Asunder by Chloe Aridjis: More interested in being than becoming

Asunder communicates its ideas, and their supporting cultural references, subtly and efficiently.

The second novel by London-based author Chloe Aridjis, Asunder appears on its surface to be about quiet contemplation, and how far it is possible to abstract oneself from the dramas and traumas of social interaction. Claiming not to suffer from listlessness or boredom, protagonist Marie has sought out a job (but not a career) as a museum guard at the National Gallery, working there as "I have always been more interested in being than becoming", killing time by trying to guess how long remains before closing without looking at her watch, or ruminating upon the gradual process of paint cracking.

After nine uneventful years, Marie becomes restless. The sad, quiet death of a 68-year-old colleague, felled by a heart attack at work, jolts her into realising that life is slowly slipping away from her. Her friendship with poet Daniel, fired from the Gallery for noisily pacing around, encourages her to think about his unrequited loves and her own brief liaisons "that didn’t threaten the peace", but when he offers to take her to Paris, she struggles with the potential short-term change to her routine, deliberating for days before taking the trip which irrevocably alters her carefully contained world.

"Painters create order from disorder, but the moment that order has been created, the slow march towards disorder begins again", reflects Marie, and her greatest fear, it seems, is of encounters that will change her situation in any way. Like her, Daniel keeps people at a distance, writing to other poets across the world, preferring not to meet them as this always leads to the correspondence shrivelling; Marie wrote to a prisoner who later escaped from Belmarsh, the realisation that he had her address leading her to panic that he would enter her life in a ruinous fashion (as in Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday, about a Bethnal Green housewife whose life is torn apart by this very occurrence). This does not happen, and Marie wonders what became of her penfriend: finally, in Paris, she reaches the uncharacteristic yet inevitable point where she spontaneously breaks out of herself and struggles to connect with an inscrutable stranger.

At its core, Asunder is about time: how slowly it passes, the futility of trying to fight its effects, and generational changes in people and ideas. Besides her memories of vanished shops and her knowledge of different approaches to the restoration of art, Marie often thinks about the history of violence against the suffragettes, as well as her great-grandfather Ted, and the most significant moment of his life as a National Gallery guard, in 1914, when he slipped in trying to catch Mary Richardson, granting her vital seconds to slash Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus in protest against Emmeline Pankhurst’s imprisonment. As a child, Marie heard this story countless times, aware that she was supposed to see Richardson as a criminal but sympathising with her cause, touchingly confessing that "I loved [Ted] just a tiny bit more for not reaching her in time".

Asunder communicates its ideas, and their supporting cultural references, subtly and efficiently. Aridjis is particularly strong on the nature of travel, in London and in general. Her prose is full of deft imagery – such as the way the women "comb the city from [their] hair" on changing into their Gallery uniform – and the moment where Marie becomes aware that she has become "captive to that irrational behaviour in foreign cities when you feel everyone is watching when in reality not a soul has noticed your existence" is especially touching.

The influence of nouveau roman authors such as Marguerite Duras and Nathalie Sarraute, and British counterparts Ann Quin and Christine-Brooke-Rose can be felt in the rarefied focus on the narrator’s interior world, her corresponding observations of the mundane realities of so much human behaviour, and the way in which her narrative slowly builds towards a climax that changes her life without feeling life-changing. As a reminder that life will pass you by if you choose to experience it passively, however, Asunder is far more powerful than it immediately seems.

Protagonist Marie takes a job as a museum guard at the National Gallery. Photograph: Getty Images.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge