Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Paul Torday and his Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce

In the Internet Age it's become all too easy to discover everything about the latest book, film, or TV series, and thereby burst the aesthetic bubble. If I'm so enthralled that I don't go looking for the filmographies of the cast of Borgen - or the biography of Paul Torday - then I know I've struck gold. In recent years Torday's novels with their embossed pastel covers and wry titles have drawn me in so completely that I didn't know anything about their creator, until I read his obituary in the Guardian just before Christmas. I had just picked up The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce.

Torday's richly textured writing, I discovered, was mirrored by an eclectic family background and working life. His father migrated to Britain from Hungary as a child, trained as a physicist, and seemingly propelled the Oxbridge English-reading Paul into a career in industry. Torday's grit and hard graft are identifiable both in his professional survival of the family firm's subsequent misfortune, and in his capacity, much later, to drive after a lifetime's creative ambition by writing a novel every year following his cancer diagnosis.

The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce appeared at roughly the same time that Torday was diagnosed - a year after his bestselling debut, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Wilberforce chronicles the decline of a connoisseur alcoholic. We watch as he channels loneliness into his business, falls in with a group of friends above his station, discovers wine, goes after someone else's girl, and proceeds to sabotage and delude himself into losing everything he loves - via 'tasting' five bottles of wine a day.

Wilberforce's sombre, pensive tone was perhaps creatively cathartic for an author whose sudden success was counterpointed equally suddenly by serious ill-health; yet the lightness of touch and subtle humour that impresses readers of Salmon Fishing or The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers permeates Wilberforce's often poignant pages. It's a sad book, as Torday has crafted a damaged, dogged titular character who is blind to his own emptiness; but the author's skill is such that it's never heavy-handedly bleak. Wilberforce is a compassionate homage both to wine, and to human weakness.

It's also typically bewitching. Julia Langdon writes that Torday 'wanted to find what he termed the "ultimate story", one that would bewitch readers, and he went on writing compulsively because he was still trying to find out what it was.' His many readers testify to the success of his enterprise.