By Altair Brandon-Salmon
Ash Before Oak
Jeremy Cooper, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019
Imagine waking up in the night, your mind suddenly alive, cutting through the fog of sleep, and you need to write down a song that has come to you in your slumber. John Phillips had heard a tune and he had to tell his wife Michelle; between them, they wrote down the lyrics:
All the leaves are brown
And the sky is grey
I’ve been for a walk
On a winter’s day
I’d be safe and warm
If I was in L.A.
This is the opening verse of ‘California Dreamin’’, composed in the bitter New York winter of 1963. The Phillips would go on to form the folk rock group The Mamas and the Papas, the song charting in 1965. Its haunting, melancholic quality not only captures the desire to be in another place (and to be in another state of mind), but equally communicates the freezing cold which grips the narrator.
I have been pondering this wonderful, mysterious song since I moved from England to northern California. If Palo Alto is not quite Los Angeles, then it seems to share in its oppressively glorious environment. The skies are an immaculate light blue, as though painted by Tiepolo, only a few wispy clouds allowed to spoil the firmament. The air is dry, burnt to taste, very still, letting the horn of the trains passing nearby carry for miles. In its perfection, I long for flaws. If Philip’s dream is to move to L.A., then Jeremy Cooper’s extraordinary meditation Ash Before Oak makes me yearn for my homeland of Somerset, where ‘the leaves are brown… and the sky is grey’.
The Mendip Hills in Somerset, where I spent the first eighteen years of my life, is the central focus of Cooper’s nature diary, a kind of summation of the many different tones of life in that large, rural county. Yet the book is not just a diary: it is a novel, a stealth autobiography, a character study, a mature work of nature writing. It is all these things simultaneously, with each facet emphasised at varying moments. This plurality of forms does not distract, however, from its precise capturing of a rhythm of life; it feels distant from me now, but I can remember it intensely. Even Cooper’s memories (created or not) seem to merge with mine.
Ash Before Oak has been published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, the small, experimental publishing house run by Jacques Testard, founder of The White Review. The book won their inaugural novel competition, although, as we shall see, its categorisation as ‘fiction’ is a provocative tease on Cooper’s part. Cooper is an art historian and dealer, having initially appeared on Antiques Roadshow in the nineteen-eighties and more recently curated the 2019 exhibition at the British Museum, 'The World Exists to Be Put on a Postcard', featuring his collection of artists’ postcards. He has also written four previous novels, including 1998’s The Folded Lie. So it would be a mistake to think he was a novice writer and, indeed, Ash Before Oak reveals Cooper at the height of his powers.
The book is without chapters and is instead structured as a series of diary entries, at times dated in rapid succession, at other times left with gaps of weeks and months. Entries are rarely longer than a page and frequently are a mere paragraph, or a stray sentence, meaning the work takes on the quality of a commonplace book. The author records stray thoughts, musings, and reflections on what he sees through his window, small occurrences, which, brought together, form the pattern of his life in the village of Lower Terhill, near the Quantock Hills. An early entry, dated 9 September, reads
there is a robin here which sings to itself. Like a person humming, audible only when close by. An affecting sound, muted, the bird’s throat throbbing, its beak closed.
So much of the book could be read in this vein, as a close reflection on the contemporary pastoral and on this level alone, it works beautifully. Lines such as ‘radishes from the garden, washed and left to dry on the white sink leave behinds drops of pale lilac water of an astonishing hue’, are moving in their simplicity, every word chosen with great care and precision. Yet slowly, and even surprisingly, a narrative does emerge from the accumulation of entries and their cascades of details.
The narrator struggles deeply, painfully, with depression. Indeed, the reason he is in Somerset is to escape from his former bohemian life amongst artists in London, to try and recover a sense of self. Nature is deeply connected to this slow process of recovery – ‘I go on and on about birds. What am I actually saying?’ he wonders at one point.
The novel is orientated around a suicide attempt made around a fourth of the way through the diary. The ordinariness of Cooper’s language makes it all the more disturbing: ‘lay naked this afternoon in a hot bath with a Stanley knife to my wrist and tried and tried to cut and plunge and twist.’ The clipped sentences recall his descriptions of birds and trees and butterflies, the bucolic and the horrific mixed together. They are inseparable.
What began as an ambling nature diary turns into a narrative of recovery; eventually, the narrator travels to New Zealand to spend time with his sister. It’s not a climax, nor is it a resolution of his trauma; Cooper knows nothing is so simple, and his narrator relates, after returning to Lower Terhill, that ‘it is not the place itself which hurts, this I now know, learnt by spending these two months in New Zealand. There is no escape.’ For now though, he concludes that he’ll keep on living. That feels like a victory, no matter how tentative.
Cooper is clearly writing, almost responding, to W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, another blend of memoir and novel written in an experimental style. Sebald, a professor at the University of East Anglia in the nineteen-nineties, wrote a number of books which straddle history, fiction, and autobiography, the boundaries always blurred. The Rings of Saturn opens in hospital, where Sebald is recovering from being ‘in a state of almost total immobility’, and remembers his travels on foot across Suffolk the previous year. Cooper’s narrator claims Sebald is ‘my current favourite amongst living writers,’ and goes on to quote from Austerlitz. Both writers use the idea of exploring southern English countryside as a way to explore inner states of mind. A late scene in Ash Before Oak in particular seems written in the spirit of Sebald: the narrator visits an old friend in Belgium who is blind and approaching death. It is a wonderful series of diary entries, shot through with mourning and understanding of decay and loss: ‘he’s old, unwell, we know that we may never see each other again’. Sebald is perhaps an obvious touchstone for contemporary literature, but in Cooper’s deployment of the diary form, he complements rather than imitates him.
The other important ‘Sebaldian’ touch is the use of photographs. Cooper scatters throughout black and white images of Lower Terhill. They are muted and prosaic, rather than trying to capture the sublime effects of nature. Yet because they are so simple, they are strangely moving. One shows a goat settled down in the grass as the sun rises through a line of trees, casting long shadows across the tufts of grass. We can make out a few details such as fencing, and there appears to be a barn, partially obscured by the copse. The greyscale, printed on the matte paper, promises and withholds detail, turning the photograph into a mysterious image to dwell over, like the diary entries which surround it. This is similar to Sebald’s strategy for photography in his own books, where they hide as much as reveal, raise as many questions as they answer, and as in his novel Austerlitz, lend a false credence to the fiction unfolding before us.
Is Ash Before Oak fiction? Near the end of the diary, the narrator references novels he has previously written which match Cooper’s; the narrator is friends with real artists; the specifics of his biography (what snatches are related to us) seem to marry to Cooper’s. Perhaps this is a memoir after all.
Yet such questions seem to miss the point, because the novel wishes to defy classification and not be bound by genre – like nature, the book is multifarious and knows no limits. By transcending such categories, Cooper is liberated to portray the intertwining of a man’s mental illness with the environment around him. The deep, intense insight into his inner turmoil has a universal power.
As I write this, I can see the trees which border my apartment block and a patch of immaculate blue sky, as though a child had spilled a pot of Prussian blue paint across my window. The leaves don’t turn grey here until much later than in England; and the sky lacks the varied melodrama of Somerset storms. Cooper’s narrator writes at length in his 9 November entry on what he can see from his writing desk:
the leaves on the oak look green still with the sun behind, though I know that many have fallen and that the green I think I see is closer, from a different angle, to the golden yellow of autumn.
My leaves are olive green but look black when silhouetted against the sky. When will they turn brown? I wonder to myself. I find myself returning to Ash Before Oak, dipping in and out, reading the entries which fall on the date that I happen to pick the book up on, to trace a world and a form of life I’ve left behind. As a commonplace book it seems almost as moving as a diary of depression. It leaves me dreaming of going ‘for a walk / On a winter’s day’.
ALTAIR BRANDON-SALMON is writing a PhD on ruins at Stanford University. He is very scared of losing his English accent.
Art by Isabella Lill