Less by Andrew Sean Greer (First published in the USA by Lee Boudreaux Books 2017)

lessAs a picaresque, comic novel this, at first glance, appears to be an unlikely winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Yet, although there are moments of high farce, there is a serious message behind the humour.

It is the bitter-sweet tale of Arthur Less, who is about to turn 50 and is described as “an author too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered”. He is far from being a failure but a long way from being the success he once dreamed of. He is a single gay man whose most significant of numerous relationships was with a Pulitzer prize-winning poet who is now gravely ill.

Aside from this, Less has recently ended a relationship with a younger man on such amicable terms that he has been invited to his ex’s wedding. Anxious to avoid this, he devises a plan.

He decides to say yes to a long list of invitations to talk about his own fiction and his friendship with his more famous poet/lover. This takes him to Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco and India. Greer has great fun showing this American trying, and usually failing, to come to terms with a catalogue of culture shocks.

Along the way there is some sound advice for would-be novelists (“Boredom is essential for writers; it is the only time they get to write”) and a wonderful description of what it feels like to get old with death looming ever nearer: “It’s like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won’t ever be back.”

Greer has made no secret of his admiration for Marcel Proust and while his novel is significantly shorter and more modest in scope that the Frenchman’s magnum opus, ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’, it’s evident that the themes of memory, nostalgia and regret are present in both works.

By the end, Arthur Less reflects on the loss of “his lover, his dignity, his beard, his suit, and his suitcase” but he has also learnt how fine the line is between tragedy and comedy.

Primarily, through his anti-hero Greer seems to be warning against living in the past since by dwelling upon things we have or haven’t achieved it’s all too easy to forget how to live in the present.

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