In my post of 3 March 2017 on the obituary of David Miller, literary agent, I mentioned that he wrote one novel: Today. I have now read it, and share the consensus of other readers that it is a little gem of a novel. Today concerns the gathering of friends and family of Joseph Conrad on a bank holiday weekend in 1924. Jessie, Joseph’s wife had recently been discharged from a nursing home. During the weekend, Joseph dies unexpectedly.
Joseph Conrad was born into a Polish family in what is now Ukraine in 1857. He traveled around Europe, and eventually settled in England, where he learned English. He applied for and was granted English citizenship in 1886, but he remained a subject of Russia until he was granted a release from obligation to Tsar Alexander III in 1889. Conrad had a nineteen year career in the merchant navies of France and England, rising from apprentice to captain. But in 1894, he gave up the sea, partly because of ill health, partly because of the lack of ships, and partly because he had become fascinated with writing. Almost all of Conrad’s writing was first published in influential magazines and newspapers: The North American Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Illustrated London News, for example. Nonetheless, financial success eluded him for much of his career, although a government grant of an annuity of £100 per annum greatly eased his situation. His fame increased greatly with the publication of Chance in 1913, which is, ironically, thought to be one of his weaker novels. Many of his novels include a maritime theme, and he is believed to be a writer who sailed rather than a sailor who wrote. His writing style is thought of as poetic prose; his work is marked by exotic style, complex narration, profound themes, and pessimistic ideas. He suffered from gout, malaria and depression. Conrad wrote some twenty novels and a long list of stories. His best known novels include: Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissis’, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes.
Coming back to the novel, Today, it is written by a man who clearly admired Conrad and his work. But Joseph Conrad, as a living character, never appears in Today. Nonetheless, one feels his remote greatness by the way other characters react to him. Today is a short, historical novel (160 pages) about the passing of a great author in 1924. The setting and the culture of the time are accurately reflected. The writing is fittingly oblique but engaging. The characters, many of whom were real people – including Conrad’s son’s Borys (a disappointment to his father) and the younger, John; his wife Jessie, an ordinary, working-class, English girl, who was 16 years Conrad’s junior, and who was looked down upon by his friends, but was probably the supportive companion he needed. And there is the middle-aged Miss Lillian Hallowes, Conrad’s loyal secretary. At the end, Lillian receives not the typewriter on which she transcribed most of Conrad’s work, but, secretly, from John, the fountain pen by which the original manuscripts were written. Did it really happen? We don’t know: this is fiction.
I would certainly recommend Today. Though it’s subject is death, it is largely about life.