The Escape

We first meet Raphael Haffner crouching in a wardrobe, "trousers round his ankles, hands nervous at his cream underwear", like a sep­tuagenarian Alexander Portnoy, peering with voyeuristic urgency at a young couple in a hotel bedroom. Haffner is a libertine, a man "kind to his desires", into sex for "all the exorbitant extras", and a curator of female imperfection. No clichéd Casanova, he favours the badly shaved armpit "or a tanning forearm with its swatch of sweat". He is also an admirer of the classics and of The Lives of the Caesars in particular, which provides the novel's historical imagination.

As for plot: Haffner arrives at a hotel in "Hapsburg" Europe to collect an inheritance (some kind of villa from his dead wife). He hides in a ward­robe, he gets a massage, he woos a lady (or does he?). He thinks about his wife, and Romans, a lot. He runs into impenetrable bureaucracy, reconciles with his grandson (maybe), has a fight with Niko (or possibly Viko) and spies on a young woman; at one point, she sits on his face.

The central pulse of the work, and of Thirlwell's mind, soaked in the work of Milan Kundera and Laurence Sterne, is digression. In ever-widening circles, this takes in: north London chic, the great wars, the Holocaust, the nature of Judaism, and women's nipples (which are variously "dark with areolae", adorned with "stained pools of areolae", and "cobbled with cold"). All of this is framed within the circulatory movement of Haffner's mind, and within the nightmare of the 20th century - the century of great hatreds, pogroms and the gas chambers - from which he desperately wants to awake.

His Judaism also weighs upon him. For Haffner, to be Jewish in Britain is to have "the East . . . always making its demands on you: the grief of its history entered your life", though a British Jew is someone "who instead of no longer going to church no longer goes to synagogue". Neither British nor Jewish, he does finally achieve an (unwanted) escape - from the weight of belonging. In this, he is inescapably a Jew.

Towards the end of the novel, after Haffner has been made to watch a girl piss, he faces his own inability to achieve total sexual liberation. Because there is a weight here, too, one that counters the centrifugal force of his appetites: his dead wife, Livia. He is the custodian of her memory, and in the end not a bad one.

The Escape has caused a tepid furore with its postscript's shy announcement that the book contains "quotations, some of them slightly adapted" from no fewer than 49 assorted cultural figures. At times, the effect is pleasing; at others, less so (his Tolstoy thuds into the earth: "all photo albums are unhappy . . . in their own particular way"). But Thirlwell is a buoyant stylist, and he carries the baggage of tightly packed allusion with a sprightly air.

Above all, in its delirious fecundity, The Escape is the work of a writer in love with his art. All writers are in a dialogue with their literary forebears; with Thirlwell the chat is constant, like tinnitus in the inner ear of the reader. You are "too busy", says Hamlet to the corpse of Polonius. Of course, Polonius wasn't listening. And neither, thankfully, was Thirlwell.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?