on 24 July 2011
Adam Mars-Jones is doing so many new things, and doing them so originally and sympathetically in his roman fleuve that I'd have no hesitation in describing the series of which this is the second part as the best novel being written in these years.
Nothing could be easier to read and less daunting than these vast volumes Pilcrow and Cedilla, because they are broken down into short witty almost self-contained mini-chapters, and because the self-obssessed hero (really one should call him a hero) is such an attractive voice.
The book has much to say about the cruelty and also the kindness that the disabled encounter, and the indomitability of the human character. It's funny and absorbing about the trivia of life and serious and questing about the meaning of life, and I, for one, could read any number of sequels. There are few enough writers whose next novel one actively looks forward to. Adam Mars-Jones's next novel will be as wonderful as this one is.
It is quite inexplicable that Adam Mars-Jones is a name not shouted from the roof-tops of the literary establishment. Has there ever been a more convincing narrational voice than that of John Cromer? I certainly can't think of one.
"There's so much poignancy in the state of trying to be a man, nothing remotely comparable about being one." And especially THIS man. Severely physically handicapped, mentally sharp as a tack, pedantic, infuriating, indomitable, endearing, a homosexual, a Buddhist...and piercingly funny. Here's a flavour of his humour: "I reached the point where I really didn't see how I could hold out much longer. I prayed for help - help sooner rather than later. Sri Bhagavan was the shape divinity took in my mind, but as I was back in England now, worse luck, it seemed a good idea to hedge my bets, so I prayed to my old friend Jesus Christ, and to God the Father as well. I didn't forget to add a dash of Allah to the cocktail of divine appeal. Desperation is a strongly oecumenical force."
You will have to read Pilcrow first. As other reviewers have commented, if you've read it and didn't like it, then you won't like Cedilla. But if that's the case, then it's highly unlikely you'll be bothering with this review. If you loved Pilcrow (and I don't think there's much middle ground here) you'll be reading Cedilla anyway and won't have need of any review.
This leaves me little to say that can be of value to the prospective reader other than the fact that Adam Mars-Jones's writing is staggeringly good and to urge you to catch up with Pilcrow. As regards Cedilla, I can't really put it any better than S.Kemp's eloquent review. So I would also urge you to read that to get a true flavour of this second instalment of the life and times of the extraordinary creation that is John Cromer.
on 7 October 2012
Cedilla is an enormous novel and the second of a potential trilogy (possibly even a quartet). The reputation of Adam Mars-Jones the critic has previously eclipsed that of Adam Mars-Jones the novelist. This, however, was due to a lack of output. But, within the space of three years, Mars-Jones has delivered two novels of gigantic proportions and abilities. Taken together, Pilcrow and Cedilla come in at over 1300 pages, a substantial achievement that helps cancel the myth of literary procrastination. And it is no exaggeration to say that Cedilla is an absolute and stunning triumph.
As with Pilcrow, the reader follows the travails of John Cromer, one of the most intriguing and amusing characters in contemporary literature. In true Bildungsroman fashion, we follow this disabled and homosexual Hindu as he measures up to the vicissitudes of the 1960s-70s, an era in which his creator revels, the relentless contextual details conveying the period's numerous cultural advances. John, then, capturing the zeitgeist, seeks equality and looks to match the epoch's progressive drift. And so, much to his family's exasperation, he receives a 'normal' state education, learns to drive (a Mini), undertakes a pilgrimage to India in search of enlightenment, studies Modern Languages at Cambridge University, and then, ultimately, graduates into the arms of the Welfare system.
But it is Cromer's narrative voice, rather than these events, that attracts the reader's admiration. His interaction with the world is laced with cynicism and pedantry, the exquisite punning and linguistic fireworks ensuring that the prose is taut and no word is wasted. John may live life at a reduced pace but his writing fizzes with energy. Its humour crackles, his perception of characters, due to his outsider, observer status, precociously astute. The interfamilial relationships seethe with frustration and John negotiates them with cunning psychological mobility. He cleverly intuits the various movements and motivations, especially his mother's gradual disintegration of control. Worryingly, she just cannot relax her grip on John's 'Quest' for independence, her diminishing sanity highlighted by an irrational (though hilarious) fear of Tom Stoppard's supposedly intellectual evil.
The book is never boring, and that is due to its episodic form. Each brief chapter adds to the momentum, although, paradoxically, the painstaking analysis of certain incidents can make it seem as if time has actually stopped. But John is never less than funny, a permanently baffled and witty observer of our many affectations. And so the spiritual odyssey continues. But when will it stop? Who knows?
Do not attempt this book if you haven't read "Pilcrow" by the same author, as "Cedilla" is a continuation of its predecessor. Additionally, if you didn't enjoy "Pilcrow", you'll hate this book as it is essentially more of the same but significantly longer.
Caveats over, what of the book?
At the end of "Pilcrow", our disabled narrator John Cromer was sixteen years old, and we had followed his progress through life, battling the effects of Still's Disease. "Cedilla" sees John preparing to go to university in its early stages before going on an unaccompanied trip to India, then returns home and his life begins to disintegrate in many ways.
As with "Pilcrow" not an awful lot happens, yet the book is strangely compelling. John is a strange character, both lovable yet incredibly irritating, hilarious but maudlin, and there are times when I felt little sympathy for him - particularly towards the end of the book - where it seemed the predicaments he found himself in were entirely of his own making. If you read "Pilcrow" and found John irritating there, you'll despise him in "Cedilla" as his character is altogether bigger this time around.
The writing is stunning from start to finish, beautifully detailed and constructed throughout, and if you love language this book is a real feast. Yes it is overlong, by a hundred pages or so, and for this reason alone I deduct a star.
Like "Pilcrow", "Cedilla" ends on something of a cliff-hanger, and John Cromer is apparently to return, making this series a trilogy. Hopefully we won't have to wait too long for his return.
The best book I've read so far this year, and hugely recommended - but make sure you read "Pilcrow" first.
The second part of a trilogy, Cedilla follows on from Pilcrow with our hero John Cromer taking us through to the completion of his education, now in the mainstream. His education covers his time at grammar school and through to attaining a degree, and along the way includes a spell in India in pursuit of his spiritual interests.
This is very much in the same vein as Pilcrow, but on an even larger scale, a marathon read but a marathon that never tires one while it switches between episodes of John's progress through day to day life and digressions into thoughts often of his spiritual quest.
John may be physically small and severely restricted as a result of Still's disease, but he has a strength of character more than enough to compensate. He gradually discovers how to achieve what he wants and to use a disadvantage to advantage, including maneuvering the occasional grope of any boy who appeals. His accounts are invariable couched in humour, and are at times moving.
However long Cedilla maybe it is not long enough, for I could happily spend some time each day in John's company in the assurance that I will be entertained, enlightened and possibly moved. There are no great dramas or major events, but again that is part of its appeal. Yet the closing pages I found especially moving, and hope it is not too long to wait for the third part of this trilogy to discover where John goes from here.
on 11 May 2011
I am still baffled at the amount of empathy the author shows to this character.
Yes, he (John Cromer) is irritating but he also has a spiritual outlook on life. It is a bit pick and mix - more befitting to this decade that the one it seeks to portray.
The book is, perhaps, too long, though it kept me occupied throughout two long train journeys.