My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest--that I loved the best--
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below--above the vaulted sky.
Adam Fould's second novel, The Quickening Maze, takes Clare for its strange and wonderful lynch pin. It is set in 1840/1 (just before the famous walk), the action taking place at Dr. Matthew Allen's Beach Hills Asylum in the Epping Forest where Clare was held between 1837 and 1841. The plot, if the novel can be said to have such a thing, is beautifully simple, charting the inexorable decline of Clare's mental state and the unloosing of his self-hood which categorised his later life. His story brackets the novel, which opens with a prologue recalling his childhood and ends on the road to Helpston. Gathered inbetween is a cast of characters, some real historical figures, some not: Alfred Tennyson, for example, in mourning for his beloved friend Arthur Hallam, the Allen family and a religious ecstatic called Margaret. But Foulds, like Clare, is a poet and this is a poet's book: it is about words, not events. What happens in it is not really the point. I mean, there are incidents (a woman is raped; another is courted by a bluff manufacturer; a business investment goes horribly wrong) and historical thematics, but these things are not the point. Its focus, its langorous movement, is a homage to one form in the guise of another. Prose serving poets and poetry.
I find poetry difficult; it doesn't make immediate sense to me. Which is not to say that I can't appreciate it - I have studied poets and, with help and effort, found inspiration and understanding. It doesn't come naturally though; it is not the same as when I read prose, and fall in love instantly. This probably means that I am a limited reader, but it also means that I very much appreciate what Foulds' does in translating one medium into another in The Quickening Maze.* It almost seems like a cliche to say that it is 'beautifully written', so instead I will say that it is sensitively and thoughtfully written. For the most part it is about the experience of life through words, about how language - the words we conceive and what we understand by them - shape us. Thus there is Clare's relationship with nature, which drives him to the edge of reason; and Margaret's relationship with God, which subliminates her selfhood; and Matthew Allen's relationship with his own genius, which only serves to highlight the shortcomings of everyone else. It is a meditation on nature, and how it impacts on our emotions. It is also about life's velocity, the way it feels quick-slow-quick, so that we run and then walk and then run again. This is an effect not dissimilar from the effect of metre in poetry; it is novel with great rhythm. Let me show you what I mean; a short passage will do. It occurs early in the book, when Clare has been tramping the asylum grounds like a dog on a short leash:
Ants fly over, carry beyond him. He can’t follow them further. Like a lock gate opening in a canal, the water slumping in, his heavy rage returns. He presses himself to the tree, looks down and sees the roots reaching down into the earth. The admiral’s hands. He has them himself for a second, thick, rooty fingers, twisted, numb. He shakes his hands and they’re gone. They reappear at his feet, and clutch down. The painful numbness rises, his legs solidifying, a hard rind surrounding them, creeping upwards. He raises his arms. They crack and split and reach into the light. The bark covers his lips, covers his eyes. Going blind, he vomits leaves and growth. He yearns upwards into the air, dwindling, splitting, growing finer, to live points, to nerves. The wind moves agonisingly through him. He can’t speak.
The prose is almost sexual; the writing intimate, and acute, conveying such an intense oneness with nature, at once terrifying and thrilling.
I note that some Amazon reviewers of the novel struggled with it, because Clare and his history were not familiar to them. Which led me to wonder if prior acquaintance with the characters and period is a necessary with this book. Like all historical novelists working with real individuals Foulds is plumbing (and therefore, expecting) a depth of foreknowledge in his readers; it is this foreknowledge that allows him to offer up nuggets of fact so sparingly. It strikes me that The Quickening Maze must seem a very vague novel without a ready built structure of events to support it. Similarly, it must help to know at least some of the poetry (Clares' and Tennysons') that weaves in and out of the text. So much so that I would say it was an inaccesible novel, if it wasn't clearly worth it for the words alone.
It is true, though, that words alone do not a novel make. Character is necessary too, and Foulds has some acute observations to make about his lead actors, namely Clare, Tennyson and Matthew Allen. He inhabits them well, drawing out their conflicts and impersonating their idiosyncracies. He is not so good at his female characters (although Margaret is something of an exception). Hannah Allen, for example, is the novel's inevitable passionate teenager, but any subtly in her character is warped out by a trajectory that carries her through a romantic obsession with Tennyson to a respectable marriage to a factory owner. Her mother, Eliza, is almost entirely missing from the narrative, although it is possible to see this as intentional. Like many women of her age she is taken for granted, by her husband and her children, the Angel in the House, taking care of the practicalities while the rest of the world swims about in a current of experience and feeling. Possibly Foulds intended her as the unsung helpmeet, offstage. But I am unconvinced. The rest of the novel does not reflect contemporary wisdoms in this way, and the narrator is omniscient, so it feels like an omission.
Perhaps it is because The Quickening Maze is better at extrapolating from historical realities, and building upon individuals who have left figments of themselves in poetry, biography and PhD theses, than it is at the purely imagined person. Foulds is a master at extrapolation, at enlarging and imagining from life, but he is not so sure or so deft at the act of creation. He writes with an inspired grace about things he has experienced - like forests, and food, and the sky - and likewise translates his research. In that sense he is a poet successfully transitioning into prose. However, he does not (yet?) have the great novelist's knack for playing God - for giving birth to something entirely fresh and new. We must continue to await his final transformation - poet into novelist - with anticipation. The Quickening Maze is not quite there yet.
* Notably Esther, who does have a natural affinity with poetry, did not like the book as much as I did. She found it forced, and occasionally overwrought. It would be interesting to know if other poetry fans felt the same.