A polysemous meditation on life, love and loss
Fiction: The Melody, Jim Crace, Picador, hardback, 288 pages, €23.79
Jim Crace announced four years ago, when his last novel Harvest was published, that he was to retire from writing. But, heigh-ho: here he is with a new one, The Melody, and it traces the fortunes of a character in not that dissimilar a position. Like Crace, Alfred Busi - aka Mister Al - is a much-feted artist, in this case a romantic singer at the end of a long career. A widower, and locally famous, when we meet him he's preparing to make a speech at a ceremony that will see him presented with a "Worthiness Award" and his bust unveiled in the town's Avenue of Fame.
Where are we? A middle-sized European seaside town, it seems, some time in the middle or second half of the 20th century. The town has no name, though we learn that it "had been described by Victor Hugo as 'the city with four lungs'." That's a sort of joke. If Hugo wrote that of anywhere, it hasn't been translated that way: the only hit Google returns on the phrase is The Melody by Jim Crace. More fool me.
We're in Craceland, the territory invented by this self-declared "fabulist". There's even an Acknowledgements in which the hat is poker-facedly tipped to a fictional biography of the fictional Mister Al; an apocryphal work by Hugo; and an archive of the seaside town's fictional newspaper in the University of Texas at Austin, before it cuts off at "I also ought to thank the people of". The next page is blank, which is either a metafictional tease or a printing error. The ostensible author of these Acknowledgements is not Crace, then, but his narrator - and the narrator is part of the fun.
At first, he seems omniscient - someone who has access to the thoughts of our Mister Al, but can also hop lightly into those of his sister-in-law, of a hack journalist, even of a woman who briefly shares the doctor's waiting room with him. Yet he makes glancing allusion to his own experience, too: that he's a native of the town, that he's "seen the photographs", and so on. Once, he interjects: "I too have felt compulsions of this kind... but no, this is his and not my tale..." Only in the second half of the book does he come into the story: he turns out to be a friend and lodger of Mister Al, though beyond that we learn little more. There's the characteristic Cracean dance between a realist's exact particularity, and an encompassing vagueness or mystery; just as there is in the central mystery, never quite resolved, around which the story loosely circles.
Early on, Mister Al is bitten by (he is certain) a naked, feral boy whom he disturbs rummaging in his bins, and whose chief identifying characteristic is a musty scent of potato peelings. Is the boy - who reappears but never quite to the reader's satisfaction - a figment of Mister Al's imagination, or one of the mythic "Neanderthals" who are said to inhabit the wooded "bosk" just outside town?
Crace, elliptical as ever, doesn't nail it down. When the town hack (the weakest part of the book - a man who approaches deadline in a state of arousal, his trousers undone and an evening's whoring ahead of him) gets hold of the story, there's the suggestion that his article will spark some sort of hysterical purge. Yet that purge is canalised - into a civic reorganisation, a taming of the city's green surrounds rather than the conflagration of which Mister Al at one point dreams.
Crace borrows the flavour of allegory, in other words, but then does something else. Just as important to the story is the relationship between Mister Al and his sister-in-law Katerin, with its wan erotic nostalgia ("Busi had noticed his cravings slowly changing tense"). Katerin is exactly but tenderly drawn - a woman who in late middle-age dresses to be looked at, but is lonely and in her way decent: "wanted to be counted elegant and kind, yet far too often was considered fine-boned, haughty and austere". Is The Melody about a community under the passage of time, civilisation versus the state of nature, the "gifts reserved for age", or the tender feeling of a man for his dead wife in the closing years of his life?
It's about all these things in general and none of them in particular. It is, as the title advertises, more like a melody - as polysemous as instrumental music - than the lyrics to a song. It's as touching as a well-made melody, too.