Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Book of the Week - Paul Bailey, Chapman's Odyssey

Chapman's Odyssey is Paul Bailey's first novel for 9 years. Bailey was shortlisted twice for the BookerPrize early in his career (Peter Smart's Confessions (1977) and Gabriel's Lament(1986)), so it is a good opportunity to pick up a signed copy of a novel from a writer near the end of a distinguished career.

In Bailey's work the physical frailty of humanity and the bizarre nature of human disintegration are significant symbols of what it means to be human. Many of Bailey's characters are obsessed with human frailty and physicality, and with the symptoms of disease and decay. Bailey's first novel focussed on an elderly lady in a nursing home, and Chapman's Odyssey continues with these elements, as the story is told from the perspective of an elderly man dying in a hospital bed. Although this might seem a little depressing, the subject matter is handled with humour and lightness of touch, although not shying away from the messiness of the end of life. A possible contender for this year's literary prizes.

Bailey has said 'I write because I have to and want to. It's as simple, or as complicated, as that. And I write novels specifically because I am curious about my fellow creatures. There is no end to their mystery. I share Isaac Babel's lifelong ambition to write with simplicity, brevity and precision. It was he who said 'No steel can pierce the human heart so chillingly as a period at the right moment.' I hope one or two of my full stops have done, and will do, just that.'

"So here he was at last, where he had long feared to be. Harry Chapman is not well, and he doesn't like hospitals. Superficially all is as it normally is in such places, with nurses to chide him and a priest to console. But there are more than usual quotient of voices - is it because of Dr Pereira's wonder drug that he can hear the voice of his mother, acerbic and disappointed in him as ever? Perhaps her presence would be understandable enough, but what is Pip from Great Expectations doing here? More and more voices add their differing notes and stories to the chorus, squabbling, cajoling, commenting: friends from childhood, lovers, characters from novels and poetry; his father, fighting in the First World War; Babar and Celeste, who dances with Fred Astaire; Jane Austen's "Emma"; his aunt Rose, 'a stranger to moodiness'; Christopher Smart's cat Jeoffrey; a man who wants to sell him T.S. Eliot's teeth; Virginia Woolf, the scourge of servants; and, of course, an old friend who turns up at his bedside principally to rehearse the litany of his own ailments. Slowly, endearingly, the life of Harry Chapman coalesces before our eyes, through voices real and unreal. Written with a gentle, effortless generosity, full of delicate observation, "Chapman's Odyssey" is the work of a master; a superbly rendered act of storytelling and ventriloquism that is waspish, witty, deeply moving and wise by turns and which constantly explores 'the unsolvable enigma of love'.

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