Cedilla, by Adam Mars-Jones

Purchased at Chapters.ca

At 733 pages, Cedilla is the brick-sized volume two in a projected four-book enterprise telling the life story of Stills-stricken, wheelchair-ridden, John Cromer, first introduced in the 525-page Pilcrow. I’ve included those page totals because the commitment required of a reader taking on this project is the equivalent of embarking on War and Peace or perhaps, more appropriately, A Dance to the Music of Time (since this is the equivalent of a late 20th century update of that collection). Adam Mars-Jones is writing an epic and you may, or may not, want to join the parade.

When we left Pilcrow, John was approaching the end of adolescence. He had progressed through a couple of institutions where he was more or less a prisoner, he was beginning to come to difficult terms with his family and he was eager to discover a version of “independence” in the world. He had also discovered an interest in Hindu mythology as a possible antidote to his constricted circumstances — the Stills’ impact severely restricts his options — and was eager to explore that as a way of escaping his present circumstances.

Cedilla does not disappoint on any of those fronts. The massive brick of a volume conveniently breaks into five parts:

Part One — hospital operations to implant the beta-versions of artificial hips with the new McKee version:

McKee’s breakthrough came while he was tinkering with cars and motorbikes. He thought it was a shame that you couldn’t simply replace components in the body that wore out or broke, and he wondered if it might not in fact be possible. His was an engineering perspective, and he set out to solve a medical problem in those terms.

There is a lot of pain and drugs in this section of the book (which links it back to Pilcrow) but what we are doing is transferring John to a new set of circumstances. He is still seriously hobbled but the new hip machinery works — to the point where he can pass a driver’s test and has acquired (through the resources of his dominating Granny) a Mini Cooper. And done well enough on his leaving exams that he has been accepted into Cambridge.

Part Two — before that, however, he has a “gap year”, although in John’s case it is a gap five weeks.

Despite his disabilities, John, inspired by his reading, wants to go to India to meet his guru (long dead, alas, but he still has a following). John’s father is now working at BOAC and negotiates a deal with his colleague at Air India so John can head off to explore his spiritual guide, even though both parents think this is lunacy. I’m going to avoid details and quotes but will conclude that our hero has a most interesting time under the influence of the widow of the author who directed him there. Alas, the spiritual discovery that he sought is not found.

Part Three — so he returns to take up his place at Cambridge.

For me, this was certainly the best section of part two of the John Cromer story. He enters as a Modern Languages student (German and Spanish) and is immediately swept up in the University’s desire to be “accommodating” of the handicapped, but only so accommodating. John is installed in some rooms on the ground floor of Kenny Court at Downing College. He will spend the next three years (except for the inevitable term breaks) here, learning that his notion of independence is perhaps somewhat out of step with the real world.

The University had a motto, of course, but it was a bit on the cryptic side: Hinc lucem et pocula sacra. Roughly, ‘This is where we receive enlightenment and imbibe holiness.’ But the Latin doesn’t make a complete sentence and you have to supply the missing grammar. Hinc means ‘from here’. Good — I’m in the right place. And the next bit is about light and holy tipples (poculum being a diminutive meaning a goblet or the liquid it contains, so ‘little drinks’) and it’s in the accusative, so someone is doing something to the light and holy tipples — or will do something or has done something. ‘Getting them’ is as good a guess as any, and I suppose it may as well be ‘us’ that does it. It’s all rather frustrating — or to put it another way, good practice for construing Sanskrit scriptures.

The best part of this section is when a rowing team adopts John as “Cox”, not for the rowing but for a Cambridge drinking competition — a pint each in eight pubs, all drunk in one hour, no peeing allowed, John to keep time on a stopwatch to make sure they keep pace. They trundle (well, stumble is probably more appropriate) John in his wheelchair down the street on one of their practice runs and abandon him in a pool of vomit at the next-to-last tavern. It is almost enough to make John teetotal.

Part Four — but there is still his family.

We have come to know Father (ex-RAF and very military), mother (needy) and siblings from volume one and they show up again, but in supporting roles only in this volume. The confrontation with his parents has been presaged in volume one and, in fact, does not occur until late in this volume — but John does eventually break free. That may or may not be a good thing.

Part Five — and he discovers his sexuality.

At Cambridge, increasingly aware of his attraction to sexual experience with men, John joins CHAPS — you are going to have to read the book to discover the twisted reasoning that produces the acronym of this addled gay group. Suffice to say, it is a collection of confused, maturing boys who are having trouble finding their way in the complex straight world. Given that he has to be carried in the meetings and then put into his wheelchair, John is even more removed than most of them from the real world. But he does discover his particular leverage.

When I reread all of that, I have to ask: Why would anyone want to read this book? Especially given that it implies a commitment to read four, very long books.

So here’s an answer. Mars-Jones, as he constructs John’s story, also constructs a picture of the times, in the same way that John Updike did with his Rabbit foursome in the U.S. and A.S. Byatt did with her U.K. tetralogy some decades previous to this. The best parts of both of Mars-Jones first two volumes are not in the central story (although I like that well enough) but in his digressions from the story line. Even the parts set in India (which were the least interesting for me) contain the kind of icy observations that make the reading worthwhile.

Do you want to read this book? Well, if you are interested, you need to go back to Pilcrow and start there — the projected four volumes will need to be read in order. Should you undertake that project? I can only say that I am glad that I am enrolled and on my way — but I have a lot of time available for reading. You might want to wait until volumes three and four come out before making up your mind. Then again, why not join the voyage in progress?

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15 Responses to “Cedilla, by Adam Mars-Jones”

  1. John Self Says:

    Kevin, I must applaud your stamina in tackling both these books within a matter of months. After I read Pilcrow, I had mixed feelings about it (more or less: ‘that was nice, but my, wasn’t there a lot of it!’), but it rose quickly in my estimation, so that I spent much of the next three years eagerly awaiting the next volume. When it did arrive, and I started on it, I hadn’t got far before thinking, ‘this is nice too, but my, isn’t there a lot more of it!’ Indeed, Cedilla is the only book I have ever read, I think, where I took a break in the middle (after his pilgrimage) to read a few shorter books, before resuming.

    Anyway, I ended up liking this one a little more than Pilcrow, I think, though I am not sure why (perhaps because, as Forster put it, we tend to overpraise a long book simply because we have got through it). Let me offer your readers another reason to like the Cromer saga. Mars-Jones, in my view, is an absolute master at the level of the sentence. It is often said, wrongly, of a book ‘Every sentence is a joy’. It would also be wrong to say it of the Cromer books, but much less wrong, and in fact almost literally true. Every single phrase or expression seems carefully turned and polished, witty, surprising, quirky or unexpected. That of course can be tiring in itself, but one thing the Cromer books are not is difficult or onerous to read. Indeed their very lightness of touch can give the false impression of lack of substance.

    Anyway, I hope more people read these books, if only to guarantee that volumes three and four are economically viable for Faber to publish.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: Let me second your observation of “every sentence is a joy”, perhaps with some minor qualification. One of the things that did keep me going, even in the parts that I found less interesting (the pilgrammage section would qualify there) was Mars-Jones’ use of language. Certainly, in the sections that I did like, it was a “joy” to be going along with him, with much chortling along the way.

    I did take frequent short breaks in both books, simply because after 50 or 60 pages, the prose had reached a critical mass and needed a bit of contemplation before moving on. There is a “lightness of touch” but like a souffle (which does show up in both novels if I remember correctly) it needs some savoring before moving on.

    I won’t be unhappy if volume three is a couple of years down the road, but I will be picking it up whenever it does appear. That is one reason why I make the comparison with Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time — both projects are impressive not so much for the story that they tell (although that is significant) but for the manner in which it is told.

  3. leroyhunter Says:

    My hat is off to both you and John for your dedication to this mammoth undertaking, Kevin.

    This is the second review you’ve asked rhetorically “why would anyone want to read this book?” and so far I fear a reason is eluding me. I think you mentioned the Rabbit comparison before: would you line it up alongside Ford’s Bascombe books, by the same token? Although there’s something at once happy-go-lucky and very, very deep about Bascombe, whereas I can’t shake the idea of these books being somewhat cloying (maybe that’s me being too literal about the Crunchie bar analogy Mars-Jones has used).

    I also get the latter sense from John’s repeated suggestion of each sentence being polished for wit and quirk, as I find myself asking: if that’s so evident, can it be a good thing?

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I liked this much more than I like the Bascombe books, although I think I am in a minority in finding Ford’s wanting. What Mars-Jones’ project does share with Ford is that not a lot of dramatic action takes place — Banscombe is trapped in a commercial world (and not doing that well), John Cromer is trapped in an institutional one (and, frankly, doing worse). Both do have their observations on their restricted circumstances.

    I don’t mean to suggest that the writing is consciously “polished” (and I don’t think John does either). Rather, it has a naturalness to it and that allows the author to make some very cryptic and appropriate observations about what is going on. Given the unreal circumstances that he has inflicted on his central character, the everyday nature of the prose stands in stark contrast and becomes a distinguishing characteristic of the book. I didn’t pay attention to the writing as much as I wrapped myself in it (much like John wraps himself in the Margaret Erskine Dream-Cloud duvet which has a prominent place in the book).

    My apologies for again asking the rhetorical question. I do think people should read these books — but it is hard to easily explain why I think that.

    EDIT: I am embarrassed to admit that I did not go back to re-read my review of Pilcrow before writing this one. I can’t be accused of inconsistency — since (blush) I repeated so many things, including the rhetorical question that Leroy cites. Sorry about that — it was very sloppy on my part. On the other hand, it does show that both books touched me in the same way. If and when volume three appears, I promise I’ll reread both reviews and try to offer some new insights instead of just repeating old ones.

    • leroyhunter Says:

      Kevin – I didn’t mean to imply any criticism of your reviews, it’s of genuine interest to have those questions posed and answered.

      I’ve been moved by your advocacy (and John’s) to look for Mars-Jones in the book shop and sample some but alas he’s not stocked. Maybe a couple of hardbacks of this will make the shelves. Anyway, I’m enjoying your journey through these mammoth tomes.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Leroy: Well, thanks for letting me off the hook, but the least I could have done was come up with a somewhat different version of the original question. Keep searching the shelves — it is a worthwhile project.

  5. Colette Jones Says:

    I prefered Cedilla to Pilcrow, but it might just be that I was looking forward to it and it didn’t disappoint. I do hope the next two are somewhat shorter than Cedilla, but I will read them even if they’re longer. Adam Mars-Jones has a way with words that is different, entertaining, and consistent.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: I agree the quality is pretty consistent through both books — which is one reason that I am pretty confident about future volumes in the project.

  7. vivek tejuja Says:

    I m currently reading Pilcrow and loving it to the hilt. I love the way the book is written.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Vivek: Then I think you will enjoy this one as well — there is a remarkable consistency in style between the two.

  9. John Self Says:

    It’s fair to say that the consistency commented on above is because Mars-Jones did not intend Pilcrow and Cedilla to be separate books. They were originally intended as one novel, but he hadn’t realised just how long it had become.

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I am very tempted by these books, but V is killing me presently and it’s clear that my present circumstances just don’t make it practical.

    Equally, I’m keen to see the whole series concluded before embarking on it. I’d hate to read thousands of pages only for Mars-Jones to abandon the work part way through volume four unlikely as that may be.

    Still, it’s definitely on my longer term radar. As for the similarity of theme in both reviews Kevin it strikes me simply as proof of the consistency of his voice and impact and so not necessarily a bad thing.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: I did not know that, but I am not surprised — the two books read very much like one, long one. At 1,300 pages, I suspect a one-volume version would be have been physically unreadable, regardless of how good the prose is.

    I now wish I had made an observation that I had earlier: My version of War and Peace comes in three volumes but reads like (and is) one book — so far John Cromer’s story is much the same.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Now that I know, thanks to JS, that Mars-Jones intended it as one volume, I am rather chuffed (instead of embarrassed) that I came to same conclusion, down to the same question for both books. Just goes to show that the author and I were travelling on the same path. Of course, that might just be a rationalization on my part?

    On a bright note, from my limited experience with Pynchon (250 pages of Gravity’s Rainbow before hurling it at the wall), Mars-Jones is far more readable, much more of a stylist and, perhaps most important, possesses a sense of humor sadly lacking in what I read of Pynchon. For me, the experience was almost the opposite that I have with most long books. Normally, I have to sort of “steel” myself and say “let’s get another 100 pages done”. With these ones, I’d find myself rushing through 50 or 60 pages and then thinking “I need to stop and think about all that”. The narrative flows very quickly.

    If for some reason the project stopped now I’d still recommend the two volumes as a version of “a life”. Of course, I read them almost one right after the other so did not experience the three-year gap that those who read Pilcrow when it first appeared did. My suggestion in your case is that finishing your Proust project would be a worthy priority and then you could try these. I’m not comparing Mars-Jones to Proust just yet, but there are some similarities in the way that both use a somewhat dysfunctional character as a lens to look at the society of the time. The “distortion” inherent in both observers ends up producing an even more interesting picture of the external world.

  13. Max Cairnduff Says:

    There’s no way I’d start this before making some serious progress with Proust. That’s been a real frustration to me.

    I like Pynchon more than you. The problem I’ve run into is that work has interrupted V which has made it disjointed and lost much of its flow. For a book like that it’s a real issue because it makes it much harder going than it should be. Ultimately good as V is it’s not as good a book as The Crying of Lot 49 so I’m annoyed but not that upset. Were it to happen to Proust though that’d be serious.

    Anyway, you make a very good case for it, but it’s definitely in the long grass after Proust and probably after Banffy.

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