Reviewed: Mimi by Lucy Ellmann

Under the skin.

Mimi
Lucy Ellmann
Bloomsbury Circus, 352pp, £12.99

The ground beneath our feet is shaky territory for the narrator of Lucy Ellmann’s excellent sixth novel. Harrison Hanafan, an eminent New York plastic surgeon, is walking down Madison Avenue one Christmas Eve when he slips on ice, thereby transplanting himself instantaneously “from the lofty, vertical and intellectual to . . . the lowly and prostrate”.

The irony of having a position of high social status but low morality is explored throughout with great humour. “In Manhattan a man without an upright position hasn’t got a chance,” complains Hanafan, who subsequently wallows in his literal downfall. Yet he is rescued and helped to his feet again by a “plump middle-aged gal with brown eyes” – this is Mimi, a feisty feminist going through the menopause who will, throughout the novel, be not only a physically but also a morally uplifting corrective to Hana­fan’s life.

The plastic surgeon has attempted to shape the contours of his world with the same precision as his knife slicing along flesh; he is, for example, a ferocious list-maker. Among Hanafan’s many lists is a “list of melancholy things”, which is his “life’s work”. There’s a tension between his list-making and what fails to make it on to his lists, a conflict between the attempt to craft and order life and its stubborn insistence on eluding our delineations.

Ellmann unfolds the narrative with aplomb as Hanafan’s romance with Mimi takes him on an emotional journey while he re-evaluates his life. Ellmann’s anger at the mistreatment and subordination of women simmers powerfully throughout her previous five novels; the difference here is that she has channelled that rage through another stylistic device: a male perspective. The reader sees all of Hanafan’s folly and foibles, yet there is also a sense of hope about the possibility of real change – not the superficial changes to the surfaces of human bodies that Ellmann satirises so acutely but psychological and emotional metamorphosis.

This novel is a dissection of what it means to be human and its portraits of human beings are thrown into high relief by sharing the pages with cartoon characters and animals. Hanafan spends his evenings organising his cartoon collection alphabetically, from Alvin and the Chipmunks to Yogi Bear: “Well, what of it? What’s a plastic surgeon supposed to do after a hard day’s work realigning human flesh, if not chill out to scenes of imaginary animals getting punched, stretched, bounced up and down, steamrollered, blown to smithereens, and reborn good as new?” He will learn what it really means to be “reborn”. There is a rescue cat (“The cat really knew how to live!”). There is a sister called Bee. There is pontification on “the heroism of an ant”.

Ellmann’s work is characterised by a delightfully playful style, experimenting with the boundaries of form and the visual layout of writing, and is scattered with capitals and exclamation marks and italics. Here, she liberally uses italics – the full force of emotion pressed against words – as well as pages of music scores. The rich layering of literary and artistic references adds depth to this portrait of shallow lives. In exuberant, exhilarating prose that carries a substantial cargo of humour and wit, this cutting social satire anatomises an era and, by focusing on a man who alters human bodies, offers an X-ray of the curious workings of the mind.

 

“In Manhattan a man without an upright position hasn’t got a chance." Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times