An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful by J David Simons

jd simonsLooking Back

In J David Simons’ third novel, An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful, celebrated British writer Sir Edward Strathairn, now in his seventies, returns to Japan where, decades earlier, he wrote the novel that made his name. Strathairn’s debut, The Waterwheel, with its criticism of America’s wartime use of nuclear weapons and firebombing against Japan, proved to be as politically explosive as it was successful. Now, the publication of his ex-wife’s autobiography threatens to generate similar controversy in his personal life. Accompanied by his long suffering and underappreciated personal assistant Enid, Strathairn retreats from the public eye to the safety of the hotel in Hakone where he was resident writer while working on The Waterwheel. On this final trip back east, he encounters a series of old friends and acquaintances which sparks a recollection and reappraisal of his life and work. The narrative is split into chronologically alternate chapters, switching between the actions of the elder Sir Edward and his younger self, charting his early life and development as a writer across Glasgow, Japan, London and New York, with particular focus on his tempestuous relationship with the now-famous American abstract painter, Macy Collingwood. Chapter headings noting place and time divide the sections and the segmentation of the story is well chosen and executed, with what feels like just the right amount of space allotted to both early and later Eddie.

Simons’ prose is clean and uncluttered, and he displays a particular knack for using fragments to quickly develop the atmosphere of his scenes and keep his narrative moving at a satisfying, though never rushed, pace. Eddie’s thoughts and impressions are presented to readers with a closeness that is difficult to do well, and Simons’ direct, unfussy writing succeeds in this task. This is particularly evident in the chapters dealing with Eddie’s later life as he begins to experience forgetfulness and the onset of senility, which is skillfully, and sympathetically, handled. Ultimately, Eddie is believable because of the value he places on his reputation over his own happiness. A significant degree of selfishness and careerism has been essential in establishing him as a serious writer. The hopes and happiness of himself and others have been sacrificed on the altar of his ambition, and we imagine that even with the hindsight of his later years, these are paths and turnings he would take again. Despite his protestations to the contrary, we suspect that he secretly enjoys the opportunity to talk about himself and his works at readings, events and interviews, and although claiming to never have reread his novels, he engages in a kind of self-obsessed reanalysis of his oeuvre and its meaning, diagnosing his “more important novels” as dealing with “injustice,” “the dispossessed” and “spiritual void” respectively.

It is here we find the one real difficulty with An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful. The fictional fictions reveal themselves too transparently as novels of ideas for us to take them truly seriously as the kind of acclaimed classics which would win their author a knighthood. The inclusion of an epilogue of extracts from The Waterwheel undermines and detracts from Simons’ actual ending which is elegant and taut, a certain suggestion of deus ex machina notwithstanding. This is the only part of the book where the prose seems flabby, and spotting the references to Strathairn’s own life in the extracts from his text feels like a shallow and unsatisfying way to end the novel.

What we can be thankful for is that Simons’ abilities with the pen outstrip those of his protagonist and ensure that An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful is a surehanded and satisfying read.

Macavity the Mystery Cat

An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful
J David Simons
Saraband, rrp £8•99, 294pp