Today David Miller

Atlantic Books, pp.176, 12.99

The death of the Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad is the central event of David Miller’s debut novel.

The death of the Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad is the central event of David Miller’s debut novel. A reimagining of Conrad’s final days, Today explores the nature of bereavement. Within the novel’s confines, Conrad exists simply as a character — a dying man whose profession has been that of a writer and whose working life has necessitated the presence of a secretary, Lillian Hallowes, who, up to a point, offers the reader a commentary on the novel’s happenings. Miller attempts no assessment of Conrad’s work, his literary status or psychology. In this, Today resembles a television drama: it exploits verifiable events as a backdrop to universal human responses, namely those of Conrad’s friends, colleagues and family to his death.

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This is a sparse, taut novel. It is not overly ‘Conradian’ in the sense that that adjective is usually understood, denoting an engagement with motive, moral choice and human frailty. The novel’s principal characters — Conrad’s wife and two sons, Miss Hallowes, a journalist, Richard Curle, and a gaggle of domestic staff who occasionally behave in a surprisingly familiar fashion with their employers — are overwhelmingly passive, responding to events over which they have no control. At the beginning of the novel, E. M. Forster is repeatedly conjured: A Passage to India was published in the year of Conrad’s death, 1924. Miss Hallowes initially resembles a Forsterian spinster of the Charlotte Bartlett variety, but subsequently reveals herself to be anything but. More often there are echoes of Virginia Woolf — a concern with fine weather for a picnic, which suggests the opening of To the Lighthouse, and a consistent, tactile engagement with the minutiae of living and being. If Today’s sense of period mostly fails to convince, the novel does succeed in repeatedly recalling aspects of early-20th-century English novel-writing.

Miller hits surer ground with his depiction of Conrad’s younger son, John, who celebrates his 18th birthday during the Bank Holiday weekend which witnesses his father’s demise. The lack of affectation in John Conrad’s response to events exposes both our inadequacy in the face of personal loss and the folly of those social reactions considered ‘appropriate’. John Conrad’s warmth and depth, along with Miss Hallowes’s confused response to the death of her employer, provide the emotional substance of Today and elevate an impressionistic prose picture to something that is genuinely moving.

The action of Today takes place over six days, mostly within the confines of Orchards, Conrad’s house outside Canterbury. This nod towards classical unities intensifies the atmosphere of the novel, contributing to a rich claustrophobia which in turn maximises the impact of Miller’s material. The deliberate narrowness of Miller’s focus imbues small actions with symbolic power. Unravelling their import creates valuable ambiguities. Today is a slight novel, virtually a novella, and not without flaws, but it lingers in the memory, affecting and as redolent of time passed as spent pot pourri.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, Death, Fiction, Joseph conrad, Novel, Novelists