THERE HANGS A TALE
By Adam Mars-Jones (Faber & Faber 752pp £20)
Cedilla is not so much a sequel to as a resumption of Adam Mars-Jones's 2008 novel Pilcrow , which recounted the first dozen or so years in the life of John Cromer: racked and ravaged by terrible osteoarthritic defects, his limbs fused and splayed, his fine motor skills minimal, his height pitiful (Cedilla sees him finally surpass Edith Piaf). The present book tracks him through a couple more excruciating and half-bungled surgical procedures, a stint at grammar school and an enlightenment-seeking jaunt to India. It then deposits him, early in the 1970s, in Cambridge, where he explores radical vegetarianism, addresses the Great Tradition and devises ever craftier means of securing hands-on human contact. We take leave of him just after graduation. He is temporarily homeless, bedding down in his beloved Mini, and shrink-wrapped in a life that seems only to have pretended to grow roomy.
In Microsoft Word, the application I'm using to write this, a pilcrow is called a 'special character' while a cedilla is deemed to be a 'symbol'. The former is used to introduce a discrete chunk of text; the latter is the diacritic that makes Ss of Cs in façade and soupçon. The blurb on the back of my (splayed and fused, ravaged and racked) copy of Pilcrow seems to suggest that we're in for a trilogy, and that part three will be called Umlaut . Both Pilcrow and Cedilla deploy diacritics, accents, ligatures and so on extensively. They are partly markers of John's endearing pedantry (though he gets it wrong quite often); partly a sort of refrain about unequal attachments, whereby little things modify bigger ones by their proximity (which describes John's emotional life pretty well); and partly a mechanism that invokes John in his strangeness (his torsions and curvatures, his crutches and his splints). There is even a sort of unthreatening penile quality about the dangling cedilla (note the diminutive: John's childish term for his own member is 'tailie'), which announces that this aspect of John's life is not going to be excluded from discussion.
John, then, is both a special character - 'I'm not sure I can lay claim to membership of the human alphabet,' he says in Pilcrow - and a symbol. He doesn't have special needs, just special obstacles to overcome in his pursuit of universal ones. It is a great achievement of both books to make the subject of such an extraordinary life seem like a sort of Everyman. John talks a lot about souls. He is a teenage convert to hippy Hinduism who seems not to have lost the habit of Oriental thinking in middle age, from which unseen perch he peers forensically down on things past. His body is a caricature of humanity but his soul, while it may not be flawless, is fully, boundingly, lollopingly human.
Partly, this humanity is brought out by Mars-Jones's crafty and resourceful take on what in many novels, and widely on TV, has become a slightly hackneyed period nostalgia or microhistorical tendency. John's world, here as in Pilcrow , is precisely located in place, time and tribe. In the former book were many brand names, now-eclipsed technologies, failed utopias, false dawns in medical practice; here the brands are often, as it were, personified. Tom Stoppard moves into the ghastly executive village where the Cromers hang their hats; Dr Who actor Jon Pertwee lives nearby; John nearly runs Roger Daltrey over in his wheelchair after a Who gig in Slough; and Michael Aspel returns the favour later on in a traffic outrage early in John's motoring career.
This, and much else, reminds us that John is a kind of inside-out Marcel. Proust's neurasthenia correlates to John's compromised physical life (there's a grim comedy in the hardware needed to wipe one's backside, the long elaborations involved in feeding or dressing oneself). This flip from inner to outer weakness neatly fits with the shift of focus from Belle Époque aristocracy to Harold Wilson-era bourgeoisie: 'The A4155 was my Swann's Way ... the Guermantes Way leading on to the wider world and its temptations ... was the A4094,' says John, shortly before being cut up by the helmet-headed anchorman.
I wasn't wild about Pilcrow, though I was hugely impressed by it. Cedilla is, in one sense, simply more of the same: same character, same voice (sensuous but unsentimental and morbidly quip-heavy), same worm's eye view of the same not automatically enthralling subject matter, same triangulations between author, grown-up narrator and youthful protagonist. If I enjoyed Cedilla more it is perhaps because that triad is sturdier this time round. In Pilcrow , John was prodigious in more senses than one. There was an uncertainty about whether his erudition and his cold-blooded realism were felt at the time or editorialised by his grown-up narrating self (or the shadowy Mars-Jones lurking behind both of them). All that seems more harmonious in Cedilla . Additionally, Pilcrow was set largely in institutions: hospitals, special schools and, most institutional of all, the Cromer family itself. Here John seems to get out more, though there are slight longueurs when he goes to his ashram. Other people's religions can be rather tedious, I think; a bit like other people's families.
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