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October 7, 2013 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Max Gate, by Damien Wilkins

Novelist Thomas Hardy is dying. Upstairs, the dog—Wessex—is sleeping outside his door, holding vigil for his master. Downstairs, his friends, museum curator Sydney Cockerell and Peter Pan’s J. M. Barrie; family, his second wife Florence Hardy, his brother, sister, and sister-in-law, and servants gather, to wait out his last day. Outside the gate, Alex Peters, local journalist, lingers, waiting for the scoop.

We encounter Max Gate—Thomas Hardy’s Dorset home—through the eyes of Nellie Titterington, one of two maids of the house. The bulk of the novel covers just a few days: Hardy’s death and its immediate aftermath, although there are glimpses into the past and future. The household is in a state of flux; everyone is simply waiting for Hardy to die, and this comes through in the writing. We’re stuck at Max Gate, but this is a good and useful thing.

Perhaps reflecting Hardy’s long life (he was 88 when he died) and his strange bridging of the Victorian and Modernist eras, there is an interesting use of time throughout the novel. We move seamlessly from past to present (or vice versa), sometimes within the same scene. Nellie has two points in time—the day of Hardy’s death and a more contemporary date—in which she speaks in present tense, but Hardy’s death is also sometimes referred to in past tense.

There is a strange mixing between reflective and forward-looking tones; occasionally, the characters ruminate on Hardy’s past, occasionally on their own futures without him, and occasionally Nellie, from the present, reflects on the past, or talks from the past with an awareness of her own future. This gives a sense of the novel being out of time, which is interesting considering that the novel’s preoccupation—death—is so inherently a fixed moment in time. It seems, though, that outside of the moment of Hardy’s death, time is amorphous, and the constant anticipation of and reflection on this event serve to magnify this moment’s importance, bringing it far out of the one day which constitutes much of the novel’s scope.

Which is indicative of Hardy’s position in the novel. His influence is hard to ignore, and yet he is strangely absent. While most, if not all, of the conversations centre around him, Hardy himself is relegated to just a dying figure in the upstairs bedroom. There are constant discussions—mostly between Florence, Barrie and Cockrell—about his work and legacy, but the academic tone which is often employed makes it seem like he’s already dead. In this way, Wilkins brings in questions and worries about the artistic legacy, deftly exploring the public/private divide in every writer’s life.

The novel works by parataxis; there is an almost poetic movement from one scene or image to another, with little indication of why. We are given fragments of moments, arrive in medias res, and snatches of dialogue are reported as if distantly overheard. It’s utterly beautiful and, especially given the prevalence of natural imagery, feels appropriate to Hardy’s legacy.

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