Monday, 1 July 2013

Week Twenty-Six - Jeanette

The Underground Man by Mick Jackson (1997)
Recommended by Anna

I’m halfway through my fifty-two books!

Arbitrary milestones like this demand a bit of stock-taking. I’ve read some absolute blinders, and particularly rated Italo Calvino's Invisible CitiesStella Gibbons's Westwood, Chester Brown's Ed The Happy Clown, Shauna Singh Baldwin's What The Body Remembers and Teju Cole's Open City. All of these are brilliantly realised achievements in themselves plus (and importantly, for the project) each expresses something about the friend who recommended the book.

I’m so pleased with myself for embarking upon this resolution, and thankful to all my friends who have stepped up to the oche with recommendations. I’m missing Jude, of course – I hope she’ll be back when the time is right – but I kind of feel she’s here with me anyway. After all, to blog about the project was her idea. I’d just have sat in my room and read ‘em.

The photo-with-the-book was also Jude’s invention. And, on that note, have another look at the one above. Two thumbs up. That’s because The Underground Man is FUCKING AWESOME AND ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS I’VE EVER READ.

And it’s all thanks to Anna. Sweet Anna, one of the people I know less well in this project but, nevertheless, a key part of my Sheffield world. Exceptionally passionate about ecological and animal issues, keen walker and allotment-owner, she’s got her feet planted firmly in South Yorkshire soil; and, as a talented designer, her brain is bubbling with creative cells. You know what? I think this unique book is going to bring us closer together.

The Underground Man concerns the fifth Duke Of Portland, a real-life Victorian aristocrat. The Duke (referred to as ‘His Grace’ throughout the book) was a figure of some public fascination in the middle nineteenth century. He was an extreme loner, and his enormous wealth allowed him to indulge his introversion to its logical conclusion. Few ever saw him, so wild rumours built up about his behaviour and his physical appearance. His most famous eccentricity was constructing a web of tunnels underneath his estate at Welbeck Abbey, in Nottinghamshire.

Mick Jackson takes these points of His Grace’s life as the starting point, and etches out the imagined thought processes behind them. He invents the demons that drove His Grace to such a peculiar routine, sympathetically analysing the thoughts and actions of a man who is getting older and finding life increasingly painful; a man who, on some level, knows that he is mentally crumbling, and is all at sea with how to react to a mind increasingly not his own; and, especially, a man who is extraordinarily, disastrously, heartbreakingly, all alone. His choices have condemned him to a life without touch, without perspective, without the steadying hands of trusted friends or family.

Each lung is in fact a tiny inverted tree with the base of the trunk coming out at my throat. When I breathe in, leaves appear on the branches. When I exhale, the leaves disappear.

The first third of The Underground Man is bathed in memorable images like this, conjured up by His Grace, showing how florid his mind has become while his body has retreated from the world. He is a refined writer (most of The Underground Man is in diary format) and can express himself perfectly in his own script. Yet, awkward and shy and too conditioned to solitude, he can never translate this to the real world. He relates an incident where he speaks to a man with psoriasis; His Grace has asked how it is treated.

‘You drink coal tar, man?’ had popped out of me, in a voice so loud and clear that the fellows who had recently returned to their digging immediately stopped again and stared.
The big chap looked me over very coolly, his eyes narrowing to two tiny slits. When he spoke it was as if he was addressing a backwards child.
              ‘Not drinks it, sir. Wipes it on.’
No doubt while I sit here recording the embarrassing event, that same labourer holds court in some nearby alehouse, telling anyone who cares to listen all about the mad old Duke who suggested drinking coal tar to cure his psoriatic scabs.

Those tiny confusions, they happen to all of us. And some of them simply won’t settle, continuing to wreak a terrible, very disproportionate, power over the mind. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that captures this so perfectly.

As His Grace’s physical complaints multiply, he tries increasingly spurious treatments. One, towards the end of the book, is especially shocking and upsetting (Jackson’s powerful body-horror prose in this sequence is even more disturbing than the skin-peeling in Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). His Grace’s sense of what is reasonable and what is extreme has completely disintegrated; and it is this, rather than the graphic nature of the medical procedure, that makes this section so very frightening.

In his quest to find refuge from his pains, His Grace can also be tragicomically bizarre. Many, many times during The Underground Man I giggled, and found myself welling up at exactly the same point.

Called down to Mrs Pledger, asking for more bacon – as hot and greasy as it would come.
When Clement arrived with the bacon I grabbed the plate and slid the rashers straight under my shirt. Buttoned it back up to keep the fellows in place […] I marched at the front, proud and barefoot, my bacon-epaulettes now showing through my shirt.

But sometimes there are simply no laughs to be found. Although, mostly, His Grace doesn’t directly address his own mental anguish, when he does, the words are raw:

She nodded at me, then mercifully turned and left me to suffer my distress alone. And as the door closed behind her I felt the bubble finally burst and I fell, as if my legs had been kicked from under me. I fell and continued falling and was at long last engulfed in my own tears.

The sway this book wielded over me in these last few days has been incredible. I thought about it incessantly, and I ran over passages in my mind as I walked around Sheffield. When I read that His Grace believed this…

All I’ve done with my life is take countless melancholy constitutionals and grow apples by the ton.

…I wanted to tell him, with a whisper piercing the impossibilities of history and fiction, that he has done something more, at least for me. He has touched me on a level that only about five or six other characters ever have.

Read this book. Seriously, read this book. I already want to read it again.