Naturally, his pillow talk is all about insects...

Lobster Moth by Niall Duthie, Fourth Estate, £16.99, pp306

Gilmerton, the soldier protagonist of Niall Duthie's book, is holed up in hospital in the First World War, recuperating from shell wounds before returning to be killed. He opens with a proposal for a book compiled of a series of 10-minute snatches - in the manner of a pillow book, the form preferred by ladies of the Japanese court as a medium in which to 'capture the essence of a firefly'; miscellaneous 'writings, lists, likes, dislikes, anecdotes and diaritic notes'.

Duthie intersperses Gilmerton's sickbed meditations with the ramblings of an actor, David Orr, who is preparing to play Gilmerton in a present-day film, poring over the pillow books in the most Antony Sher-like of part-preparations, hoping by psychic osmosis to emerge a faithful copy.

Gilmerton's range is enticing: the topics proposed include 'an historical venture, the shift of a word, the growth of an etymological crystal'; 'waking from a tangled dream and, while waiting, watching the dream shapes calmly moving off to continue elsewhere'; 'the description and life history and distribution of the [invented] Lobster Moth.'

Gilmerton seems to straddle eras - a promising young Cambridge scientist, named by some as the Keats of science, killed before his experiments became decisive, yet referring continually, in his letters to his sister, to a mildly eccentric, mildly privileged late-Victorian childhood, in which the languid gardens of their comfortable house afforded endless collecting terrain.

By contrast, Orr's minutiae-flecked attention to the motions of his own day, his love of propounding the actor's ritual, are troubled by the question of when biography becomes 'postmortem exploitation' - as Henry James referred to the business. The discovery of a letter from a friend of Gilmerton's to an earlier prospective biographer, a starchy type called Gardner Price, suggests that any attempt to unravel Gilmerton travesties its subject. Does it not, asks the letter writer, 'strike you that a biography can hardly avoid combining monument and complaint, something he would have loathed with all his soul?'

From the evidence, cannily presented in Frayn-ish switches between backstage bickering and film action, the biopic itself seems likely to be a very tense-moments-over-tea-in-Merchant-Ivory-Manor affair. Orr's Gilmerton is a proponent of bland Victorian selflessness, mischievously passing his convalescence nibbling at caterpillars, delivering disquisitions on Chekhov while having the bloody mass of his lungs dressed.

Duthie poses the question with elegant subtlety - why rediscover or unearth? Orr seems finally to be castigated for refusing to contend with the possibility that the lost of history could need no re-summoning - they were brilliant in their way, but would have abhorred commemoration, believing in their comparative insignificance before the wealth of 'natural secrets'.


Joanna Griffiths

The GuardianTramp

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