "Dickensian".