Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze (2009)

Some very fine writing, here, but some padding too. Dr Matthew Allen runs a lunatic asylum on the outskirts of Epping Forest in 1840: John Clare, the mad peasant poet, is one of his patients. Alfred Tennyson comes to stay, to oversee the admittance of his brother Septimus, who is suffering from the melancholic ‘black blood’ of the Tennysons. The doctor has a brilliant idea for an automated wood-lathe, and persuades Tennyson to invest (something which really happened). The doctor’s pale daughter Hannah falls hopelessly in love with Tennyson (which may or may not have happened). The wood-lathe project goes bust. Various loonies hove into and out of view through the scintillant fog of Fould’s self-consciously fine writing: Margaret with her self-abnegating religious mania; witchlike Clara; Mr. Francombe, who believes that if he shits ‘he will poison the water, destroy the forest … and everyone in London will be killed’ [34] and who is given an enema against his will, something Foulds describes in loving, revolting detail.* And above all there is Clare, who early in the novel wanders the forest and hangs-out with gypsies, but who becomes increasingly deranged as it continues: his perceptions of the natural world, and the whorls and eddies of his distorted consciousness gift the novel its most memorable moments. The final section describes with hallucinatory vividness his eighty-mile walk from London to Northborough, and is a superb piece of prose ... although it draws heavily, as of course is must, on Clare's own, famous account of that walk.

I remember reading a review (or now that I come to think of it, I think this was a discussion I heard on radio or saw on TV) of Golding’s Darkness Visible when that novel was first published in 1979. The talking head, or reviewer, thought the book broadly a failure, but said ‘it has patches—patches—of some of the finest writing I have ever read.’ And before I ever read the novel itself I remember thinking: what a fantastic thing. Not a tediously accomplished novel that runs smoothly from start to finish, but a ragged text out of which protrude great chunks of genius. That seems to me, for reasons I still can’t quite fathom, as an almost ideal notion: a superb notion for how a novel could be. When I finally got round to reading Darkness Visible it was something of a disappointment, actually; because it is both not as a bad, and nowhere near as good, as that I’ve-forgotten-her-name reviewer implied. You know the story about how, before he ever heard the track, Paul McCartney read a review of the Who’s ‘I Can See For Miles’ that called it ‘the heaviest song yet recorded’? And how when he did hear the song he was disappointed that it wasn’t what the review had implied, so he was moved to write and record ‘Helter Skelter’? Step down the analogy to the realm of SF and that’s my career: attempts to rewrite what I thought Darkness Visible was going to be like before I actually read it. Attempts to recreate a novel of compelling gnarliness from a template that never actually existed.

Now I mention all this because, in a distant and rather watery sort of way this is what Foulds’ The Quickening Maze is like. It does not entirely succeed overall, but there are moments of beautiful, beautiful writing in it: most of which appertain to Clare’s perception of the world.

They don't stop it being a fairly thin novel. It is rather similar, in this respect, to The Broken Word, which I reviewed here: viz., an often very very good short story stretched a little to fill out the space between two hard covers—except that instead of simply giving us, as The Broken Word does, the boiled-down, polished-up gem-like moments of writing and nothing else, The Quickening Maze stuffs workmanlike prose and so-so dialogue into the spaces between the gems. It still, at 259 pages, feels more like a short story than a novel (the font is large; and the allotment of margin generous). I should add that feels like a very memorable short story. And I should add also that I am not the ideal reader. I am, after all, a Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of London, author of various academic writings on Tennyson (and editor of this): so I could see exactly where Fould’s imaginative recreations stopped and where the collage of chunks plucked wholesale from Robert Bernard Martin’s Tennyson: the Unquiet Heart began. None of this is actively bad, although Foulds doesn’t do the whole early-19th-century poets-interacting-with-real-people schtick as compellingly as Ben Markovits does in his superlative Byron novels.

To be nitpickier (‘to nittier-pick’?): the very high caliber of Foulds prose only makes moments where the writing lapses stand out the more. So, describing the straps restraining poor Mr Francombe for his enema, Foulds lapses into a dangling modifier (‘They creaked as he pulled, exhaling slowly through his widely spaced teeth’ 38). Or there's this sentence—‘A full moon, he noticed, looking away’ [201]—in which I don’t know if it’s Clare or the Moon who looks away.

On the other hand we get a larger number of wonderful moments too. Here's Clare watching gypsies chopping up a poached deer: ‘the deer looked odd now with its whole furred head and antlers hanging down, its skeleton neck and body, and its breeches of flesh still on’ [49]; and the moment soon afterwards when Clare goes to sleep imagining ‘his head whole, his whole body stripped to a damp skeleton, placed gentle, curled round, in a hole in the earth.’ Or this description of being punched in the face:
Stockdale drew back his right hand and threw his fist into John’s face. He saw the attendant’s knuckles suddenly huge, big as the palings of a fence with creases of shadow between them as his eye was struck, a vivid visual arrest he was still pondering when the second shadowy blow swum like a pike towards him and knocked him out cold’ [203]
He watched Tennyson relight his pipe, hollowing his clean-shaven cheeks as he plucked the flame upside down into the bowl of scorched tobacco’ [23]
Lovely writing. These moments aren’t additive though: they are lyric clots of beauty, and do not entirely coalesce into a whole novel.
*I should add: I heartily endorse his project of getting more shit into contemporary fiction.


danhartland said...

I was planning to write about this later in the week, but clearly it was your turn to pip me at the Booker posts.

I, too, was startled by the prose in this - to such an extent that I wouldn't rule out Foulds scooping the prize. (I'm reminded of Banville's The Sea, which felt very much like a padded short story but was, of course, exquisitely written.) In particular, I too was struck by that evisceration scene - it recalled for one thing Gawain and the Green Knight, and anything that manages such an allusion without also seeming pale in comparison deserves all the praise it can be given.

At the risk of appearing unoriginal, this layman also felt Tennyson to be the least well-drawn character - I couldn't see the joins as you could, but I knew they were there. In contrast, Clare is indeed brilliantly drawn - and I rather liked the homagey quality of the rewriting that closes the book - but so too are Hannah and Allen (and Margaret, actually). Indeed, Hannah may be the most important character, and hers the most important story, in the novel - I think the sections dealing with her are the ones which make the book a novel, actually. There is something in the way the short storyish fragments are drawn together into a broader scheme in those passages which seems to me inherently novelistic, despite their at times bitty slightness.

On the other hand, I may just be doing some special pleading because of the writing. Which, since I'm not sure it has been made plain enough, is beautiful stuff.

Adam Roberts said...

I've had another look at this one (I wouldn't go so far as to say I've properly reread it, but I've gone through it again, in order to write something on Foulds and Tennyson for the OUP blog); and my second thoughts are that this review is a smidgen too negative. There's so much fine writing here, and it's an active pleasure to re-read. Maybe you're right, Dan: maybe it will win the prize. Though I'd say Mantel or Coetzee have more people behind them.

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