Arthur Less is about to turn fifty, he has let his friend Freddie Pelu marry someone else, and his latest novel has been knocked back by his publisher. To help him cope with this and other existential questions he decides to accept all the offers in his bottom drawer: a Writer’s Festival in Mexico, the guest teaching spot in a German University, the review of kaiseki cuisine in Japan, the writer’s retreat in India. Along the way we learn about his childhood and relationships, as well as his hilarious misadventures in various countries. For our hero is something of a fall guy; if some kind of ridiculous misadventure is to occur it will happen to him. His luggage is lost, his best blue suit is eaten by a dog, he spends his birthday night alone when all his fellow travellers are struck by illness, the resort he is booked to spend time writing is in a very noisy Christian Retreat Centre.
Less has spent a great part of his life in love and living with a great poet, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet:
For he has known genius. He has been awakened by genius in the middle of the night, by the sound of genius pacing the halls; he has made genius his coffee, and his breakfast, and his ham sandwich and his tea; he has been naked with genius, coaxed genius from panic, brought genius’s pants from the tailor and ironed his shirts for a reading.
During these years he has started writing himself and until now, his books have been published, but nothing can shift his self-doubt.
At a festival in Italy
More thunder unsettles Less from his thoughts. But it isn’t thunder; it is applause, and the young writer is pulling at Less’s coat sleeve. For Arthur Less has won.
And what is his reaction? That his novel has been…
super-translated, his novel given to the unacknowledged genius of a poet (Guiliana Monti is her name) who worked his mediocre English into breathtaking Italian.
Less is an engaging character, if sometimes annoyingly over self-deprecating. As he travels, and these travels are beautifully evoked, he constantly reflects on life, love and aging. His life with Robert, his time with Freddie, and where to go now, a gay man just turning fifty?
Here he is confronted by memories in his last restaurant in Japan
He takes careful note of what is on his plate. But he cannot taste it. Why have these memories been brought out here in Japan-the orange scarf, the garden- like a yard sale of his life? Has he lost his mind? The butter bean, the mugwort, the scarf, the garden; is this not a window but a mirror? Two birds are quarrelling in the fountain. Again, as he did as a boy, he can only look on. He closes his eyes and begins to cry.
A funny sad thoughtful book by a wonderful writer who is quite new to me. Andrew Sean Greer was awarded the 2108 Pulitzer Prize for Less. Highly recommended.
(And when you read it keep an eye on the narrator.)