Rooms could be companions
- The Melody by Jim Crace
Picador, 275 pp, £16.99, February 2018, ISBN 978 1 5098 4136 3
Alfred Busi, the protagonist of Jim Crace’s new novel, is a songwriter with an enchanting and consoling voice, so celebrated in his home city that, when the book opens, he is about to be immortalised in bronze on its Avenue of Fame. This city, the narrator tartly informs us, is too fond of awarding medals:
It was the lazy habit of the town and had been for several hundred years to hand out these decorations – to men, that is – for anything achieved, no matter how minor or mean – for the completion of a building project, say, or for life-long service with a restaurant, or a golden wedding anniversary. Wearing them was to publish on your chest a shiny, brief biography.
The city is unidentified – but we are in Europe in the 1930s, if we follow the clues, in a place where civic honour has become synchronous with obsolescence, and perhaps with societal collapse.
We join Busi at the start of a terrible week. He is still grieving for his recently deceased wife, and it is the night before he is due to give a speech at the unveiling of his statue, moreover in two days he is to give a valedictory concert. The dubious pleasure of being honoured in such a way is potently evoked, but Busi has no choice but to go along with it graciously. As it turns out, this is the least of his worries. Unable to sleep because of the sounds of scavenging animals, he goes to inspect the bins in the courtyard, then hears the Persian bells at his larder door – a sound he associates with his wife getting a midnight snack. When he investigates he is attacked. The police photo of Busi, bitten, bloodied and bandaged, becomes infamous, as does his insistence that he was not attacked by a stray cat or dog, but by a naked child. A magazine article makes Busi a figure of ridicule as much as pity while also giving new life to a local myth about a race of primitive humans living in the woods. Some see them as an analogue for the dispossessed who sleep rough there: a threat to civilised life to be answered by gated communities and, if necessary, arms.
The rest of the novel explores the fallout from this incident. For some it is an opportunity. Joseph Pencillon, Busi’s nephew, a local businessman, mayoral hopeful and property developer, has long wanted to clear the bosk and build a luxury apartment complex or two on the coast. A seedy local journalist, Soubriquet, draws him out on the subject as part of his report on the attack. An expert in using the unpleasant views of others to sensationalise a story, Soubriquet sees the opportunity to play up ‘a fear, the timeless, universal fear of anyone less lucky than ourselves’. He charms Pencillon into suggesting that the town ought to fight back against the supposed threat to their civilised way of life. (In a nice touch, Soubriquet’s typewriter is missing the letter o, so we’re given phrases such as ‘Is y ur nce c ntented, happy t wn under siege?’) That the purchase of the land will mean his uncle loses his home matters little to Pencillon; he can be paid off with a free duplex. Similarly, the rich variety of wildlife can be relocated to a nature reserve. The homeless people who sleep there have already been established as a threat, a criminal underclass. The clearance can be rebranded as a crusade.
The narrator – who for much of the novel only hints at his involvement in all this – later gleefully recounts his part in the opposition to the clearances: ‘We waited at the assembly point, a paved square with formal gardens and benches, until our group had swollen to a hundred or more, all beating our metal pieces, the most discordant orchestra. It was enjoyable. We felt like kids.’ The Grove, the luxury housing development Pencillon proposes to build, seems in keeping with the period while also resembling the blocks favoured by 21st-century city planners. Soubriquet finds that it cannot be
attacked politically or as evidence of even more disparities between the ways in which the poor were treated in our town and how the prosperous were sheltered and defended. The architects could not be pilloried for providing only for the rich and the powerful; no town will flourish if it does not welcome wealth or privilege, nor will any magazine.
Ultimately Busi is reduced to a footnote in a story of civic development and displacement. The last time his bandaged portrait appears in the newspaper, the caption reads: ‘The recent elder victim of an animal attack’.
The Melody argues a society may be judged on its treatment of the disenfranchised, but the novel’s politics doesn’t distract from its portrayal of the protagonist. Busi’s is a commendable life, well-lived, and as a character he is conscious of his own flaws and shortcomings (he cannot make people laugh except in song), at times a worrier and a grouch who nonetheless ‘always treated others as he would like to be treated himself but seldom was’. Busi is lonely, and conscious of the waning of his reputation. ‘He was “the broker of tranquillity”, according to the obituary already waiting to be printed on his death.’ He is quite aware of this tribute in waiting, and conscious indeed, that all fame is a form of obituary. Despite constant entreaties to downsize (from others besides the self-interested Pencillon), he is attached to his marital home: ‘Rooms could be comforting companions, especially if they had been hung and furnished by your wife.’
His only living relatives are his wife’s sister, Katerine (who fills him with ‘basorexia’ – an uncontrollable urge to kiss), and Pencillon, her son. Katerine is elegant and poised, still attracting the male gaze: ‘Men pretended not to care how women dressed, but actually they cared for few things more, she’d found.’ Busi loves Katerine, was close to becoming involved with her before he met her sister, but now wonders, after learning of Pencillon’s plans, if she hasn’t been playing him for a fool. An inveterate ignorer of the post, he first hears of the plans to buy him out from Lexx, one of the students renting the house next door (in even worse repair), who shouts to him in the street: ‘It’s coming down!’
Busi becomes convinced that his sister-in-law is plotting against him. After treatment for rabies – which he might have caught from being bitten – he walks through town feeling sick and realises she is following him. He makes up his mind to confront his nephew. In the window of Pencillon’s office he sees the blueprints for The Grove and realises that it is more or less a fait accompli. Enraged, he takes the long way home through Mendicant Gardens, where whole families sleep rough. He begins to compose a rousing speech to shame the dignitaries and even thinks about a song he might write for the neglected and downtrodden when he is assaulted a second time, more systematically and brutally than before. His assailants take his lucky charm and a photo of his wife, one even reaches into his mouth in search of gold teeth. Badly injured, shaken and betrayed, Busi cannot face performing in his valedictory concert – though he has never cancelled a show before. The compounded guilt leads him to consider suicide. At his lowest ebb, Lexx arrives, having seen him staggering home, and he sits up drinking with her rather than killing himself. In the marquee where Busi was due to perform a riot breaks out and a young accordionist, Cedric (who was to be his accompaniment on certain songs), is pushed onstage, plays for his life and usurps Busi in the town’s affections.
Though typeset as a novel, clauses, phrases and even lines of dialogue in The Melody make use of every recognisable verse form. ‘The darkness held and always would the wife that he had loved and lost,’ for instance, is either two lines of iambic tetrameter or one of octameter. What might have begun to grate is masterfully accomplished here. The dialogue often hints at blank verse, as in the scene where Katerine dresses Busi’s wounds:
‘Cats or dogs,’ she said, eventually. ‘You’ll need injections anyway.’
‘For bites, saliva, viruses. Lockjaw, for a start. And rabies, of course. Now push those lips out. Let me clean your mouth. Can I trust you not to sink your rabid teeth into my hand?’ Busi thought that she could not.
In almost any paragraph in The Melody, you feel you could insert some line breaks and have a poem:
They talked about the changes there would be, how everything was coming down, how what you knew when you were young would disappear when you were grey, how sad it was to lose the trees, how wild the oceans would remain, no matter what, how old age was blizzarded with all the debris of our days.
The novel’s deceptively straightforward song-like structure allows for layers of perspective and sophisticated tricksiness. A Nabokovian illusion is maintained in the epigraph and the acknowledgments, which reference fictional books about the town as well as Busi and stops mid-sentence – ‘I should also thank the people of’ – at the very bottom of the page. We only discover the identity of the narrator towards the end of the novel: he is Busi’s tenant in his brand new duplex. There’s an echo, inevitably, of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, although Busi’s self-appointed confessor is more benign, even if we are given reason to question his motivation beyond his fondness for versifying. He contemplates what he might inherit from Busi and is, at times, rather prurient: ‘I can hear not quite his every move but enough to know when he is bathing, coughing, cooking, going to the toilet (too frequently, I’d say), or opening a cupboard or a drawer … What is it with the elderly?’ In this he is a perfect poet and narrator: artful and unhealthily obsessed; neither gossip nor pathos is lost on him. ‘Some melodies are never meant to find their words,’ he records Busi saying. ‘It is the saddest phrase.’