Saturday 10 August 2013

Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?

A private detective called Marguerite - presumably a compound of Simenon's pipe-smoking sleuth Maigret and the Belgian surrealist painter Magritte - is the protagonist of Simon Okotie's wonderfully funny and original first novel, Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? (Salt Publishing, 2012). Marguerite is on the trail of the wife of Harold Absalon, who is missing. Absalon is the Mayor's transport advisor in a  city never explicitly identified as London. Most of the action - although 'action' is hardly the word - unfolds on a Routemaster bus, complete with open rear platform and clippie.
Room for one more on top
I can think of only one other novel set (almost) entirely on a bus - Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style (published in French in 1947 and republished this month by Oneworld Classics). This, you'll recall, consisted of 99 versions of the same inconsequential story, each in a different rhetorical style. The setting for the first part of each 'Exercise' was the Parisian "S" bus (now no. 84), on board which the nameless narrator witnesses an argument between two passengers. Two hours later he sees one of the men at the Gare St-Lazare, seeking advice about adding a button to his overcoat. That's it. What counts of course is not the tale but the telling, and the brilliant English translation (by Barbara Wright) gives a good idea of the fun Queneau had with the available tropes.

A contemporary equivalent might be to invite 99 writers to depict an identical scene in their own style - an alternative to the collective novel approach of London Consequences. A problem is that so few contemporary writers have a style, so identifying each author would be a challenge. Perhaps a brilliant pasticheur like Craig Brown could do 99 versions in the style of (say) Will Self, Martin Amis and  . . . well . . . you see what I mean? There simply aren't enough distinctive writers to pastiche. Sebastian Faulks? 

Okotie's engaging debut has nothing much in common with Queneau, but he has certainly read and absorbed his Beckett - Marguerite is a remote cousin to Murphy, Molloy and Malone, and especially to Watt, eponymous hero of Watt, with its hypnotic repetitions and exhaustively pedantic permutations. Some passages in Harold Absalon are uncannily similar in pace and register to those of Beckett in Watt, although this is not so much plagiarism as an homage. Okotie fruitfully combines Beckett's pared-down approach with the deadpan literalism of Nicholson Baker.

The book is by turns very amusing and agreeably frustrating, because it consists almost entirely of digressions with virtually no action or character or description. (It takes Okotie more than twenty chapters to describe Marguerite leaving his seat on the upper deck and squeezing past the conductress to the top of the staircase.) As in Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759) it is the author's struggle with the intractable and unstable medium of language that constitutes the real story. Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, written 250 years later, has something of Sterne's wit and invention and, as with Queneau's Exercises in Style it's the telling, not the tale. The three books bear comparison.

You can read the first chapters of Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? here.

You can order a copy from the publisher  here.

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