Vertu Come Home
Timoleon Vertu distrusts the Bosnian—rightly. The Bosnian hates the dog and imposes on Cockcroft to get rid of it. Cockcroft, ignobly, obliges and they ditch the dog outside the Coliseum in Rome but the dog is truly faithful to his master, and, in the second half of the novel, winds its way home to its unworthy master.
Up to this midway point the novel has a bitter and teasing complexity to it, tracing Cockcroft’s past, and his present infatuation, with merciless accuracy, but the title of Rhodes’s novel parodies that of Lassie Come Home. We expect to follow the dog on its journey home and, perhaps, learn how Cockcroft repents of his mistake, but these are minor elements in the book’s second half. The novel becomes, instead, a series of anecdotes concerning characters that the dog either meets or passes by. The dog’s journey is merely parenthetical to these anecdotes. Rhodes would not be the first contemporary writer encouraged to write novels when the short story is that writer’s most natural form but these episodes are not as shaped or as satisfying as Rhodes’s previous short stories. Their appearance and effect becomes mechanical and the novel shudders jerkily to its conclusion. The mystery of the Bosnian’s past is revealed clumsily—and not quite credibly—and Timoleon Vertu’s fidelity is rewarded less kindly than some of its readers may think the dog—or they—deserve.
The novel survives these flaws because it is, finally, not interested in being liked. More precisely, it is not interested in being loved. Rhodes is a heartless writer and that is what makes him so interesting—radical even.
His previous work—Anthropology, a series of 101 word stories and the collection, Don’t Tell me the Truth About Love—had real charm. They had echoes of Calvino and of that Grimm quality in the tales of Isak Dinesen. They also had the quirkiness and variety of something like Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs and a wry morbidity, too, that was very appealing. They seemed modern but ageless. They revealed an amusing distrust of romance as well as a profound addiction to it. Formally exquisite, they were also witty and authoritatively told. One of them, 'The Violoncello,' is as satisfying a short story as an English writer has managed in recent years.
Although this novel shares with his previous work the same cool, almost classical style—a style that is rhythmic and balanced and yet, amazingly, manages a headlong pace—this novel risks far more. It risks being dislikeable.
I think that’s why this book has Lassie Come Home as its ghost. It is not just a joke, it’s also critique—and it’s the reader who is being criticized.
E. M. Knight’s Lassie Come Home is far better than its reputation—or the famous film based on it—suggests. It is tougher and more politically engaged than popular memory allows, however what interests Rhodes, I suspect, is not Knight’s novel but, rather, the sentimentality we associate with it. Rhodes is interested in how sentimentality is essentially selfish and disfiguring.
Timoleon Vertu Come Home is a sentimental novel that does not believe in sentiment—or does not value it. It is a love story that has no faith in the redemptive power of love. Love, in this novel, is not one bit loving. In this novel true love, if such there were, is found in the dog but its love for its owner is misplaced and its journey ends in violent disappointment. Cockcroft does not love his dog. He enjoys, rather, the notion of loving his dog. If the sentimental lover has a love object it is himself alone.
It is the idea of love we love, and ourselves for believing in it. This was, for me, the message behind Rhodes’s previous work and here the ambivalence about it in his previous work is jettisoned—bravely, I believe. He writes what looks like light comedy or romance. He offers sugar and then feeds us bile. He dares to deal with readers less than lovingly. He asks them to attend to characters they need not like and then presents them with a conclusion that resolutely does not reward them for reading to the end. Like the dog, the reader’s fidelity here is not repaid but punished.
It is this heartlessness that is radical. Rhodes offers all the appeal of a well-told tale. He is funny and astute but his embrace turns into a push, his caress into a slap. The novel ends not with a sentimental sigh but a spasm of disgust and then a careless disregard.
It’s a stunning effect but this reader was never sufficiently engaged by the characters and, like the writer, kept a critical distance from them and so, while impressed, I was unmoved and unsurprised and, for Rhodes’s tactics to work, I would have to be all three.
Timoleon Vertu Comes Home, while not completely achieved, does feel like the next step in Rhodes becoming a thoughtful and more unsettling writer. It does not surprise me that Rhodes’s original publishers suspended publication. It may well have been the novel’s stance, not its literary quality, that disconcerted them. They may have been intrigued by the prospect of a modern take on a schmaltzy classic without realizing what that might mean in the hands of a truly bold writer. Metropolitan publishers don’t know what to do with books that are not craven in their appeal to a reader. As with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which they also rescued, the Scottish based Canongate came to Rhodes’s rescue and I am glad of it. In contemporary British fiction, the rare writer who dares upset his reader is to be valued.
And Rhodes is valued, of course. He was recently proclaimed one of Granta’s Top Twenty Young British Novelists but, about the same time, he announced his retirement as a writer. Whether he means this or not, it is likely that the trick of upsetting expectations is one he will continue to practice.