Even before the page numbering has shifted from Roman to Arabic, the narrator of Jon Canter's new novel boasts to his readers that he is no writer. As Robert Purcell (the eponymous short gentleman) sees it, all writers are soused ego-maniacs, so besotted with their personal angst that they are incapable of delivering a straightforward sentence. He offers a for-instance: "The dentist unlocked the door of her surgery and went inside." "A writer," he concludes, "would spit on such a sentence".
Unlike these expectorating scribblers, Purcell dedicates himself to the "ruthless pursuit of clarity". He is, after all, a barrister (descended, or so he is led to believe, from the composer). Intentional or not, this charge of over-indulgence echoes a complaint that Kingsley Amis issued against the self-advertising prose of his son.
In this contretemps between père et fils it is possible to detect a deeper fissure. It wasn't simply the surface sheen of his son's verbiage that got up Kingsley's nose. No, equally suffocating was its ambition to probe psyches, to reveal the inner man. To propose this was to embrace a very un-English tradition; to write like an American, or even a Jew, or both. Perhaps that's why Stanley's maddened son (in Amis père's Stanley and the Women) plucks a copy of Saul Bellow's Herzog from his stepmother's bookshelves and attacks it, as if recognising in its sensibility the cause of his illness.
This act of vandalism is distantly echoed in Canter's book. One Christmas, when our honest narrator is still but a lad, his maternal grandmother asks him if he knows what a psychiatrist is, but fails to await an answer, happy to supply her own: "A nosy Jew". Later that same night Purcell's father (and role-model) enters his son's bedroom and contradicts his mother-in-law's implied anti-Semitism.
Why does he feel the need to offer this corrective? Purcell may be justified in claiming that his prose is free of unnecessary ornament, but his narrative structure is not so innocent. Sir Michael Purcell QC's motive is not revealed until the end. Nor is the nature of Purcell's career-ending crime – the occasion for the confession – vouchsafed until very late. Purcell's avowed artlessness is Canter's artfulness.
Part of this artfulness is to have Purcell eschew hindsight, to excuse himself in advance for withholding material relevant to his case. Being his own barrister, he knows the nature of the crime he has committed. To keep this under wraps is fair enough. But to keep mum about his father's secret (which involves an East End greengrocer named Morris Perlstein) is another matter, because it alters his identity.
There is, needless to say, fear in this denial, just as there was fear in Kingsley Amis's hostility to Saul Bellow. It is this fear that gives Canter's book its gravitas. Purcell presents one preliminary after another in order to avoid commencing his confession. "I fear that when I open the door [ie begin to write], I'll fall."
So Purcell proceeds, determined to protect his English self, his English shell, against the Jewish science of psychiatry. The joke is that in so doing he is converting all his English readers willy-nilly into Jews, as they read between the lines of his denials. And therein lies the book's comedy (sorry if I forgot to mention that it's a comic novel). To my ear Purcell's voice – self-righteous and pompous – contains notes of David Mitchell's Peep Show persona. The problem is that all the characters he encounters (save his father) are such grotesques that he becomes not only likeable, but also the last honest man in England.
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