Archive for the ‘Mars-Jones, Adam (2)’ Category

Cedilla, by Adam Mars-Jones

March 25, 2011

Purchased at

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?


Pilcrow, by Adam Mars-Jones

January 4, 2011

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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