Chapman’s Odyssey became quite famous before it was published, largely because it nearly wasn’t.
Chapman’s Odyssey became quite famous before it was published, largely because it nearly wasn’t. Paul Bailey’s long and distinguished career, complete with two appearances on the Booker shortlist, apparently counted for nothing last year when he was reduced to what he called the ‘sheer hell’ of touting the book unavailingly round town, while living off grants from the Royal Literary Fund. Yet, sad though this undoubtedly was, when Bloomsbury finally rode to his rescue, one heretical thought was hard to suppress. Could it be that the novel had struggled to find a home not because of the gross philistinism of today’s publishers or the tragic demise of literary culture, but just because it wasn’t very good?
Happily, the answer to that is a defin- ite no. Chapman’s Odyssey may be about a respected author in decline, but it’s certainly not proof of one. In fact, not only is the writing quality the same as in Bailey’s earlier novels and memoirs, but so is much of the content. Like Bailey himself, Harry Chapman was born in 1937 and grew up in a poor part of Battersea where he discovered books, music and that he was gay. Like Bailey, he became an actor, before he turned to writing with a first novel about an old people’s home. Like Bailey, he once spent time lecturing in America, loves Babar the elephant and … well, you get the idea.
But this revisiting of such familiar territory is a central point of the book. Harry, you see, is now in hospital with possibly terminal cancer, and so spends much of the time shuffling what have proved to be his most significant and unshakeable memories. Thanks presumably to morphine, some also come as hallucinations: of his parents (where his endlessly disapproving mother plays a comic blinder); of favourite fictional characters popping in for a chat; and, in one particularly arresting scene, of Babar’s wife Céleste dancing with Fred Astaire. Oddly enough, though, the memories of actually writing are pretty sparse — as if novelists, like the rest of us in that old saying, never lie on their deathbeds wishing they’d spent more time in the office.
Admittedly, this shuffling of the same sort of memories — sex, family and literature mostly — does mean that there isn’t much forward momentum here. (The odyssey of that punning title is more or less complete before the book begins.) Some readers might wonder, too, if Bailey’s obvious closeness to the character has made him go a bit easy on Harry, whose selfconscious ‘sophistication’ — a perhaps unavoidable legacy of escaping the restrictions of his background — can curdle into something approaching a superiority complex. Yet maybe such tough self-questioning (like, as Harry poignantly realises, a belief in the futility of life) is an indulgence that only the young and middle-aged can afford. More importantly, it might also have undermined the book’s central achievement — which is to provide a quietly powerful and often touching acceptance of the life that Harry has lived.