‘In fiction you’re free’ says Melyvn Bragg, ‘but if you’re lucky you get the truth’
Melvyn Bragg is famous as a broadcasting polymath, but his new autobiographical novel is a reminder of his literary talents
Filial devotion: Melvyn Bragg with his mother, Mary, who had Alzheimer’s disease and died last year
S ixyears ago, Melvyn Bragg learned that his mother had Alzheimer’s disease. Hoping to stem the tide of illness, he began to spend more and more time with her. He would regularly make the long trip from London to his childhood home in Cumbria, chatting and reminiscing with his mother, Mary, in an attempt to shore up her fracturing memory.
When Mary died last year, at the age of 95, Bragg had been in her company more than at any time since his childhood, but felt he knew her less than ever. What had started out as an act of filial devotion ended up as a feat of imagination.
“When you’re with someone with Alzheimer’s, it seems to me that you’re imagining what they’re like,” says Bragg. “Because they’re changing all the time, they’re not like what you thought they were like. So you’re reimagining a character the entire time – being with them is almost an act of fiction.”
Hearing the 73-year-old writer and broadcaster thus describe the trials of tending to his mother as her mind was “cohering and disintegrating and reassembling”, it is unsurprising that the experience became the basis for an actual work of fiction. Grace and Mary is Bragg’s first novel since 2008, during which time his professional life has undergone its own changes: the publication underscores the fact that Bragg, though best-known as the face of British arts television, has always had a parallel life as a writer of fiction. But the novel’s autobiographical echoes are clear to see, as an unnamed male narrator recounts his relationship with his mother, who is suffering with dementia.
The book tells another story, however, inspired by a woman neither Bragg nor Mary really knew, despite the fact she was the grandmother of the former and mother of the latter. The woman in question, Belle, gave birth to Mary in 1917 but, as the baby was illegitimate, she was raised by foster parents. Subsequently, mother and daughter had only sporadic contact, and although Bragg met his birth grandmother several times as a child, he was told who she was only when he was a teenager.
Many years later, when Mary was in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease, Bragg “conceived the notion that she might want to find her mother”. By imagining the life of his grandmother, the Grace of the book’s title, and intertwining her tale with that of Mary, he has brought them together in a way that eluded them in life.
Imagination and misremembering
“I think my fiction can do things that nonfiction can’t,” says Bragg. “I couldn’t have written a memoir about these two women. The only way I could write about it was the way I’ve done for a long time now, in fiction, where you’re free but if you’re lucky you get the truth.
“I mean, poets have been doing this and getting away with it for many centuries. Fiction writers have too, though they’re rather shy about acknowledging it. But it’s down to imagination, memory and misremembering, and then inventing.”
The novel weaves the narrative threads together without any hint of force: the two stories gently reverberate off each other instead. Coupled with the deft but unshowy prose, Grace and Mary is testament to Bragg’s talent as a writer. But despite his impressive pedigree – he has written more than 20 volumes of fiction – he does not always get his full due as a novelist. Much of this, one suspects, is thanks to Bragg’s high public profile as a prolific and successful television arts presenter, particularly in his role as host of the South Bank Show.