Adam Thorpe is almost certainly the only major British novelist ever to be named Mime Street Entertainer of the Year by the London weekly Time Out. I mention this because when considering his body of work it helps to know his background as a performer. The prose of many of his contemporaries is readily identifiable—Martin Amis pretty much always sounds like Martin Amis—but Adam Thorpe sounds like somebody new in every book, and sometimes, as in his first novel, Ulverton, somebody new every chapter. This occasionally leads to thinly veiled condescension on the part of his British reviewers, who often mention his gift for “pastiche” or “mimicry” or “ventriloquism,” as if that’s all he’s good at. But there’s something more interesting going on here than mere chameleon cleverness, and I think it has to do with Thorpe’s biography.
Thorpe has lived all over the world; he was born in Paris in 1956 and lived as a boy in Beirut, Calcutta, and Cameroon—his father worked for Pan Am—and he now lives in the south of France with his wife and children. As an English boy growing up in some distinctly un-English places he no doubt became adept in “being English” in a way that a kid growing up in Shropshire wouldn’t have to. Thorpe himself said in an interview that in some ways living abroad “makes you less English—or British—but in other ways it makes you more conscious or aware of what it is to be British.” After graduating from Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1979, he founded the Equinox Travelling Theatre, which toured the villages of Berkshire and Wiltshire with actors, puppets, and mimes; it was during this time that he received the Time Out award. In other words, his first extended professional experience as a storyteller was as a live performer, with all that that implies about adopting personae, wearing masks, imitating real people after careful observation, and so on. His well-regarded poetry (three books since 1988) is more directly personal than his fiction, but even there he has “performed” multiple characters, as in “The Common Room,” aSpoon Riverish series of poems about a group of teachers that appeared in his second collection, Meeting Montaigne (1990).
Indeed, a further acting analogy may be in order: perhaps a writer like Martin Amis is an actor in the American mode, “playing himself” like Bogart or Spencer Tracy in book after book, while Thorpe is a performer in the manner of Olivier or Alec Guinness, vanishing effortlessly into a part behind an accent and a putty nose. While a Bogart-style actor reveals something of himself in every role—Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon could easily have run off toCasablanca to become Rick Blaine—an Alec Guinness devotes himself to revealing the essence of different characters. The giddy, tousle-haired inventor of The Man in the White Suit and the ramrod-straight Colonel Nicholson of The Bridge on the River Kwai are both recognizably the same actor but fundamentally different men. By the same token, what I remember from an Amis novel is not individual characters or situations so much as Amis’s ironically mandarin voice, while with Thorpe my recollection is like a Dickens casting call, a parade of vividly imagined, lovingly rendered, and (sometimes) grotesque characters, full of their own individual passions and obsessions.
This is certainly true of his first book of fiction, Ulverton (1992), a bravura historical novel that begins in 1650 and ends in 1988, 12 episodes in the life of a fictional English village in the downland of Wiltshire. Stated baldly, the plan of the book doesn’t sound particularly encouraging, since it’s the same idea behind whole libraries of fat paperbacks that start in the Pleistocene and inch glacially (and teleologically) forward to the present, like the novels of James Michener or Edward Rutherfurd (an English Michener, the author of fat, place-specific novels like Sarum and London). InUlverton, however, Thorpe not only avoids melodrama and sentimentality but he’s found an interesting solution to a problem that nags at even literary historical novels, that of the translation of historical experience across time, and often across language boundaries, into a modern vernacular. Earlier historical novelists often opted for ersatz archaisms, lots of “thee’s” and “thou’s,” while more recent novels have tended to use modern idiom and even modern slang, exchanging a dodgy verisimilitude for immediacy. This problem, of course, is only one facet of the problem faced byall novelists, that of the translation of experience into art, and in Thorpe’s books the complexities of translation, along with the idea of novelist as performer, have become the hallmarks of his work.
In Ulverton Thorpe avoids the problem of translation entirely (or, more accurately, pretends to avoid it) by manufacturing faux original sources for each of his episodes. Except for the first chapter, in which one of Cromwell’s soldiers comes home to Ulverton to find his wife remarried and which is narrated in a modern first-person, each episode is a brilliant pastiche of its particular time period, each voice a different variety of the first-person. One is a sermon (1689), another a farmer’s diary (1712), another a series of letters by a noblewoman to her faithless lover (1743):
My only William,— You say you shall unlock me. Why do you not? I cannot fear but that your being out at elbows—and staying thus in London—means you have lost your position—or you would fleet back on the instant to your Grammar, and your Lady. They say the boy is playing hoops in the garden of the Manor House. There is a murmur that he is to go to Eton this year—that is how Bint reported it to Wall, who let it drop with me last evening. I pine until I am husked of my soul. O this cavernous life, full of deep woes in which our unshining flesh lights nothing—a million candles would not shed this gloom from me—this bedroom does stretch a million miles—I am not yet finished with the ploughman—if I were in the land of the Indians I might feel less weary of needles and quills and clocks.
A hundred years later come trial depositions in the aftermath of a rural uprising (1830), the explanatory texts to a volume of photographic plates (1859), and the stream-of-consciousness of an illiterate laborer (1887), so dense as to make Molly Bloom read like Elmore Leonard:
gate ope now maunt lope about in Gore patch wi’ they crusty bullocks yeeeeeeeeeow bloody pig-stickin them old hooks jus yowlin out for grease haaf rust look yaa that old Stiff all pinch an screw all pinch an bloody screw aye shut he fast now hup ramshackle old bugger see med do with a stoop spikin onto post wi’ that hang yaa a deal more years nor Hoppetty have a-had boy eh why Mr Perry why ah well they says as old Tom Ketchaside seed his angel a-whiverin over here when he were a-hangin it an en’t no Ulver soul alive as ud take he down an hook a fresh gate like that there clangy newfangled metal bugger over-right to this . . .
Several chapters later the book ends with a 70-page post-production script for a documentary about developers versus preservationists in the Ulverton of 1988; during the course of the filming builders come across the remains of the soldier from the first chapter, bringing the book full circle.
It’s obvious that Thorpe worked devilishly hard at his research, but at the same time he had a gleefully good time in the performance of each character: recreating the voice, the vernacular of each period, and all the clever details by which he manufactures verisimilitude, from semiliterate spellings to the bracketed insertions implying that the “original” document is illegible or incomplete. As novelist Hilary Mantel wrote, “sometimes you forget that it is a novel, and believe for a moment that you are really hearing the voice of the dead.” In the end, though, you can’t avoid the problem of translation, you can only hide it, and the very techniques Thorpe uses can’t help but call attention to the fact that the whole enterprise is an extraordinary simulacrum, a 20th-century writer carefully faking earlier narrative styles in the interest of authenticity. In other words, there’s a whiff of the postmodern about the whole project, and Thorpe knows it, playfully putting himself in the final chapter as “Adam Thorpe, local author & performer” and revealing that “Adam Thorpe” wrote the story that makes up the first chapter, the only one that isn’t pastiche. This sort of thing pushed to extremes could easily send the whole book down the pomo rabbit hole, but Thorpe’s only making a nod to the obvious. Ulverton is by definition a pastoral novel, but it’s an unsparingly honest one in which working-class characters who would have been colorful, forelock-tugging walk-ons in a more conventional book are given center stage and their full human capacity for truth-telling.
Ulverton was a big success, both commercially and critically, with glowing notices from John Fowles, Hilary Mantel, John Banville, and Jonathan Coe. That kind of success for a first novel, of course, can be a mixed blessing. A commercially minded writer would have started Ulverton II the day after John Fowles’s rave, but a writer of Thorpe’s gifts and ambition is faced with a more difficult choice, namely “how do I top this?” In an interview Thorpe says he started his next novel “in a fairly Edwardian style because it’s about the First World War,” but that “after about 350 pages I was actually bored with it and went into a sort of crisis, really, because the deadline was approaching.” Then “this particular voice popped into my head and I followed it for the next 500 and odd pages.” In other words, having brilliantly performed 12 characters in one novel he decided (a bit recklessly, perhaps) to invest his considerable energy in an epic performance of one character.
The result, Still (1995), is ballsy, brilliant, and frustrating all at once, a 583 page stream-of-consciousness monologue by Ricky Thornby, a desperate, late-middle-aged English filmmaker. By the present of the novel Ricky has sunk to teaching at a low-rent arts college in Houston, Texas, where he has been jilted by the librarian Zelda for a preening postmodernist critic. In between his despairing and logorrheic accounts of life in the golf wasteland of Houston and his expressions of rage at Zelda and the critic (much of which is very funny), Ricky spins out an infinitely detailed account of several crucial episodes in the lives of the Trevelyans (his grandmother’s family) just before World War I. This narrative is performed before Ricky’s party guests in a flat overlooking the Thames on New Year’s Eve, 1999; it reads like the transcript of a drunken, insanely detailed, and wildly discursive DVD commentary track, without the accompanying movie. The novel is modernist in its ambition to try to put everything into a book, lingering endlessly over every detail, but it is postmodern in the way it self-consciously comments on the writing itself. This collision between the modern and the postmodern results in a conundrum that Thorpe may not have intended in that the novelist’s ambition is mirrored by that of Ricky Thornby himself, with the inevitable result that the novel fails for the same reason that Ricky’s metamovie does: the motives for creating it are too personal and the execution is too obsessively long-winded to hold a reader’s whole-hearted interest.
With the signal exception of John Fowles, who gave it a rave, Stillwas unfairly roasted by the British critics, who predictably reviled it as enthusiastically as they had loved Ulverton. The book has never been published in the United States. Even so, Ulverton and Stillhave more in common than not, and Thorpe’s next novel, Pieces of Light (published in Britain in 1998 and the last of his books so far to be published here) brings the different techniques of the two earlier novels together in an interesting and evocative way, as another extended exercise of the uses of the first-person. As in Still, we hear one voice throughout, that of an aging, idiosyncratic English theater director named Hugh Arkwright, but as in UlvertonThorpe uses three different varieties of the first-person. The first is a memoir of Hugh’s youth in Cameroon in the 1920s (where his father was a district officer) and of his “return” to England, where he was raised by his eccentric spiritualist uncle. The next section is Hugh’s diary in the present day (1990), telling of his return to his uncle’s abandoned old mansion in Ulverton, where he is confronted with a revelation of Dickensian proportions. Then comes a section long enough to be a novel itself, a series of letters to Hugh’s long-dead mother (who disappeared into the African bush in the 1930s), written at the suggestion of Hugh’s doctor after the revelation has driven Hugh into a psychiatric hospital. Here, as in Still, the narrator works backwards and forwards through his life, trying to puzzle out what happened to his mother and how her disappearance affected him. Then, in a final, brief section we hear from a different narrator entirely, in the form of some long-lost letters that finally explain the revelation, though the explanation provides little solace for Hugh.
My bare summary doesn’t come close to evoking the richness of this overstuffed story, which is by turns a colonial memoir, a ghost story, a love triangle, a social comedy of village life, a murder mystery, and a satire of pastoral English mysticism. The prose throughout is gorgeous and the storytelling full of wonders. One set piece is particularly impressive, Hugh’s thrilling, magnificently written account of his participation in a British bombing raid on Hamburg during World War II. And the secret we learn at the end is as powerful as the surprise in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, resonating on more levels—the personal and the metaphorical—than McEwan’s does.
But the impact of the revelation depends on a kind of narrative sleight-of-hand (as it does in Atonement), withholding from the reader until the end something the narrator knows much earlier in the book. As a result Pieces of Light is an odd and sometimes ungainly performance, as the various voices of Hugh—as memoirist, diarist, correspondent—prove not to be as different as the author may have intended. Still, the twin issues of performance and translation are brought into focus in an unusually vivid and self-conscious way, as we are presented with not only an unreliable narrator but one who is unreliable in three different ways, and yet who still manages to lead us to the truth. I suspect it’s Thorpe himself speaking slyly to the reader when he has Hugh Arkwright say, early in the book,
I did offer up a prayer in Holy Communion, and relished the taste of the wine. Perhaps it isn’t just wine. The arguments about this remind me of the arguments about the actor and his part. Passion is not less passionate for being feigned. One can be both possessed and in possession, both the mask and the face behind. The wine can be both plonk and blood.
Translation and performance are at the heart of Thorpe’s next book,Shifts (2000), a series of short stories about work and how it changes or deforms the lives of workers. There’s something of John Berger about the project, but with more wit and no polemical axe to grind. Thorpe again writes exclusively in the first-person, from the points of view of (among others) a working-class English dustman, a Frenchwoman who sells luxury swimming pools, an expat Ghanaian intellectual washing dishes at Heathrow in 1965, and an American lawyer remembering his brief fling with Bohemianism in 1950s Paris. The problem of translation—between languages, cultures, time periods—is even further in the foreground here than it is when Thorpe is speaking exclusively through British characters. The French pool saleswoman in “Business,” for example, is clearly meant to be speaking a French translated into a breezily English idiom; she says “bloody” this and “bloody” that, for example, and speaks of being “chuffed.” Short of writing the story in French, this is the only way to do it, but an element of self-consciousness still lingers over this story and the other stories that feature non-English speakers. Among the English speakers, though, where translation is less of an issue Thorpe’s performance is effortless, with no distracting disjunction between the actor and the mask. “Bins,” the story about the dustman, reads like one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues, with the added advantage of turning out to be a very creepy ghost story. And Thorpe’s expat young Bostonian in the beautifully crafted “Debauchery” strikes this American reader as pitch perfect, as the young man buys from a tramp what purports to be the last cigar ever smoked by Paul Verlaine. What the American does with the cigar makes for a wonderfully wry account of what Bohemianism really means to the non-Bohemian.
Thorpe’s next novel, Nineteen Twenty-One (2001), is his first to be written in the third-person, but even so the narrative is very much a performance, reading like another, unseen character, cheerfully ironic in the spirit of the time, passing judgment, cracking jokes, commenting wryly on the action. The novel relates the post–World War I misadventures of a young Englishman named Joseph Monrow, who is trying to write an antiwar novel even though he didn’t actually go to the war himself. Joseph and his childhood friend Baz avoid conscription until 1918, when Joseph panics during a training exercise involving gas and is invalided out for the last few months with slightly damaged lungs. Thereafter he tells strangers that he was gassed in France without telling them how, and he embarks on a novel that he hopes will “burn a hole in the fabric of hypocrisy and stupidity that the war did nothing to tear.” The narration’s judgment of Joseph’s literary efforts is bemused but unsparing, and rather disappointingly given Thorpe’s gifts, we don’t see any of it (the Thorpe of Ulverton could easily, and hilariously, have provided lengthy excerpts of Monrow’s florid prose). Still, the lushness of sensuous detail combined with the wit of the narration reads like an improbable cross between Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh—funnier than Woolf, and more humane than Waugh.
The heart of the novel is a long, dazzling set piece that is simultaneously satiric and macabre. Joseph and Baz take one of the package tours to the battlefields of France that British rail companies organized after the war, so that family members could visit the “final resting place” of their loved ones. To Joseph’s and the reader’s amazement, postwar Ypres turns out to be like a boomtown out of the Old West, full of saloons and whores; while three years after the war the battlefield itself is still a hellish landscape of craters, ruined farmhouses, and shattered woods, littered with helmets, boots, shrapnel, live ordnance, and the still-decomposing bodies of the dead. In one remarkable night in this theme park of death, Joseph has three erotic encounters of varying success: with a pair of French prostitutes; with Tillie, a virginal young Englishwoman with whom he is falling in love; and with a mysterious German woman, a grieving mother with whom Joseph couples on the battlefield itself. It’s all self-consciously bizarre and portentous and, in places, hilarious.
The novel loses some intensity when Joseph returns to his cottage and his manuscript, but that’s part of the point, that nothing can satisfactorily reproduce the surreal intensity of disaster or even the aftermath of disaster. He finds himself uneasily appropriating the stories of local villagers who actually fought and were wounded in the war. In the end the book is about real life overwhelming art, and Joseph’s losing battle with his manuscript:
It was like a bad marriage, he could not come round to seeing the other’s point of view. The ‘other’ was the novel, of course. It had its point of view, but he did not agree with it. This is how it felt, at any rate. It had this will of its own, this curious will. It wanted, really wanted, to be a cheap, vulgar little thing for Mr Smith’s bookstalls—it would please the mass no end. But he did not want this. And they fought, it seemed, all the way. The author was up there with his tie straight, his spats clean, his hair razored, and the novel was a cheap little slut down in the shilling bookstall.
Seventy pages later Joseph says, “Either I lie and tell a story, or I do something nobody will read,” and once again one wonders if it’s Thorpe himself talking. At first glance Nineteen Twenty-One would seem to be a perfectly conventional novel—third-person narration, a story told in chronological order—but it’s every bit as tricky and self-conscious and mask-wearing as Ulverton or Pieces of Light, with its deliberately mannered voice, its unseen novel-within-the-novel, and Thorpe’s obsession, expressed satirically through Joseph, with the translation of raw experience (not necessarily his own) into prose. In its sly way it is as much a hall of mirrors as the earlier books: a novel about a novelist in the aftermath of a war writing about the combat he didn’t see, written by a (by now) 21st-century novelist who didn’t see the combat or the aftermath. LikePieces of Light it’s a novel about coming at mystery obliquely, even cluelessly, and like Ulverton it’s about the supremacy of imagination over memory.
In the end, of course, the struggle to translate experience into story and the struggle of the author to “perform” in different voices are really the same. Whatever kinks modernism and postmodernism may have thrown into the craft of fiction, however self-conscious the writer must necessarily be at the turn of the 21st century, the issues of translation and performance are only different facets of the same question, namely how the artist, by creating an arbitrary, contrived narrative—a fancy, complicated lie, to put it bluntly—can still tell the truth. Which is just a clever way of asking, How can an artist use imaginary people to tell us something true about real people? It’s the irresistible force/immovable object at the heart of any art that hopes to represent human experience, and Adam Thorpe’s career so far is the record of one awesomely talented writer’s attempt, whether self-consciously or not, to wrestle with that conundrum.
In this light, Thorpe’s latest novel, No Telling, just published by Jonathan Cape, is something of an apotheosis of his work, despite the fact that it is a straightforward coming-of-age story, a first-person, past-tense, chronological account of a year in the life of a thirteen-year-old French boy, Gilles Gobain, in the late 1960s. As a wholly integrated and consistently entertaining narrative it is Thorpe’s best novel since Ulverton, but at first blush it might seem like backpedaling. Having fractured his chronologies like Conrad, having let his characters stream their consciousnesses like Joyce, having made the quotidian luminous like Woolf, it’s ironic that in this novel Thorpe seems to have found his way back to David Copperfield. Indeed, the book begins with Dickensian directness: “I was born into industrial vacuum cleaners,” Gilles tells us on the opening page, in a house attached to a vacuum cleaner showroom in the Parisian suburb of Bagneux. Gilles’s father dies in an accident in the first few pages, and Gilles’s mother Danielle marries his father’s brother, Alain, who moves in and takes over the family business (like Hamlet, as someone tells Gilles later). It’s Thorpe’s most detailed and consistent performance to date, and like all his books, but Ulverton and Nineteen Twenty-One especially, it’s about how ordinary people experience and sometimes misunderstand extraordinary events. It’s simultaneously the most epic of his books and the most domestic, starting with a ruefully comic examination of middle-class French life, working through a series of tragic secrets, and culminating with the riots of May 1968.
That said, the book is episodic rather than strongly plotted (though it is packed with vivid incident) and the prose is not as high-flying as that of Thorpe’s earlier work. However, its relative, deadpan simplicity adds to its power, as one crisis or disappointment after another strikes the Gobains to form a melancholically comic chronicle of family disaster and repressed middle-class rage. The death of Gilles’s father is followed by the madness of his older sister, Carole; his uncle’s attempt at insurance fraud; the increasingly contentious relationship between Gilles’s mother and his stepfather; and the birth of a severely disabled infant, to name the most dramatic elements. Much of the central portion of the novel, however, is given over to the rather dreamy early adolescence of Gilles, as he pokes around Bagneux and the surrounding countryside with his best friend Christophe, the butcher’s son. As always, historical events and larger social forces operate in the peripheral vision of Thorpe’s characters, as Gilles and Christophe stumble across some old Gestapo documents (which they can’t read) in an abandoned hospital, and Gilles witnesses the replacement of the suburb’s Napoleonic-era buildings by ugly apartment blocks. And, as always, Thorpe’s preferred narrative style is oblique; sometimes the reader is allowed to see what’s going on in the larger world, but more often than not, we are down there on the ground with the characters, seeing and knowing no more than they do. The narrative is not without its pomo elements: in one hilarious passage Gilles practices his English lesson—“Oo arre yu? Ah um Gilles. Whar ees ze stashon? Ze stashon ees thar”—which is Thorpe’s way of letting us know that he knows he’s writing in English about French-speaking characters. But even though Gilles is French and does not share Thorpe’s peripatetic upbringing, this narrator is perhaps the thinnest and most revealing of all the masks Thorpe has worn as a fiction writer; he’s the same age as Thorpe and over the course of the book develops an interest in mime. I’m the same age as well, and while I can’t claim much passion for mime, Gilles’s life is so intimately imagined that at times I felt like I was remembering my own adolescence. Awkwardness, yearning, and embarrassment, I’d venture to say, are pretty universal in 13-year-old boys.
The books climaxes with Thorpe’s most accomplished set piece yet, as Gilles and his mother travel into Paris to see the amateur ballet recital of his cousin Jocelyne, the daughter of a haughty aristo mother and a pretentious Sartrean intellectual (both etched in acid by Thorpe). This flawless episode turns effortlessly from comic adolescent mortification (as Gilles’s cousin flubs her dance debut) to brutality and horror as Gilles and his mother are caught in the first of the May riots on the way home. It’s a breathtaking piece of writing, infuriating and heartbreaking all at once, as when riot police begin to beat Gilles’s mother:
“Stop! She hasn’t done anything,” I was yelling. “She’s not protesting! She’s not protesting! Stop! Leave her alone!” My voice was too high and small and was completely drowned by the thumps of sticks on my mother’s body and the other noises from the boulevard. I shouted again. She was bending over, now, not making any noise, the whiteness of her handbag even whiter because the policemen’s raincoats were so black and oily-looking. One of them had stopped hitting and was rubbing his arm. The other two policemen were grimacing, showing their teeth, as if it was very hard work hitting my mother.
It’s a thrilling final movement to this slow but powerful symphony of a novel.
Thorpe nods, as I’ve said, to the postmodern, but he doesn’t buy into the artistic ideology of postmodernism that erases the distinction between reality and the representation of it. If I might resurrect my long-dormant B.A. in philosophy, Thorpe doesn’t confuse epistemology with ontology. Things really happen in his books, sometimes awful things, and his decision to relate them by means of masks or through various genres only shows that he recognizes the difficulty of getting at the real, not that there’s no reality. For all the careful construction of his narratives, for all his hints of self-consciousness, there’s too much real pain, real love, and real anger in these books for them to qualify as glittery pomo game-playing. His books are dense and sometimes difficult, but gorgeously written and unfashionably warm-blooded and humane. Much as I love Ulverton, it’s basically a flashy apprentice piece—here’s what I can do—but No Telling is in its measured way a more considerable achievement, doing what old-fashioned novels do best: imagine the reader into the mind and heart of one person at a particular point in time. Many contemporary writers choose to highlight the difficulties and paradoxes of creating narrative to the detriment of the narrative itself through playful, McSweeneyish self-consciousness, by retreating to the certainty of their own voice (Roth or Amis), or through polymath displays of erudition (David Foster Wallace or Richard Powers); all of these techniques are engineered to appeal to an elite readership who want to read about themselves, mainly. Meanwhile it’s Adam Thorpe’s powerful, underappreciated, and sometimes maddening gift to write large, complicated, brainy epic novels, sometimes from the point of view of artists (as in Still and Pieces of Light and Nineteen Twenty-one), but sometimes from the point of view of the groundlings, as inUlverton and Shifts and No Telling. Even as he recognizes the complexity of this moment in history for a representational artist, Thorpe chooses to go at the craft of fiction head-on, and he keeps his eye on what’s really important. He’s not just asking how stories work, but how do people live their own lives and connect with other people? Without stinting on the difficulty of really knowing another person (which may be impossible), Thorpe does not give up on the idea of connection, and places his faith in the virtues of performance—imagination, audacity, compassion—to do what fiction does best, to do what fiction perhaps does better than any other art form: to make us see and feel what it’s like to be somebody else.