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The Confessions of Max Tivoli

By Andrew Sean Greer

Given the beauty of the prose of this novel, which almost cries out to be called well-wrought and delicately nuanced, and effortlessly accomplishes the difficult feat of being both finely tuned yet other-worldly, precise yet ethereal (the style is evidently catching), it is difficult to know where to begin summarising the narrative in a truncated review. That would very nearly spoil things, it seems. For the secret to the success of this novel lies almost entirely in the dandified, disenchanted voice of its most unusual narrator, which harks back to the long, meditative, essayistic style inaugurated by Proust and brought to fruition by Nabokov. This is no small achievement for a contemporary author, since it would be so easy to get it wrong and look stupid, and requires balancing precariously on a tight rope between profundity and parody. And yet, to place the emphasis thus is to denigrate the sad enchantment of the very singular story.

So, what’s it all about, then? ‘We are each the love of someone’s life’ declares Max Tivoli in the opening sentence, and so it proves. Unfortunately, that love is rarely reciprocated. When Max is born in San Francisco in September 1871, he has the external physical appearance of an old, dying man. Yet, as he ages, his body grows younger. If he looks seventy when he’s born, and lives his allotted threescore and ten, then he will die in 1941. His grandmother has the numerals of this year engraved on a gold pendent that he will wear around his neck, as a sort of memento mori, just to remind him. This peculiar condition also means that the only time his body and mind will be in total chronological concord is when he is in and around thirty-five.

 

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Max’s appearance being constantly at variance with his inner life leads to all sorts of complications, as you can imagine, not least among which is the contretemps caused by his falling for fourteen year old neighbour girl Alice when she is fourteen and he a healthy, wholesome, budding boy of seventeen, but looking like a dirty old man of fifty-three. As he writes this memoir, he is forced to endure the indignity of reciting his times tables in primary school, even though he is pushing sixty. ‘Be what they think you are’ is his mother’s advice about how to get through his life, and mostly he heeds her, exceptions occurring in the case of the aforementioned Alice – whom, in a middle-aged guise, he goes on to marry, and later still, in a further deception, becomes her adopted son – and with his lifelong friend, Hughie. Max loved Alice, but Alice really loved Hughie who, in turn, having his own secret, really loved Max. ‘We are each the love of someone’s life’, indeed.

With its atmospheric evocation of turn of the century San Francisco, and an extended road trip reminiscent of Humbert Humbert aimlessly dragging Dolores Haze through the American heartland, these confessions have more than enough to keep your interest from flagging. But its greatest achievement is that far from feeling outré, the irony is that Max’s predicament merely represents our own in extremis: wanting to be older when we are young, and wanting to be younger when we are old.


First published in the Irish Independent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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