Tuesday Book: Scenes from a life that's still being revealed

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The Independent Culture
Scenes from Death & Life

by William Cooper

(Smaller Sky Press, pounds 7.99)

WILLIAM COOPER'S Scenes from... series of novels, of which this is apparently the final instalment, began nearly half a century ago with the ground-breaking Scenes from Provincial Life: a perceptible influence on Kingsley Amis and John Wain. In an interview with the 89-year-old author that rounds off this volume, Graham Tayar remembers the day when news of the first book's existence reached the group of aspiring writers who frequented the Kardomah cafe in Birmingham's New Street. "Kid," a writer called Bert Barton exclaimed to Tayar, "It's us!"

In fact, Scenes from Provincial Life is set in Leicester a good many years before, but Barton's inference was reasonable. Cooper has always been the most autobiographical of novelists; the space between the writer and his fictional alter ego "Joe Lunn" is rarely wide enough to insert Michael Portillo's proverbial Rizla paper. You get the feeling that, as he moved to Married Life (1961), Metropolitan Life (1982) and Later Life (1983), rather a lot of cafe small-talk was stopped in its tracks by a shout of "Kid, it's us!" Ominously enough, publication of Metropolitan Life was delayed for 30 years by a libel scare.

The books' self-evident, occasionally flagrant, grounding in the compost of Cooper's own life is both a strength and a weakness. It allows the author to achieve, or to appear to achieve, a rare honesty about what he thinks and feels; but it can turn a bit one-dimensional - a what-you- see-is-what-you-get approach to fiction that relies entirely on surfaces. - as with anything Cooper writes, a triumph of lucid and neatly crafted prose - combines the advantages and disadvantages of this method in about equal parts.

Now turned 67, Joe Lunn begins the novel facing eviction from his part- time post (like his creator, he is a moonlighting novelist) as a civil- service consultant. His hip is irking him, his two daughters are growing up and there's another book on the way. The prospect of penurious retirement is eased by the offer of a job teaching English literature to a rich American university's London outpost. I don't think I'm betraying any hulking secrets to say that this is exactly what William Cooper was up to in the period 1977-87, especially as the novel takes in the death of Joe's wife Elspeth from cancer while cannibalising the horribly moving account of the passing of Cooper's wife Joyce, published in Granta in 1989.

As ever, the reader - suspecting that the plot is merely a refraction of the author's life - is left only with the voice. "You can't read a page by me and think it was by anyone else," Cooper has said. This is true, if not necessarily a compliment. At its worst, notably in its distaste for all recent developments in literature and criticism, the voice is a bit too unmediated - simply Cooper ventilating his likes and dislikes. At its best (about 90 per cent of the time) it achieves astonishing shifts of gear and changes of emotional temperature, moving from semi-complacent light-heartedness to deadly seriousness within a paragraph.

These seismic intrusions - Elspeth's fatal illness, the death of several of Joe's students in the Lockerbie crash - give a wholly distinctive edge: the rare sense of a consciousness at work, gathering up both small things and large in the same grip. The upbeat ending is nicely judged; it is redemptive, but in no way cancels out the unease of what has gone before.

Looking back on Cooper's achievements in a career that spans six and a half decades, we find a welcome circularity. In some ways the idea that Scenes from Provincial Life (with its successors Lucky Jim and Hurry On Down) represented an attempt to recolonise non-metropolitan territory in fiction, was a red herring - though it was much touted at the time. Cooper, Amis and Wain all migrated to London at the earliest opportunity.

All the same, Cooper's sense of otherness - a conviction that lives get lived beyond Bloomsbury or Waugh's Mayfair - was genuine. Such stirrings that we can detect in the modern English novel are based on exactly this belief. Let's hope that William Cooper - with Anthony Powell a last, great survivor of that generation of English novelists born before 1914 - approves.

The reviewer's biography of WM Thackeray is published by Chatto