The Escape by Adam Thirlwell

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The Escape by Adam Thirlwell

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Fans of Milan Kundera or Philip Roth will appreciate this clever, well written, melancholic farce of a story, but it's not a novel that engages the reader due to the lack of sympathetic characters.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 336 Date: August 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099539834

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When we first meet seventy-eight year-old Raphael Haffner, he is hiding in a spa hotel closet watching a twenty-something year-old yoga instructor (who knows he's there) having sex with her boyfriend (who doesn't). Haffner is a British, Jewish former banker who is staying at the spa in Central Europe while on a mission to reclaim his dead wife's villa that was confiscated by the Nazis in the war. Thirlwell's narrator, some fifty years younger than Haffner (ie the age of the author), describes the ageing libertine Haffner as lustful, selfish, vain - an entirely commonplace man. Charming.

But it's not really a plot-driven novel. Interspersed with trying to develop two affairs - one with the ever flexible yoga teacher, Zinka, and another with a middle aged, married resident of the spa - with varying amounts of success, are Haffner's recollections about his Jewish childhood in North London, fighting in Africa in the war, his banking career and various loves including his deceased wife, jazz and cricket amongst other things.

I confess to being in two minds about this book. There are bits I enjoyed and bits I found terribly frustrating. Haffner is not a likeable character by any means and, as even one of his friends notes Haffner always thought there was so much more to Haffner than anyone else ever thought. This is a bit of a problem. Haffner is a symbol of the greed and selfishness of modern-day life, but the overall tone of the book is that of a melancholic farce. There's much reflection on a life either lived or wasted, about the beauty of defeat and about escaping (or not) from your past.

On the plus side, the writing is highly intelligent in places, and Thirlwell shows great skill in his use of words, and the sex scenes - often so excruciating to read in novels - are genuinely funny. Thirlwell's first book, 'Politics', gained something of a reputation for its sexual content and clearly this is a subject still very much on the author's mind. I found myself admiring the writing more than enjoying the book though. Partly because of the endless repetition of Haffner's name, I felt that I was kept at a distance from the story rather than being engaged in it.

If the name 'Haffner' has made you think of a similarly named individual (and yes, the joke is made explicit in the book) then this also hints further at the 'cleverness' of the writing. In a postscript to the book, Thirlwell identifies 46 writers from whom the book contains quotations, some of them slightly adapted. This list includes, amongst others Thomas Mann, Groucho Marx, Leo Tolstoy, William Shakespeare and George Eliot. Academically, this is clever but perhaps it accounts for the slightly cold feeling I got from reading the book. In terms of style though, there are hints of several writers who I do like, including Milan Kundera, John Updike's Rabbit and Philip Roth's Portnoy, none of whom feature on Thirlwell's list. Thirlwell's writing isn't derivative as such, but the overriding sense was that he puts me in mind of some great authors without reaching that level himself ....yet.

At one point, the narrator muses but no, just right now, I'm not quite in the mood for Haffner, and his confusions, and I sort of knew what he meant.

Our thanks go to the kind folk at Vintage Books for inviting The Bookbag to review this novel.

Both The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera and Indignation by Philip Roth would make excellent companion reading for this book.

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