Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Saturday, November 1, 2014

"The Quickening Maze" by Adam Foulds

I picked this book up because I liked the trees on the cover and the mysterious, poetic title. I knew nothing about Adam Foulds (other than the fact that The Quickening Maze was shortlisted for the Booker Prize) nor about John Clare (who is now considered one of England's greatest nature poets), and very little about Alfred Tennyson. So discovering that the story of this novel was based on those two poets' stay (Clare as a patient, Tennyson providing company to his mentally fragile brother Septimus) in a lunatic asylum in the 1830s did not increase my eagerness to read it. In fact, I toyed for an evening with reading a biography of Mick Jagger instead.

But, odd as it may seem, this story very soon proved the more compelling of the two. Partly that is down to the prose. Adam Foulds writes as beautifully and truly as any contemporary novelist I can think of. He is a poet, too, which explains the perfectly weighted rhythms and the carefully selected (and often nicely surprising) diction, but unlike some poets' prose, his is not so showily centred on its own eloquence and lyricism that it loses sight of its purpose: to tell a story.

And there is a story here, even if it is not a tightly plotted or obviously appealing one. At times it is grim, at times funny, at times moving. I wished there were more to it, but the narrative is never less than taut and strangely suspenseful. The characters all feel like real people (and not merely because they are based on 'actual persons'), and the events and dialogue ring true. But Foulds' most notable achievement, for me, is the way he gets into his characters' heads. The internal monologues are things of wonder.

Ultimately, I can't think of a better way to convey this novel's near-perfection than by quoting a few lines from it, and hoping that the lack of context doesn't leave it flopping, suffocated, like a fish out of water. This is a short scene in which the first glimmers of the poem 'The Passing of Arthur' (about King Arthur) come to Tennyson from amid the clouds of his grief over his friend Arthur Hallam:

'He had not lit the lamps and in the gloom of the early winter evening his long fingernails shone with the fire's red, a warmer red than the sunset's crimson, which, if he turned, he could see broken by tree shapes, blotting the surface of the frozen pond. Gules, he thought, all gules. That heraldic blood-red. That was something. His mind moved towards it. On the forest floor the shattered lances. The shattered lances lay on the hoof-churned mud. An ancient English wood where knights had ridden, where Queen Elizabeth hunted, where Shakespeare rode, according to the doctor's daughter, to play out his Dream in an aristocrat's hall. Twilight in that place, soft decay, the soft sun finding some scattered remains. There was something there: an English epic, a return of Arthur. An English Homer. Blood and battle and manliness and the machine of fate. He could hear its music, ringing, metallic and deep with inward echoings. His mind approached it, felt along the flank of this thing. It would be worth the attempt, if he ever had the strength. The logs hissed and smoked. The forest outside was again dreary, darkening, factual. There was nobody there.'

Anyone who's ever written a novel, or a poem, or a song, or created any kind of art, will probably know how that feels: the inward flight, the distant shining vision, then the return to the present, to ordinary reality. I've never read a better conjuring of it than this.

All in all, I would say this is a very good novel by a potentially great writer. If he can find a bigger - or less obscure - story to tell, and tell it with the same sort of intensity and truthfulness, Adam Foulds could create something magnificent.

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