With A Zero At Its Heart
150 pages • The Friday Project • May 22, 2014 [PB]
Tim Bennett-Goodman reviews
I favourably reviewed Charles Lambert’s Any Human Face for Polari Magazine back in 2012. His latest offering, With a Zero at its Heart, is an exquisitely-produced paperback volume which, though a very different proposition from his earlier novel, I read with equal pleasure. (Vaughan Oliver’s cover and text design made the book a pleasure to look at as well as read.)
With a Zero at its Heart comprises 24 themed chapters, each with 10 numbered paragraphs, each paragraph being composed of exactly 120 words (and, yes, I was particular enough to do a few trial counts to make absolutely certain!).
The 24 chapters, with headings such as Sex, Death and Money, but also, more elusively, Fear, Theft and Hunger, are fragmentary in nature, each 120-word section (or stanza?) acting like tessera completing an elegant mosaic. In fact, their likeness to poetry is striking; they are almost a kind of haiku, whose self-imposed rigidity of form frees both writer and reader to pursue all kinds of unstated, or merely hinted-at, possibilities.
Each heading has a sub-heading which is taken (I suspect not randomly) from one of the following 10 stanzas. So, for example, Nature is sub-titled ‘or, the purposes of Love’ and Correspondence, ‘or, coterminous with the cat’. Lambert’s love of words is apparent throughout and he confesses: “He loves big words, the way they snake and bend,” and later: “He’s ripe for structuralism when it arrives, in its knowing, double-edged way, like palindromes or mirror-writing…” (Small wonder Lambert chose to live and work in Italy from 1976 – England is no country for a self-confessed structuralist.)
The work charts the story of the life (and a life well-lived, I might add) of a man born, like Lambert (and, coincidentally, myself) in 1953. Whether the work is strictly auto-biographical is difficult to say and probably irrelevant anyway. Cumulatively the effect is searingly honest and, as a result, rings emotionally, intellectually and morally true. Indeed, I found it almost unnerving how many sequences mirrored my own life experiences, from boyhood to late middle-age – except, regrettably, Lambert’s living in Italy, which I frankly envy.
The narrator’s life is laid out in seemingly random snippets and the reader has to work to piece the life together in chronological order. But it is by no means hard work – in fact it is a delight. And throughout, one feels oneself in the safe hands of an honest artist and consummate storyteller. The final sentence of the Coda (which I won’t quote for fear of spoiling its effect on the reader) reduced me to tears with its poignancy, hinting at the Venerable Bede writing in the seventh century of the transitory nature of life : ‘The life of man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall…in through one window of the hall and out through another.’