Remember Me..., by Melvyn Bragg
When art imitates life, authenticity must be in the eye of the reader
Wednesday 16 April 2008
There's a school of thought that says all fiction is autobiographical; but some fictions are more autobiographical than others. In a sequence of novels that began with The Soldier's Return, Melvyn Bragg has narrated the early life of Joe Richardson, whose trajectory, from working-class roots in Wigton through grammar school to Oxford, tracks Bragg's own. In Remember Me..., the match between fiction and autobiography is agonisingly close, since the book is a retelling of Bragg's first marriage, to Lisa Roche, which ended with her suicide.
Lisa becomes Natasha, a beautiful, aristocratic French art student, five years Joe's senior, haunted by a miserable upbringing. Meeting her at Oxford, Joe conceives a grand passion, which through sheer persistence he persuades her to return. They marry and move to London, where Joe joins the BBC. As his career takes off, and he is tempted by the freedoms and fashions of the Sixties, Natasha's fragile happiness is worn down by domestic isolation, back pain, the death of her beloved younger brother, and the suicide of the analyst on whom she has come to rely. Her final crisis is precipitated when Joe embarks on an affair.
The book derives most of its interest and poignancy from an awareness of how deliberately Bragg mirrors himself in Joe. Bragg's first published novel was For Want of a Nail; Joe gives his the working title The Kingdom Was Lost. Bragg's struggle to describe Joe's strengths and weaknesses without falling into self-justification or self-accusation is admirable and touching, even when not successful. Some fun can be had trying to identify characters with real individuals (the arts programme where Joe gets his break is clearly Monitor, and its charismatic boss must be Huw Wheldon).
But the characters still talk like people in a novel – offering generalisations about their times, diagnosing one another's follies with rare acuteness. And Bragg is embarrassingly profligate with period markers: everybody seems to read the right books, see the right films, wear the right clothes, like a hobbyists' re-enactment of the Sixties.
While Bragg takes advantage of the freedoms fiction grants, he doesn't seem to realise that it also imposes obligations: personalities have to be forced into life, the succession of events needs shape and pace. Remember Me... is at once remarkable for its candour, and unconvincing; and, for all those who admire Lord Bragg as a broadcaster, a deep disappointment.
Sceptre, £17.99. Order for £16.09 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897
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