If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed me getting quite excited about a lovely package which arrived from Fitzcarraldo Editions; the items were to promote a new title which publishes today, and much as I was delighted with the promo material, the main event for me was of course the book! This is the latest work by Jeremy Cooper, entitled “Brian” and I was intrigued by it from the start.

Cooper has appeared on the Ramblings on two previous occasions, when I reviewed his earlier books “Ash before Oak” and “Bolt from the Blue“. These were both fascinating works, and I was mightily impressed by them and his writing. “Ash…” was something I perceived as autofiction, exploring the life of a man living in the country and coping with his mental health issues. “Bolt” moved into different territory, tracking an artist through the decades of the late 20th century/early 21st, and her relationship to her mother and her art. “Brian” takes another different tangent, charting as it does the life of the titular Brian via his relationship with film – and it’s one of the most absorbing and unforgettable books I’ve read this year.

Brian, as it is immediately clear, is an outsider. He lives a simple and solitary life, working at Camden Council; he has lunch every day at Il Castelleto cafe; and lives on his own in a small flat on Kentish Town Road. He is a man contained and controlled; his life constructed to avoid upset and triggers; and he might well be what would be described as neurodivergent nowadays. As we meet him, he’s about to make one of the biggest decisions of his life; a lover of film, he joins the BFI so that he can see a particular movie, and this will gradually change things for him.

With no personal life as such, no friends or family to hand, Brian is nervous about anything which takes him out of his routine. However, his first attendance at the BFI is a success and as he makes repeat visits he falls in with a group of regulars, fellow film buffs who routinely go to see movies there, sharing their thoughts on these works. This process, like everything else involving Brian, is a gradual one, but eventually he becomes accepted as a one of the buffs, and continues to expand his film appreciation and knowledge. No real dramatic changes will happen to Brian; but he will have lived a satisfactory life.

If that sounds a little, well, straightforward, be assured that this book really is not so and is as brilliantly put together as Cooper’s previous books. Why *is* Brian so solitary, you might ask? Well, the reader never quite gets the full story, but the narrative gradually does reveal elements from his past and his Irish backround which explain much of his personality and his need for close control over himself and his life. The book is a gradual progression through a life, punctuated with events in the world to help the reader anchor themselves and Brian barely registers the passing of time in the real world around him as he has such a tightly disciplined existence. There *is* trauma in his past and background, but this is only partially and carefully revealed – for example, we don’t even learn his second name until half way through the book.

However, the main element to the book could well be Brian’s relationship to film and how important it is to him. Prior to joining the BFI, he tended to sit in front of the TV with a cuppa in the evenings; after joining, his life has a focus, and he follows his interests in film, particularly from Japanese directors, exploring a wide and rich cultural landscape. Despite the muted nature of Brian’s existence, there is a sense of a life lived and enriched by film; and his fragile yet important friendships with his fellow buffs, particularly Jack, give him a sense of belonging.

As I mentioned, the book covers quite a period of time, which I didn’t always notice passing as I was reading; though allusions to certain world events did give sudden reminders, as well as things like a reference to someone seeing Brian as a mild, middle-aged man. As the book draws to a close, we see Brian approaching his twilight years yet taking an important step and it’s a surprisingly positive way to end his story.

I’ve commented above the importance of film to Brian, and there is one major aspect of the book which shines through, and that’s the art of the movie. You see, this book not only tells the story of a life, it also functions as a rather lovely book of film criticism! Built seamlessly into the narrative are commentaries on films and directors, which Brian and buffs share, and so you actually learn quite a lot about the history of movies from reading the book. I found this particularly interesting and actually very effective, because the discussions which the buffs have, and Brian’s thoughts on films, come across as very genuine and give you what feels like actual responses to films and directors.

At the heart of the book, thought, is that story of a life and somehow Brian’s tale really got under my skin. I was completely absorbed in Cooper’s narrative (as I have been with all of his books) and I felt it was wonderful how he conveyed the importance of *every* life, however simple it might seem. Whether we’re seeing Brian make tentative moves to join the group, controlling his interactions with his work colleagues, or simply sharing regular lunchtime contact at the cafe over the years, his life matters. And as well as the story of that life, this book is also a tribute to film and art, and how essential it can be in making a person’s existence richer.

The book and the goodies!

Cooper’s books and his writing are unique; I haven’t really read anything quite like this and although it tells of a mainly interior experience, it’s quite beautiful and wide ranging. Oddly, the only comparison I can make is with Cooper’s own earlier work, “Bolt from the Blue”, which again is something of a biography, but this time through the lens of art over the decades. However, the similarities are in the main superficial, as the format, writing and characterisation are very different in both works – I just found it interesting that Cooper chose to tell these stories in relation to a creative process.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started reading “Brian”, but I was anticipating something special as I love Cooper’s writing so much. And I wasn’t disappointed. The book had a number of resonances for me anyway, as I was something of a solitary teenager, spending much of time at the local fleapit watching whatever film was on that week. And I know and love both the South Bank and the Camden area at either end of the Northern Line! That aside, however, the life of Brian, a simple man with a simple existence, proves how the everyday can be constantly enriched by the presence of art, and that’s a message we need to remember in these times when the arts are under fire from all sides. “Brian” is a remarkable book which will really stay with me; I’m still processing my thoughts about it a while after finishing it; and if you like fiction which makes you think, I can highly recommend this (or indeed any of Jeremy Cooper’s books) – wonderful!

(Review book – and goodies! – kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)