The appearance of a long quote from W.G. Sebald’s Campo Santo gave me the excuse to read Jeremy Cooper’s new novel Kath Trevelyan (London: Serpent’s Tail 2007). Cooper, an art historian who has worked for Sotheby’s and now, according to his brief book bio, owns a gallery in Bloomsbury, has created a portrait of seventy-something Kath Trevelyan and, to a lesser extent, her rural neighbor and friend John. Kath is a letterpress printer who draws, makes prints, and produces small edition fine press books.For reasons that are often obscure to her and to this reader, Kath is drawn to John, a fifty-something retired London gallerist who is moody and inarticulate about personal relationships. Kath’s daughter Esther also makes frequent appearances, effectively giving Kath a real person to talk to now and then.
The handful of characters that populate Kath Trevelyan lead unhurried, contemplative lives in rural England, with periodic travels around the countryside and into London. They seem to devote a considerable portion of their day observing and appreciating their natural surroundings. In addition, Kath and John live amidst a veritable Antiques Roadshow of objects: treasured collectibles, beautiful books, memory-laden memorabilia, works of art, hand-crafted furniture. Now and then Cooper’s background results in passages that read as if they were snipped from an auction catalog or a museum wall label, but most of the time his descriptive passages are engaging, recalling that other one-time employee of Sotheby’s – Bruce Chatwin. Did I mention that Kath hasn’t owned a television set since her last child moved out, which, by my calculations, is the 1950s?All of this tends to give Kath Trevelyan the aura of a Merchant/Ivory production of an E.M. Forster novel.
The principal plot line is the budding romance between Kath and John, two largely mis-matched people who just may or may not have something to offer the other. After more than 275 pages of Will it happen? and Could it possibly work?, Kath and John are suddenly, without warning or fanfare, in bed. Did we miss something? Apparently so. Oh those Brits, one is tempted to mutter.
Fortunately, Cooper is after something more than nostalgia. By temperament, John has been a devoted follower of the very latest on the London art scene for decades. As a gallery owner he started with artists Gilbert & George, Richard Hamilton, and Hamish Fulton, then kept up with the changing times and he now follows a trend that is decidedly cutting edge. His current passion is Gavin Turk, one of the notorious Young British Artists originally collected and made famous by Charles Saatchi. John has just written a short essay about Turk. This provides Kath with a solution to her late-life crisis. Kath, it seems, has begun to feel that her current project, an expensive limited edition book on the theme of trees, replete with metaphors for longevity and strength, is too conservative. She craves something more “experimental” and, as a cure, proposes to create a kind of anti-book using John’s essay on Gavin Turk. Within the tradition-bound world of collectible fine press editions, this project, which she will finally title Notabook probably does strike an avant-guard note, but it doesn’t seem to bridge the huge gap between her world and that of Gavin Turk.
Much of the novel is delightfully observational, rounding out the portraits of Kath, John, and, to a lesser extent, Esther. Cooper is a very visual writer, a skill matched by his difficulty with conversation. Nearly everything that his characters speak comes out a little stilted. Here’s John in a crucial scene, calling on the phone early in the novel to break it all off with Kath:
I’m stopping our contact. We’re too different. It’s for the best. We’ll both be able to get on with things now. You’ve got your book, with William. And I’m writing this article. About the performance art of Gavin Turk. You”ll get over it. Don’t worry. It was a mistake. We can never be proper friends.
The real pleasure of Kath Trevelyan, it seems to me, is being airlifted into a territory where every conversation is literate, where every object is beautiful, and everyone lives at the highest level of alertness to the world around them. Gavin Turk notwithstanding, it’s still Merchant/Ivory-land, but it’s a very pleasant way to spend a few hours.
I mustn’t forget about Sebald, whose writing makes a guest appearance on pages 156-158. As part of the research for her book about trees, Kath reads Campo Santo and quotes a lengthy segment about the forests of Corsica from the prose piece The Alps in the Sea. Curiously, as Kath plots out the text and images that will go in her book, she herself sounds distinctly Sebaldian:
…text and image shouldn’t explain, let alone illustrate each other. Maybe enter into a sort of dialogue, reverberating back and forth. (page. 129)
The first edition of Kath Trevelyan is a compact 5 by 7 inch paperback with a cover image by artist Peter Doig, an enigmatic etching called White Out, 1996, which depicts one of his awkwardly formal figures standing in front of a ragged line of trees in winter.