Richard Beard is one of those infuriatingly unclassifiable writers. Not the least of the virtues of this immensely plangent memoir is that he has decided to classify himself. To recap his career: his first novels were influenced by the OuLiPo movement, which prized constraint as a means to develop expression. X20 was a novel in which the protagonist only wrote whenever the craving for one of the 20-a-day cigarettes he had given up came upon him – it is up there with Svevo’s Confessions Of Zeno as a great nicotine novel; and Damascus restricted itself (with a dozen exceptions) to nouns found in one day’s issue of the Times. The Cartoonist was more May 68 than OuLiPo, and featured a daemonic amusement park and possible terror. His next book was an elegy for rugby; he later wrote a brilliant book on cricket, Australia and failure. His next novel, Dry Bones, was a satirical look at relics and what we leave behind, and was followed by an early outlier, Becoming Drusilla about his friend Drew’s transition from male to female. His last two books, Lazarus Is Dead and Acts Of The Assassins were ingenious reimaginings of Biblical stories; one an essay-come-fictive reconstruction, the other a time-mash of contemporary espionage and the fates of the apostles. So where after that?
His new memoir, The Day That Went Missing, is a book of consistent astonishments. On a family holiday in Cornwall in 1978, Richard and his younger brother Nicholas are playing in the sea. A terrible accident happens. Richard and his remaining brothers do not attend the funeral, and immediately the family returns to the rented cottage. The rest is silence. In an act of phenomenal repression, a kind of apotheosis of the stiff upper lip – all the boys are in private school, anatomised here with immense precision – Nicholas becomes unmentionable.
As Beard notes, Nabokov said everyone is at home in their past: but Beard is not, the past is unheimlich, unhomely, eerie. So he begins a kind of familial archaeology, stitching together the few material fragments of Nicholas’s existence, interrogating his own and others’ memories of the boy who didn’t grow up, retracing steps to that catastrophic moment. It is terribly affecting, not just in the horrors of what happened, but the frayed nature of the memories. Of course, remembering isn’t downloading some old internal video file from the brain; it is always recreating the moment, and like an old-fashioned stylus, it wrecks what it plays, it overscores it. There’s nothing re- about remembering.
Beard is excellent on the bathetic little moments of grief. One archetypal story involves his mother going to the butcher’s and ordering six chops; only to realise there are now only five of them. He resists over-analysing but lets the story tell itself. In the aftermath of the tragedy, for example, his mother started to foster and then adopt children. There are moments of humour, such as when Beard is bewildered by the cards the family received in the wake of the accident; but they are outweighed by a terrible honesty.
One hammer-blow, early in the book, comes after Beard has been trying to capture, posthumously, “Nicky’s” character, only to find in one of his schoolbooks that Nicky has done the same to him: whereas brother Jeremy is “Adventurous he’ll be allright” and Timothy is “Very untidy but allright”, one entry reads “Richard Tough and stupid Sporting but silly”.
One of the most impressive things about this most impressive book is Beard’s anxiety that without the tragedy he would never have become a writer; that the death stopped him being “Tough and stupid”. He looks at his work and sees a continual evasion of the story he did not tell, from the drowning in Lazarus Is Dead to the death of the younger sibling in Damascus. I would go further. They were playing cricket on the beach, for example. Beard writes well about the culture of “not-saying”, and OuLiPo is a perfect aesthetic counterpoint to that kind of suppression and repression. The Cartoonist is about a place of nightmare shrouded as holiday, Dry Bones is about fictive pasts reconstructed from skeletal remains. Becoming Drusilla is about dramatic change, and how we talk, or don’t talk, about it. Even his rugby book is about taking the hit and moving on. All his work has been threnodic, in one way or another. It makes me wonder what will come next.
Comparisons are bound to be made to The Day That Went Missing: Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act Of Love, Decca Aitkenhead’s All At Sea, Simon Stephenson’s Let Not The Waves Of The Sea, Joanne Limburg’s forthcoming Small Pieces. But these are books that commemorate, while Beard’s is a book about forgetting, about a very particular amnesia of sorrow.
Beard is one of our most accomplished authors, and this is perhaps his most readerly book, in that it is all about decoding and deciphering, interpreting and imagining. But it is also just stricken. When he, eventually, after nigh on 40 years, first cries on the beach, I dare the reader not to do so as well.
*The Day That Went Missing by Richard Beard, Harvill Secker, £14.99