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Friday, March 9, 2012

"Today" by David Miller: An interestingly constructed novel that has a lot to say.

Thirty pages into Today, David Miller's short novel about the reactions of family and friends to the sudden death of one of their number, I thought, what is going on here?

I finished the book a few hours later and thought, what was that?

Then, after considering the book for a few days, I read it again.  Like certain works of poetry or jazz compositions, it asks the reader to bring something to the piece, which makes Today engaging and interesting to unpack.  I found this tasteful novel to be well worth reading - and even worth reading twice.

Today takes place over a few days in August 1924 during which the author Joseph Conrad becomes ill, dies and is buried.  Conrad wrote such classics as Lord Jim, The Heart of Darkness, and much more.  He was born in Poland in 1857.  In 1896 he married Jesse George, an English woman, and they had two sons.  By 1924, Conrad and Jesse live near Canterbury, where the action in Today takes place.  In the book as well as in real life, Conrad had a secretary "of sorts" named Lillian Hallowes.  Hallowes, Jesse, and the two sons, John and Borys, are all central actors in Today.  Conrad is off stage while these people - and a multitude of other characters -  react to events and each other.

When the novel begins, a gathering is being organized at the Conrad home to enjoy the August bank holiday and to celebrate the birthday of Conrad's son John.  Everything changes completely and suddenly with Conrad's illness and death.  Author David Miller does a very fine job showing how the various characters experience this loss, and how they cope with each other and the formalities that subsequently arise. Miller steers clear of becoming overly sentimental.  Instead, the characters have truthful observations and reactions to the death of a friend, a father, and a husband.  That truthfulness about death is often touching.

To the central story of Today, Miller adds many elements which make the book entertaining to read.  There is dry humor, such as when Borys, telling a caller from France that his father could not come to the phone as he was dead, says to the agitated man " . . . yes, dreadfully inconvenient for you, yes." Also, many details are added to establish the atmosphere of Great Britain in 1924:  Miss Hallowes reports about attending the Olympics during her trip to Paris that summer and seeing Eric Liddel win a gold medal.  (The story of Liddel's Olympic run was told in the movie Chariots of Fire.); and everyone - including Joseph Conrad - seems to be reading E.M. Forster's A Passage to India which was first published that year.

There are also relationships to puzzle over:  What was the full nature of the relationship between Miss Hallowes and Joseph Conrad?  Is Borys actually married to the mother of his son?  One puzzle presented in Today I could only solve by turning to Google.  It came up early in the book when a telegraph arrives at the Conrad home from Sidney Colvin announcing the death of his wife, Lady Colvin.  Although the folks in the book know who Colvin is, I didn't and they didn't bother to tell me.  Colvin, it turns out, was an influential art and literary critic who lived from 1845 to 1927.  His wife did die in August 1924.

This brief appearance by the Colvins in Today is another example of a detail added to make us feel we are present in 1924 at the Conrad home.  However, it also illustrates one of the challenges of the book, which is keeping track of who is who, particularly at the start of the novel.  I enjoyed this aspect of Today as it creates a feeling of being part of the tumult caused by Conrad's sudden death, however other readers might be annoyed.

When I picked up Today, I was looking for a change of pace.  It certainly filled the bill; I can't think of the last time a novel sent me to the internet to figure out a plot element.  While this book does call for a bit of patience and demands the full attention of the reader, it is worth it.  Today is wise, moving, and entertaining.  It was a pleasure to read.  


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