Chapman's Odyssey by Paul Bailey
Alfred Hickling admires Paul Bailey's enigmatic hospital-bed drama
Saturday 22 January 2011 00.05 GMT
efore Paul Bailey became a novelist he embarked on an acting career. He seems to have been rehearsing the role of an old man for most of his life. Bailey's 1967 debut, At the Jerusalem, was written in his 20s but focused on an elderly heroine's journey from an old people's home to a lonely death in a mental ward. Old Soldiers, from 1980, featured two septuagenarians assailed by memories of the first world war; while Bailey's best-known work, the Booker-nominated Gabriel's Lament, features a wild eccentric who endures to the age of 94.
The creation of Harry Chapman – a former actor-turned-novelist who makes a youthful debut with a book about old age – suggests Bailey may have finally caught up with himself. Chapman has a fatalistic turn of mind ("It had been his habit, for at least a decade, to turn to the obituary pages first. He needed to know who was in and who was out"); and finds his worst fears realised when he lands in hospital with a tumour growing in his stomach. "So here he was at last, where he had long feared to be."
As might be expected from a narrative which remains confined to a hospital bed, not a great deal happens. Chapman recalls an upbringing of genteel poverty "in the shadow of the candle-factory and the gasworks"; and muses on figures such as his genial Aunt Rose, "a stranger to moodiness", his acerbic, self-centred lover Christopher, and the rich, compassionate childhood friend whose affluent Jewish family introduced him to Schubert and Babar the Elephant, thus setting his course for a life of the mind.
The tedium of life on the ward is alleviated by the nursing staff who provide an audience for Chapman's recitals of favourite poetry, and conversations with a young doctor who variously reminds him of a Filippo Lippi fresco and a Caravaggio fruit seller. Yet gradually the visitors to Chapman's bedside become increasingly bizarre: a Victorian dandy who introduces himself as Pip from Great Expectations and a woman in an empire-line dress who appears to be Jane Austen's Emma; followed by Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin and Christopher Smart's meditative cat, Jeoffry.
These freewheeling literary hallucinations present a challenge – the reader is required to keep pace with a narrative which veers randomly from the thoughts of the 17th-century divine Jeremy Taylor (who described a hospital as "a map of the whole world") to visions of Fred Astaire dancing with Queen Celeste from the Babar stories. Yet it is accomplished with a wit, verve and economy which suggest the best ploy is simply to submit, as Chapman does, to the miasma of thoughts that flow through the mind while he is strapped to a gurney: "A new someone commented on his paleness to a new another, who responded that she'd seen more colour in an uncooked fillet of cod. If I ever get out of here, I shall use that remark one day, the novelist in him thought."
Perhaps the most significant of Chapman's fictional visitors is Melville's enigmatically obstinate clerk, Bartleby, who wastes away to nothing by declining all offers of assistance and even food with the repeated mantra: "I'd prefer not to". Chapman "had come to Bartleby late in life, and the skeletal clerk had been by his side ever since. He was still unsure, careful reader that he was, what the short, beautiful novel really meant. It refused to be summed up neatly, to be encapsulated in a paragraph or so."
Chapman surely speaks on behalf of his creator when he notes that his intellectual life has been "a voyage of discovery that could only end with his death. He read voraciously, then judiciously, and found his writing voice by rejecting the voices of those he was tempted to impersonate." Yet among all his influences, it is Bartleby that seems paramount. Refusal to conform is a kind of heroism that often goes unnoticed, yet like Melville's radically spare novella, Chapman's Odyssey is an enigmatic work whose meaning is worth grasping for. It is the kind of book that could be construed as a deeply moving, valedictory statement of a valuable career – though it would probably prefer not to.
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