‘And there was a thump—what she came later to describe as the thump—the sound of a suitcase being dropped’.
The thump in question signifies the death of Joseph Conrad, the singular and shattering event around which David Miller’s novel Today is arranged. This novel places us at a remove from the death itself, concerned less with the author himself than the ripples of disruption death has on the smooth surfaces of the lives of those around him. The ripples spread far and wide: the novel begins with a Dramatis Personae whose length and depth of detail is all the more remarkable in such a slender novel.
Miller risks losing us by creating such a dizzying cast in a novel that is otherwise spare and understated, but in so doing he convincingly creates a complex social world in which Conrad is the enigmatic centre. Our view of Conrad himself (described as ‘JC, 66, a seaman, a writer, a husband and father, a dying man, a corpse’) is built up impressionistically from the thoughts of those around him. He is felt throughout the novel rather than seen: he rebuffs a sickbed visit from his old friend Richard Curle saying ‘I can’t have you seeing me like this’ and this answer must serve the reader too.
Miller’s prose conjures a world of manners and restraint in which silence is redolent of all that is left unsaid. The character list which precedes the novel is perhaps the more significant for that which it withholds: the uneasy rivalry which distances brothers Borys and John from each other, and the hint of an affair which makes Conrad and Lillian Hallowes, his ‘typewriter’, rather closer than anyone can openly acknowledge.
The family has gathered to celebrate the birthday of Conrad’s younger son John, but instead it is death which marks the Bank Holiday weekend. Other deaths foreshadow and echo Conrad’s own: Lillian Hallowe’s reminiscences of her brother’s suicide, a telegram bringing news that a family friend has died and the lingering poor health of Jessie, Conrad’s wife. Today is not only a portrait of Conrad’s world but a meditation on how the living struggle to come to some understanding of death. A bumbling clergyman says upon seeing Canterbury Cathedral cloaked in impenetrable mist: ‘“…It rattled me—having something I know so well, know as part of my landscape- it simply wasn’t there. It made me think absence is sometimes so much more present than whatever we are looking at now… Absence so much more present,” he coughed, “so much more present than presence”’.
With subtlety and assurance, Today creates a moving portrayal of the strange time which surrounds the decline and death of a loved one, a time in which the petty and the profound awkwardly co-exist and in which humour can unexpectedly puncture solemnity. As those around Conrad struggle to rise to the occasion as they believe they ought, Lillian Hallowes provides a humane commentary and proves a sage adviser. “Borys,” she advises Conrad’s elder son, “Don’t worry about what you are, just be who you are”. An acutely observed and restrained little novel, David Miller’s Today is a book which will give you ‘a glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask’.