Pilcrow, by Adam Mars-Jones

Purchased from the Book Depository

January is not a major month for new releases, so the appearance (finally) later this month of Cedilla (the second in Adam Mars-Jones projected four-volume John Cromer series) ranks as a significant event. The publication of Cedilla has been delayed a couple of times (that seems to have been the case in the past with the author), but this time it seems to be for real. I have had a copy of Pilcrow on hand for some time (Mars-Jones is a favorite of John Self at The Asylum who has read and reviewed all three of his published works), daunted somewhat by its 525-page length, but the impending publication of volume two made any further procrastination unwise. I have a fondness for modern authors who undertake major projects like this since so few do (Byatt and Woodward do come to mind) — perhaps it is more the case that few publishers can be convinced to commit to them, especially from an author with a relatively slim publication record.

John Cromer is introduced to us as a 20-year-old who is learning to drive his first car, a red Mini, in 1968. That means he was born in 1948, also my birth year, and I well remember the attraction of the original mini, so Mars-Jones had me intrigued from the start. It is a deliberately misleading beginning, however. The present is quickly dispensed with, as the author retreats into memory, introducing Mum and Dad (and their quirky obsessions) and the child John’s fascination with bodily functions (which will continue throughout the book):

I have a separate memory of sitting in a shaft of sunlight and realising that everything around me happened by my say-so. Everything was conditional on me. Logically, of course, this is a memory of successful potty-training. The potty has been pushed out of the picture, but I know it’s there. I’m a little king, and I’m sitting on a foreshortened throne. My gross happiness is the immediate radiant aftermath of being told I was Mummy’s clever boy for doing my siss or my ‘tuppenny’ (the family word for defacation) so beautifully in the right place. That’s something that disappeared early on — excretion as one of the pleasures of life, expressive as a smile, not some dark duty that dominates the days.

That quote is chosen deliberately, and not just because it is an excellent sample of the straight-forward narrative style that will continue throughout the book. We learn that John is highly self-centred, with a critical bent, and rabidly introspective. He is also fascinated by idiom and private language (siss and tuppenny). And the presence of authority in the most basic aspects of growing up (potty-training) will be a constant theme of the book.

We find out the whys of all that just a few pages later when John is only three:

My life began with a fever. The pain came only at night, to start with. Starting in the knee. Hot and dizzy. At two in the morning I’d be screaming, then by breakfast-time I would almost have forgotten. All childhood illnesses are dramatic, but this was more dramatic than most. I would scream for quite a while without stopping, and I couldn’t bear for my knee to be touched. Mum gave me aspirin, so many that once I saw two Mums coming into the room.

All of that happens by page 20 and if you have an ingrained aversion to spoilers stop reading this review now. On the other hand, if you want to know whether investing 525 pages worth of reading time is worthwhile, accept the “plot” giveaways that follow as forewarning. While the opening section tells us that John is mobile enough to drive at the age of 20, the rest of this volume takes him only to age 15 or 16 — and he is all but immobile (crippled was the term of the day) and institutionalized for the remainder of the novel.

The doctors have trouble diagnosing his disorder. The first diagnosis (rheumatic fever), which prescribes motionless bedrest at home, turns out to be wrong — in fact, the prescription is the worst possible, resulting in the permanent fusing of his hips, knees, elbows and wrists.

If you’re a patient who isn’t positively going to die, so that sooner or later your condition is likely to improve, then the chances are you’ll be on the receiving end of whatever treatment is currently the fashion. In the seventeenth century I would have been bled. In the 1950s the prevailing wisdom required no special equipment. I was simply put to bed. Bed with no supper was a punishment. Until you say you’re sorry. Bed rest till you’re better was doctor’s orders, however long it took.

John’s body may be crippled and the prisoner of prescription from mistaken authority, but his mind is just fine. Mars-Jones spends some time examining the “learning” of a child confined to bed at home, before a new “diagnosis” currently in fashion sends John off into a different world. Now it is said he has Still’s Disease:

Rheumatic fever and Still’s Disease weren’t as different as chalk and cheese. They differed as one cheese differs from another. In one way they were much of a muchness: there was no cure for Still’s Disease, any more than there was for rheumatic fever, so Mum and the doctors hadn’t missed out on some magic potion to make me better. One day (the day Mum said good-bye to her wisdom teeth) she had woken up the mother of a pain-ridden, immobile child, and she had gone to bed that night the mother of someone very similar. Eventually both diseases die down in their chronic forms, leaving different types of devastation.

With the new diagnosis, John is sent to the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital, located at the Cliveden estate. The Astors had offered it to the Canadians as a hospital in both World Wars, now in the post-war era it is a nursing school and rheumatology unit (that is historically accurate). It is part hospital and part school for the patients (much more of the former than the latter). Without giving too much away, John will spend the rest of his childhood years here before moving on as a budding adolescent to another insitution for the disabled, more school than hospital (although he notes that both have powerful Matrons, which seems to make both more hospital than school in his eyes).

I am well into this review and am quite aware that I have provided potential readers with a knapsack full of reasons not to read this book. 525 pages featuring an immobile child as the central character? Who is self-centred in an often annoying way? And pre-occupied with bodily functions? And always at the whim of authorities with questionable ability? Why would I want to read this?

Let me offer two reasons.

One is that Mars-Jones has deliberately restricted his setting and action to allow for an ongoing series of character sketches of the people who have power in John’s tightly-restrained life — fellow patients, nurses, physiotherapists, doctors, teachers, even relatives (Granny in particular is a wonderful study) whom we experience and study as John does. None are central to the book, but all are significant and the author has both great fun and great insight in developing them. The fact that the cast changes frequently is part of the charm; collectively they represent a good portrait of the era.

Mars-Jones also uses those restrictions to create the forum for playing with language and its implications, a continuing aspect of the book that is not related to the plot at all. Here’s John contemplating the name of his first home-away-from home:

There was a doubleness, too, about the name of the estate, or at least its pronounciation. There were two versions racked with class nuance, both of them at odds with the spelling. Mum said only suburban people said ‘Cleeve-den’. Upper people always said ‘Clivv-den’ (just as Mum always said ‘upper people’). The only thing both parties would have agreed on was that the name wasn’t pronounced ‘Cliveden’, the way it was written, and they would have joined in laughing at anyone who knew no better.

Those tangential excursions into the contemplation of the vagaries of language (often involving “class” as it appeared — or sounded — in the 1950s) pop up every few pages and for anyone who appreciates the notion of the sub-texts that lie behind everyday language they are more than a diversion, they are an important aspect of the novel.

So, will I read Cedilla? Pilcrow was not an easy read and had to be set aside every 50 pages or so. But, yes, I will take on volume two — and am rather looking forward to finding out how Mars-Jones will use a mobile John (I warned you about the way the author plays with both language and body functions) to offer up other insights. I’m rather hoping that, like John Updike in the Rabbit Run books, he will look at the latter half of the twentieth century, decade by decade — he has done the 1950s rather well. He does of course make his fascination with language apparent with his titles, so I expect that to continue. If you don’t know, a pilcrow is the paragraph mark (¶) and cedilla is an accent (ç). John is fascinated by the grapheme Æ and umlaut, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see either or both show up as a title for volume three or four. And who knows what else: grave, acute, ampersand? As you can see, Mars-Jones did get me hooked with his playing with language and its more obscure tools.

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28 Responses to “Pilcrow, by Adam Mars-Jones”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    I thought the review sounded familiar as I’ve come across the word Pilcrow lately and couldn’t remember where…turns out it’s the name of one of the wordpress themes.

    Is this depressing?

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Yes, it is. Sigh. Then again, both author and wordpress have their reasons for choosing it and neither represents a comment on the other. I toyed with the idea of introducing each para in the review with a pilcrow but decided that would not be up to the (very high) literary standards that I am trying to keep on the blog. A popular vote in comments, of course, would cause me to reverse that decision.

    My wordpress theme is Kubrick and I don’t think I would let that get in the way of appreciating his films.

    Speaking of which, we finally popped Purple Moon into the DVD tonight (on your recommendation) and it was exceptional. While less true to the novel than the other version in terms of plot, it heads in a different emotional direction, which is far truer to the sense of the plot. An exceptional film.

    And I am writing this while we have an intermission from Tipping the Velvet (Sarah Waters) which after one episode has both Mrs. KfC and I quite enthralled. An excellent evening of video, moving from cross-cultural intrigue to cross-gender intrigue.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    I haven’t seen Tipping the Velvet (heard it was good, so I’ll have to rent it) but I am on the last disc of A Dance to the Music of Time.

    Since you like detective films, you might be interested in the Italian Inspector Montalbano series (I think there are 18 episodes so far, 3 per disc) based on the books from Andrea Camilleri. I am a detective film series fan.

    If you liked Purple Noon, another rec. is Knife in the Water.

    On a further Highsmith note, Chabrol made a film of Cry of the Owl if you are on a roll. (I haven’t seen the more recent re-make yet)

    • Trevor Says:

      I may have to give Purple Moon another go. I watched the first 30 minutes of it a few years ago and just couldn’t get into it. Perhaps it was the evening. Knife in the Water, though — that I loved.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I was thinking while watching it last night that this is the rare movie where you almost have to have read the book for it to make sense — if you have, it is very good.

        I’m afraid I am not a Polanski fan.

  4. leroyhunter Says:

    I’d like to register a vote for the pilcrow device Kevin.

    This is one of those occasional books I find I have an inbuilt resistance to, for no very good reason that I can define. I’ve read several reviews of it and this is far and away the most encouraging. I find Mars-Jones hit-and-miss as a critic, veering between nicely scathing and priggish (often in the same review) so maybe that’s something to do with it. I’ve probably also internalised all the “reasons not to read it” you listed, so nice to get some reasons TO read it instead.

    As an aside, I second the recommendation of Knife in the Water. And a question for Guy: is the Chabrol Cry of the Owl any good?

  5. John Self Says:

    An excellent review of a very interesting (and perhaps beautifully boring) book, Kevin. I agree with leroyhunter’s comments on Mars-Jones’s criticism, though it’s never deterred me from liking his fiction. If a writer has an ideal reader, then perhaps I am Mars-Jones’s: each of the quotes you reproduce above made me realise again how much I enjoy his prose. Where you describe it as ‘straight-forward’, I’d say it’s whimsical and quietly witty, in a way which just happens to tickle me perfectly. Having said that, nobody knows better than I do that what’s sweet on a line-by-line basis can be sickening or stodgy at full length, and I do think this book presents a significant challenge to the reader. Cedilla is more of the same, though this time I was used to it and so ready for it, even though it stretches the reader even further by being 200 pages longer than Pilcrow.

    You may be assured that in Cedilla, Mars-Jones does to some extent to deal with the cultural and political landscape of the 1960s and 70s (Granny also gets further coverage). And since you observe that Pilcrow is largely a portrait of John Cromer’s enforced stasis, Cedilla finds him making determined efforts to be more mobile and independent.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy, John: “Beautifully boring” and “quietly witty” — in one sense, quite close; in another, very different. I think both are applicable to this novel and its success or failure for a reader is going to depend on how often the witty overtakes the boring. John’s comment also reminds me of something I meant to include in the review: this is a novel that probably wants some conscious scheduling (and reading it between Christmas and New Year’s was not a smart idea on my part). When I get to Cedilla (assuming it is similar), I’ll be planning on approaching it in chunks of about 50 pages (almost like a collection of longish short stories). For me, the comment about line-by-line strength becoming stodginess at full length is valid — on the other hand, storing up a few witticisms or plays with language and then contemplating them has its benefits. And Leroy my guess is that if you have found yourself with a tilt against the book, it is probably not for you.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Thanks for the tip on the Montalbano series — alas, the DVDs that are available that I can find won’t work on my North American machine. I’ll keep watching for it since Mrs. KfC’s Italian is good enough for her to keep up and I don’t mind subtitles. She’s heading to Sardinia and Corsica later this year for a trekking trip and the Sicily setting would have appealed. You don’t happen to have any recommendations on films that have been shot on either, do you?

    • Guy Savage Says:

      Are you sure she doesn’t want to go to Tunisia? Then she can watch Satin Rouge.

      I can think of Les Sanguinaires. Liked it. Like all the director’s work.

      I’ve heard of (not seen) Three Step Dancing.

  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Mars-Jones for some reason never tempts me, and I remain strangely untempted here.

    The Montalbano tv series however, that’s a very different matter. I hadn’t realised they were available with English subtitles.

    On the Sicilian film front, have you seen La Scorta (The Bodyguard, no relation to the US film of the same name) Guy? I remember it as very good. It’s about the Mafia judge killings.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Stay tuned until I have read Cedilla. Let’s face it the 50s were a pretty dull decade — I’ll be interested in seeing how Mars-Jones treats the 60s. I should also note that I am pretty hard to impress with language, so his ability to get me to pay attention (and chuckle more than once) is significant.

  10. Guy Savage Says:

    Kevin: aren’t you region 1 DVD?

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Guy: I am. When I searched Canadian sites last night I could find nothing except older messages saying no region 1 version was available. Once this message showed up, I tried Amazon US and found it (and ordered it). I have no idea why it is not being sold in Canada — now all I have to do is wait for it to get through customs, which sometimes takes some time. Thanks for the comment — I would have just sat waiting otherwise.

  11. Isabel Says:

    The character reminds me a bit of President Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy was sickly as a child but he was able to imagine a lot of things and had too much time to think. But, as an adult, he did a lot of fun things.

  12. kimbofo Says:

    I’m with Max here. For reasons I can’t fathom I’m not remotely interested in reading his work, and despite your excellent (as always) review, I’m put off by the idea of having to read it in 50-page installments, as you suggest. I’m already doing that with Zola’s Ladies Delight and Vera Brittain’s autobiography, both of which I have been reading on and off this way since late August!! My reading works best when I read one book cover-to-cover in as few days as possible!

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I’ll repeat a previous thought — wait until you see the reviews of part two (if you don’t want to read all four, there is not much point in reading just one).

  14. Colette Jones Says:

    An excellent review, Kevin. I’m looking forward to Cedilla but John Self’s mention that it is 200 pages LONGER than Pilcrow is a bit daunting. (I’m currently 120 pages away from the end of Freedom – enjoying it… more on that soon)

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: I am interested in your thoughts on Freedom and whether it has more appeal for American ex-pats as we speculated it might earlier. Also, if I can be so bold, I’d suggest moving quickly on to Linda Grant’s new one, We Had It So Good. It comes out soon — I’ve read it once but want to give it another read before doing a review. Like Freedom, it is multi-generational and set in the same era — this time, however, the central character is an ex-pat American who went to England as a Rhodes Scholar and never quite escaped. You are in a unique position to be able to compare the two.

  16. susanonthesoapbox Says:

    Kevin, I’d like to pass on another movie recommendation for you and Mrs KFC–The Last September. Interesting movie about the end of British rule in Ireland from the perspective of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy (they’re a tad clueless). It’s based on the book by Elizabeth Bowen and stars Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and Keeley Hawes. Keeley is also in Tipping the Velvet, as you know. I’ll watch anything she’s in–MI-5, Death at a Funeral–now if I could just get my hands on the re-make of Upstairs, Downstairs, my life would be complete.

  17. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    hi Susan
    Thank you for the recommendation. It sounds great! We will certainly get it.
    Don’t forget to watch the first episode of Downton Abbey tonight – that may help fill in the gap in your life until you can get the Upstairs Downstairs remake!

  18. susanonthesoapbox Says:

    Sheila,
    Thanks for the reminder! It just just ended. Isn’t Maggie Smith delightful?

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