Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Craig Raine, Heartbreak (2010)

Terry Eagleton's I-shit-on-you review of Raine's new novel has become itself newsworthy. It's a deeply ungenerous reading of the book, but that's not to say it's wrong, either. Actually, this novel is a pretty interesting failure. Attacking it for its narrowness of class representation, as Eagleton does, seems a little unfair, certainly ('Someone who is clearly not from a Glasgow housing scheme asks: "Where is it, somewhere in Walter Pater, where he says that Leonardo says that all improvements in arts stem from a sense of dissatisfaction?"'): you wouldn't slag off a James Kellman novel for the paucity of its upper-middle-class sensibility, after all. But Eagleton is right: the selfsame images and tone that work so resonantly and powerfully and hauntingly in Raine's verse fall flat in this novel. Raine's best work, including the wonderfully novelistic History: the Home Movie, has always depended less upon his 'Martianism' (I mean: upon a notional super-ingenuity of poetic simile) than upon his ability to make imagery vital via precision and concision and vividness. In Heartbreak, the concision is terribly diluted, and without it the precision and vividness depart. The book tries to be touching. It fails. Being touching is like being funny; you can't simply put the right sort of ingredients in place and stir ... you need something else. All of the characters are saddled with physical or psychological grotesqueries (this man is horribly burned; this women is Down's syndrome and so on) in a way that swamps their core believability. And as Eagleton stresses, the writing is very often ouch-ouch embarrassing, wincingly so. There's a whole series of mismatches here, each superposed on the others, but the worst of them is the poetic prose. As a poet Raine's best practice is ingenious, yes; but it's more than ingenious. It thrills us with a surprising aptness, not just with surprise. Sadly, almost nothing in this novel is apt.

Three more things.

One: the paragraphing is really, really annoying:
Heartbreak ... finality is being acted out.

But what about the ones who aren't shouting?

People more like Catherine Sloper in Washington Square. People whose hearts are invisible.

What is heartbreak, really?

Is it really only rhetoric?
Gnarr. That might almost be interesting prose, without the pretentious 'oo, look at meee' paragraphing.

Two: What the fuck is up with that cover? Is the publisher hoping it'll be mistaken for a misery memoir, and get a bump in sales?

Three: so many of the images here misfire than I'd began to worry that Raine had completely lost his mojo. But there are perhaps half a dozen spots of textual time here as beautiful as anything Raine has ever written; if not quite enough to redeem the book, then at least enough to make this a book worth reading despite its rubbishness. For example:
She bought a sapling anyway, and bedded it down near the barbed-wire fence where two humming birds of polythene blurred in the stiff breeze. [12]

1 comment:

Ian Vance said...

He's certainly right about the dialogue. From the quotes given in that review, it's atrociously phony, almost hilariously so. The mixing of metaphors smacks of trying too hard, as well.