Adam Scovell – How Pale the Winter Has Made Us (Influx Press, 2020)
There are two viruses blighting the world right now. The most dangerous by far is the virus of language. It is language that has people feverish pawing at their phone screens, desperately searching for worse, worse, always worse news. It is language that we turn to in order to unburden ourselves; another panicked status, another reference to a doomsday movie. It bursts out of us.
The Freudian anal expulsive tendency. The infant’s desire to mess its nappy, longing for the parental attention that will follow. Our messes validate us. The bigger mess the better. Why else would we stockpile toilet paper?
It is for this reason that Adam Scovell’s new novel might be the perfect novel for our times. It is a novel of avoidance. A protagonist who, faced with the gross dramas of life, prefers to lose herself in art, culture and academic marginalia. It turns ignoring calamity into an art form.
How Pale the Winter Had Made Us tells the story of Isabelle, an academic type who is living in Strasbourg with a disinterested boyfriend when she learns that her father has committed suicide. Her dad, a failed artist living in Crystal Palace, hung himself in a public park. Her hateful mother blames the death on Isabelle, and demands she return to sort out the funeral.
But Isabelle refuses to do that. Her father she remembers as a self-absorbed creature, her mother is narcissistic and demanding. Isabelle, perhaps echoing these family traits, or perhaps transcending them, ignores her mother’s nasty messages and instead sets about exploring Strasbourg.
From here, the novel takes on a flaneurish air. Stuffy domestic drama is set aside as we learn about the young Goethe, Jean Arp’s poetry and the photography of Oliver Franck. The city forms a backdrop to the glittering curate’s eggs of its history.
Most captivating of all is the lesser known second invention of Gutenberg’s. Alongside the printing press, he also developed a special mirror. A tiny, handheld one with a curtain in front. Its purpose was religious, as it promised to “hold” the last image that had been reflected by its surface.
A pilgrim could therefore hold up their Gutenberg mirror to a sacred spectacle and capture its essence within the mirror. The curtain would then be pulled over and its holy essence would be stored for later use.
On one’s sickbed, for example, one might take down a Gutenberg mirror with the essence of Jerusalem in it and bathe in the Holy City’s stored glory while waiting for the quarantine to end.
Isabelle encounters a series of different collectors on her journey. A local antiques merchant introduces her to his great aunty, daughter of a famous botanist. She is joined in a café by an art lecturer whose uncle knew Arp. The local homeless metalhead whose sign reads “1 Euro pour la BOISSON” keeps an intricately inscribed notebook full of lyrics, including some lifted from Goethe.
The novel reminds me of the best moments when reading nouveau romans. The eye for detail is delectable, the objects almost there, present and palpable before you. The tone is fresh and open; pleasingly mannered.
Yet, unlike nouveau romans, which often get boring by page 60, Scovell’s novel contains just enough emotional resonance that we keep on reading. The entrancement lasts. It could not be mistaken for a romantic novel, certainly, but it is anything but dry.
I read it on a rush hour train from Manchester to London. With the viruses, there were only four travellers in the whole thirteen-carriages. I put my feet up in my own private carriage and read the book in one setting.
It is a fantastic book to ignore a pandemic to.
– Joe Darlington