Remember Me, By Melvyn Bragg

Mr Culture's new novel reads worryingly like a swan song
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The Independent Culture

Though known for his broadcasting, and perhaps a little too for his work as a life peer, this is something like Melvyn Bragg's 20th novel. Remember Me is more than a fitting title. It will be remembered for ever, certainly by the remaining members of his family and close friends. Such is the subject matter, and such is the way it's been told, that it has a worrying air of finality about it.

If this isn't Bragg's swan song, then it's going to be a very hard act to follow, for sadly the wrong reasons. It would be easy to talk at length about the novel's shortcomings, in terms of its, at times, colossal introspection, its unbalanced narrative, its obsession with "the art and culture of the late 20th century", its datedness, even its very length.

However, that would be to assume that we're dealing with a novel, when as far as the facts appear, we're doing anything but. Change a few names and this reads very much like an unbelievably raw and, as far as I can tell, honest letter – a letter from Melvyn Bragg to his daughter Marie-Elsa by his first wife, the French artist and writer Lisa Roche.

Bragg, or Joseph Richardson, as the Cumbrian lad who becomes something of a novelist and media star in the book is known, meets Lisa Roche, or Natasha as she's called here, when he's an undergraduate in Oxford. He's impulsive, shy, still insecure about his working-class Northern upbringing, but he's also full of energy and commitment and brash libido. She's a little older, wiser, exotically foreign yet harbouring a past of depression and familial heartache. Principally, Natasha's mother died shortly after she was born leaving her – or, as far as I have gleaned, Lisa Roche – to be abused and ostracised by first a housekeeper and then her step-mother.

Security and a loving home is quickly provided by Joe – Bragg married Lisa Roche when he was 21 – and his media career, initially at the BBC, takes off. A daughter is born – Marcelle in the book – though dark depression and unhealthy relationships with analysts begin to dog both adults. Then Joe, having become insufferably vain and pompous, begins to have an affair with a young TV researcher, for whom he eventually and effectively leaves Natasha.

Joe writes to Marcelle at one point: "Fiction can be treacherous especially when read as fact." Through numerous asides Bragg urges us to remember that we're reading fiction, or at the very least that we're dealing with "memory, imagination and language". The dedication to this book reads "In Memoriam LR". The rest of the book is seemingly so steeped in fact, including the death by suicide of Joe's first wife (as befell Lisa Roche), that it's impossible to know quite where the fiction begins.

It shouldn't matter one tiny bit where a novelist's inspiration comes from. Yet, the "truth", about love – sexual, spousal, familial, paternal, even maternal – that Bragg endeavours to dissect masterfully in this case, is just too painfully true. He's either a far, far better artist than he's ever been recognised for being, or he still feels hopelessly, tragically guilty. Maybe it's a bit of both.