:: Article

An Adventure Without Control

By Max Dunbar.


The Book Lover’s Tale, Ivo Stourton, Doubleday 2011

A tricky thing to get right in fiction is when to introduce a character’s backstory. Any good creative writing teacher will tell you that we get to know people gradually, not suddenly, and that great chunks of personal history too soon will bore your readers. Still, most writers tend to begin with a chapter with the protagonist following a characteristic routine or interaction, and then the next chapter we get a long explanatory para that says, in essence: ‘Here is everything I know and everything you need to know about this person.’ Even Martin Amis does this, in The Information, although he begins the backstory part with a trademark ironic acknowledgement of the formula: ‘Who’s who?’

The Book Lover’s Tale begins with its aristocratic and literary narrator, Matthew de Voy, talking to a Cityboy client for whom he is designing a home library. When you hire me, de Voy thinks to himself, you don’t just get a quality interior designer: 

You also got to employ a man who embodied in so many ways the snobberies that might have cornered you at odd moments in the playground of life, and pointed at you and called you names. I was ex-public school, of a good and impecunious family, with even the Gallic surname to suggest a Norman lineage; I had gone to Cambridge and studied English and got my first and attended all the parties; I had slept with the fashionable people in the fashionable postcodes; I had eschewed the professions, spurning the eager embraces of the law and banking to pursue instead the life of an aesthete, dilettante, womaniser, traveller and novelist; and, above all, I had failed.

In half a para we get everything we need to know about de Voy and also, in a sense, everything we need to know about the novel. De Voy is a failed writer, with one book forgotten and another abandoned. For income he works for his wife’s business, which she runs under her maiden name. His City clients have never read anything, but can afford to pay de Voy twenty grand to build them libraries full of books they’ve never cracked. De Voy collects rare editions in his spare time and knows that the educated manner has cosmetic value in a servant. Servility sounds so much better delivered in a cut-glass accent. It’s like that moment in The Remains of the Day, when the new American master of Darlington Hall demands of his butler: ‘I mean to say, Stevens, this is a genuine grand old English house, isn’t it? That’s what I paid for. And you’re a genuine old-fashioned English butler, not just some waiter pretending to be one. You’re the real thing, aren’t you? That’s what I wanted, isn’t that what I have?’

By now you can tell that this book is humming and spitting with class conflict. During the 2000s liberal writers began to feel that the landed gentry weren’t so bad compared to the self-made barrow boys on million-pound bonuses who would end up crashing the economy in 2008. You get this resentment as early as Amis’s Money, when John Self and his admen cronies invade a restaurant of venerable reputation and clientele, and proceed to ruin the atmosphere, only shutting up when the menus come, and they are reduced to ‘frowning and murmuring over the strange print.’ Say what you like about the upper classes, at least they had manners. In fact, though, de Voy isn’t quite the real thing, having had a mother who was an active trade unionist, and having been beaten at school as a punishment for this working-class dilution of his roots. He has the manners and the style, but is less a flaneur than a precarious outsider. And despite everything he’s not even a literary snob: regarding his wife’s MOR book group, he is ‘happy to see anybody reading any book, any book, even one I thought was crap.’

De Voy hates both the rich and the working class and he loves to mock his trader clients most of all. He always includes a copy of Liar’s Poker in his banker libraries because all the bankers he has met think the characters are based on themselves: ‘They are possibly the only social group in history which takes every attempt at literary or cinematographic satire, however vicious, as a back-handed compliment.’ He compounds his own inward satire by sleeping with the wives of his clientele, and shares with great pleasure the mechanics of cuckoldry: ‘To seduce someone, you must form a conspiracy of two against their partner.’

But de Voy meets his match in Claudia Swanson. The female lead sees through him straight away and is not a usual bored trophy wife but a woman happy and fulfilled in her marriage. In exchange for the odd hour of literary conversation, de Voy allows Mrs Swanson to run up huge lines of credit, while both spouses learn of the attempted seduction with embarrassing swiftness. Having created such a stylish protagonist, Stourton then disappoints the reader by letting him fail and flail in a manner that seems unrealistic. I can’t figure why de Voy would want to actually kill Jim Swanson. Surely for a true subversive the assassination of a man’s pride is enough.

Despite all this though, he is a well-realised and consistently entertaining presence in what is an addictive storyline set against the background of a changing London. De Voy wonders at one point if there has ever been a nascent drug user who has not believed that ‘he is embarking on an adventure within control, and that he will never be like the ruined men he has seen on the platforms of stations?’ The Book Lover’s Tale is a fine imagining of what can happen when such adventures run away with us.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 21st, 2011.