Paul Bailey’s latest novel, Chapman’s Odyssey, is mostly set within the confines of a London hospital. The story plays with the idea of memory through the mind of one man, Harry Chapman, a writer aged 70, collapsed and whisked off to hospital where he remains undergoing numerous tests and awaiting a diagnosis. Naturally, he contemplates the possibility of death, and in the twilight moments of sleep and effected by drugs, he has numerous visitations and conversations with a wide range of ‘visitors’–mostly imagined. There’s his indomitable mother, Alice, who lived to the ripe old age of ninety–a reassuring thought when one is facing death at 70:
Was it courtesy of Dr Pereira’s wonder drug that he was hearing her now, her naturally harsh voice sharpened by hurt and disappointment?
During his quiet and lonely moments, sometimes tempered with sedatives and painkillers, Alice’s words return as arguments and recriminations are revived, and Harry recalls his mother’s favourite phrase:
–Get back in you pram, Harry Chapman.
That taunt for all his childhood; that lethal combination of five short words intended to diminish him; oh the terrible inference that he would never grow into the kind of manhood she might approve of–her it was, harshly expressed, unsettling him, angering him, in this hospital ward, in a changed London, on the eve of his seventieth birthday.
Fortunately, Alice is not the only memory to visit. There are many other visitors from Harry’s past, including a local homeless woman known as The Duchess of Bombay, but most curiously, fictional characters impose their equally real presence as they appear from the novels of Harry’s reading past:
–Who are you?
He was curious to identify the stranger.
–You don’t recognise me?
–I can scarcely hear you.
–I have not much to say. I have no reason to speak louder.
He thought he detected a subtle American twang, suggestive of a refined New England upbringing, perhaps.
–Then why are you bothering to talk to me?
–I am bothering to talk to you because I cannot–no, I must not–be bothered.
–Did I meet you in New York?
–You have met me in many places. We have been companions of a kind in London and in Rome and once, I believe, in Calcutta. I am unusually verbose tonight. I am, usually, a man of very few, necessary words. That is my customary condition.
And this is madness, Harry Chapman thought, to be communing with someone who never lived, except in the pages of a little book.
–Are you still there?
He was relieved that there was no answer. Of course Bartleby wasn’t there. It had been the purest lunacy to have imagined that he ever was.
That quote should give a taste of both the writer’s style and the sort of encounters Harry has throughout the novel as he lies in his hospital bed and waits for the results of his tests. Visits from Pip (Great Expectations) are every bit as real as Harry’s conversations with his dead lovers. It’s impossible to read Chapman’s Odyssey without wondering which literary characters would come and visit us in our hours of illness and loneliness, and yet even as I considered the possibilities, it seemed both fantastic and wonderfully reassuring that visits from some of the great fictional characters who have become… well… our treasured compansions in their adventures and adversities should come and visit in our hour of need. Unfortunately, this is a cleverly written novel which will appeal only to people who ‘get’ the frequent literary allusions as Bailey is writing for a literate audience who know their Austen and their Dostoevsky.
The book’s title, Chapman’s Odyssey, is in itself a play on words and a giveaway about the novel’s complexities. George Chapman translated the first complete Homer’s Odyssey in English in the 16th century and died in poverty and debt. Our modern-day protagonist, Harry Chapman, has his odyssey from the confines of his hospital bed where he recalls the highlights of his life, the people who meant a great deal to him, and the moments that shook his life to its foundations. These memories are mingled with his waking moments when he regales the nurses with poems he’d memorised, and then when he nods off to sleep, finally, he meets all the fictional characters who composed another part of his life: his reading life which is every bit as real as the great passions and that poisoned, tortured relationship with his mother.
Chapman’s Odyssey is a rather sad novel–not so much because of the direct subject matter–a man waiting to hear whether or not he’s going to die; instead the novel is sad because of its immense poignancy. Stuck in bed, surrounded by nurses, doctors and other patients, Harry is diminished, at first by his mother, and now at the end of his life to a set of symptoms and an elusive disease. Death and disease are the great levellers of humankind and no respecter of youth, circumstances or wealth. Harry struggles against this leveller not by the usual cliché ‘it isn’t fair,’; in Harry’s case he tries to assert his individuality by reciting poetry to the nurses and engaging in pedantic mental wordplay to assure himself of his individuality in the face of death. The figures from the past mingle equally with the figures of fictional characters as if there is little difference between the two, and perhaps, after all, this is the only level of immortality we will ever reach as we become visiting shades in the memories of those who loved us.
Had there ever been a golden age in the long life of Harry Chapman? He tried to recall it as he lay–dying, perhaps–in the room reserved for those poised on the very brink.
Review copy from publisher