MERIVEL: A MAN OF HIS TIME
By Rose Tremain
Chatto & Windus, $29.95
SIR Robert Merivel, the Everyman anti-hero of Rose Tremain's celebrated Restoration, is back. That 1988 novel was Tremain's response to Thatcherism, a historical correlative that focused on the reign of Charles II, the era that began, Samuel Pepys wrote, ''with a clap of laughter''.
In it, she charted the rise and fall of Merivel, a Cambridge-educated physician, but also something of a
17th-century wideboy, the lower middle-class son of a glovemaker who gained the favour of the King through his ability to save the life of one of Charles' spaniels and because he made the King laugh.
Although always a complex mix of the dandy, the serious and the socially aware, the Merivel of Restoration was to a large extent the King's fool, who, in a paper marriage, agreed to wed Charles' mistress in return for a country manor. But when he made the fatal mistake of falling in love with his wife, he was banished from the manor and fell into the poverty-stricken, dark side of the glittering Restoration world. And it was at this point that his life's education really began.
There are still significant traces of the old Merivel in the sequel, Merivel: A Man of His Time, with wenches, pheasants and wine in plentiful supply. But he is 57 and both Merivel and his Age are entering their twilight years.
Apart from a few clunky scenes at the beginning in which Tremain explains to readers unacquainted with Restoration the key events so far (something in the manner of trailers in a two-part television series), Merivel is a highly polished work, an astute combination of the entertaining, lively and thoughtful. A reminder that art doesn't have to make its points ponderously.
Crucial to this is the narrative voice, one that invokes the times but is also coming from a 21st-century perspective, for Merivel is, in many ways, a modern man - an atheist (he relinquished any notion of God and order after the sheer arbitrariness of his parents' deaths in a house fire) who doesn't look for meaning in any religious sense, but in a more existentialist one: in what we do, Merivel ultimately devoting himself to a long study of the souls of animals.
In this way, voice and character drive the novel, and although it incorporates the picaresque romp and the yarn - often as not ripping along like a speeding carriage - it is also very much concerned with what D. H. Lawrence called the ''age-old business of serious living''.
The year is 1683, Merivel is back in the King's favour, he has been re-installed at Bidnold, his country manor, and all is well. Then his daughter Margaret - from an extramarital relationship in Restoration, and who is very much his reason for being - is invited by a neighbouring family to spend the summer in Cornwall. Merivel consents to this, but he will be alone. To take his mind off things he decides upon a trip to France, carrying with him a letter of introduction recommending him to Louis XIV as a court physician.
In a matter of a few pages we are plunged into the heat, dust and chaos of Versailles under construction. There he meets Louise de Flamanville, the ardent but unhappy wife of a colonel in the Swiss Guards. She whisks him off to Paris (where her tailor can have him fitted out to meet the French king) and he is invited to stay at her mansion. They discover a mutual interest in botany. Being in such immediate proximity and with such a lot to talk about, they begin ''seeing'' each other - and, in no time, are seeing each other's brains out. Until the colonel returns.
Separation, sickness, a duel and much more follow, and although the two find brief happiness in Switzerland, it doesn't last. Merivel is, above all, a man of his times and his times are in decline. The party is over. The clap of laughter that announced it fades into silence and mortality casts its shadow over the festivities. It is now 1685 and the King is dying. Merivel, whose fortunes have been tied to the King's, contemplates the end. He was a man of his times, but now other times, other kings and other Merivels will succeed him.
It is a poignant and moving ending. And while Merivel is self-contained, read with Restoration, Tremain creates a vivid and lingering portrait of an era in all its excess, clutter, crassness, cruelty and greed. Emerging from this is its Everyman, an honourable, flawed but deeply human figure who both epitomises his time and rises above the worst of it.
■Steven Carroll won the Miles Franklin award in 2008 for The Time We Have Taken.