Sunday, January 9, 2011
Book Review - The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
Beginning in the late 1830s, and set over seven seasons, Adam Foulds’ Booker shortlisted novel, The Quickening Maze tells the intertwined stories of the “Northamptonshire poet,” John Clare, the son of a farmer; Alfred Tennyson, the man who would go on to become Britain’s Poet Laureate; and the Reverend Matthew Allen, MD, the man who owned High Beach Private Asylum in Essex’s Epping Forest, where both Clare and Tennyson’s brother, Septimus, were patients.
Although Clare’s nature poetry was acclaimed in his young adulthood, as time went on, his literary style fell out of favor, and what money he did make went to feed his alcoholism. When The Quickening Maze opens, Tennyson has just arrived at High Beach. High Beach was, in the mid-19th century, quite a progressive and humane institution. When first institutionalized, Clare, now rejected by both his rural friends and London high society, and feeling his psyche fractured by this split, often imagines himself to be Shakespeare, Lord Byron or on his more rambunctious days, Jack Randall the Boxer, and he still retains some clarity of thought as he remembers the days when he and his poetry were more in favor:
...the times he’d been embarrassed by the clumping of his hobnail boots on the polished floors of his noble patrons, an unlikely prodigy invited across the divide for conversation and inspection, then delivered to the servants’ quarters to be fed before he walked back to his cottage.
Tennyson lived close by High Beach in order to make frequent visits to his brother, who isn’t “mad” like Clare, but suffers from intense melancholia, which today, we would call depression. (In this book, however “melancholia” seems exactly the right word to use.) In fact, Tennyson’s entire family is rather melancholic in nature, and Tennyson, himself is portrayed as rather brooding, underappreciated, and in constant need of money.
The need for money is a subplot that runs through this novel. Dr. Allen, who has a history of incarceration for debt, becomes convinced that the new industrial age will produce a high demand for domestic furniture and church fittings, and he’s devised a steam engine-driven device he calls the Pyroglyph that will mass-produce decorative woodcarvings. He prevails upon Tennyson to invest 8,000 pounds in the device, a vast amount of money in that day and age, especially considering the fact that Tennyson had yet to become popular and was, in fact, at the time worried about the bad reviews his work was receiving. Allen, a charismatic optimist, in 1841 wrote to Tennyson:
...we shall have an immense business. All is hope, fear is gone and I feel happy. We are all safe. Orders are flowing in from all the great ones.
By early 1843, however, the story was far different, and the scheme to make money from the Pyroglyph had failed miserably. Allen wrote:
Every stick and stave is to be sold to pay A.T. this day – and yet people boast! I ail! And I suffer! And I die!
While Tennyson didn’t die, he and his family were financially destroyed, regaining only a trickle of the money they had invested.
While Allen wasn’t very good with his moneymaking schemes, he fared better as a humane and genuinely caring doctor. He tried to help, if not cure, his patients by talking to them and by assigning them therapeutic physical tasks. At High Beach, patients were only locked up if absolutely necessary. In fact, the asylum was divided into two sections, one for the dangerous patients who would cause harm to themselves and to others and the other for less severe cases. After a visit to High Beach in 1831, the wife of Thomas Carlyle described the asylum as:
...all overhung with roses and grapes and surrounded by gardens, ponds and shrubberies without the smallest appearance of constraint...a place where any sane person might be delighted to get admission.
Much of the story centers around Allen’s efforts to combine his professional and private life, his efforts to escape his debt-ridden past (through the Pyroglyph), and his difficult relationship with his own brother, Oswald. Much of the tragedy of The Quickening Maze lies in Allen’s sheer determination to change his bad luck and his utter failure to do so.
All is not utter misery in this novel, however. A subplot involving Dr. Allen’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Hannah and Tennyson is rather lighthearted and often comedic, though at its core, it, too, is sad. Hannah, dreading “the life with linens, the dreary, comfortable, tepid life,” longs to be noticed in her own right, as any child her age would. “It can be a little difficult to command attention when surrounded by lunatics,” she says. She dreams of romance and weddings, and sets her sights on the unlikely Tennyson, imagining a life with him to be “books and animals and invented games.” He’s an unlikely would-be suitor for a girl Hannah’s age, though. Unlikely because at the time of his visit to High Beach he’s “sinking into the grief that will make him famous” and also mourning the death of his young friend, Arthur Hallam and his (Tennyson’s) inability to commemorate that death as he wishes to. (He will return home to write In Memoriam.) As a result, Tennyson scarcely notices Hannah, who manages to convince herself that she’s desperately in love with the nearsighted, balding, and sometimes-unwashed poet.
Perhaps Hannah’s best friend, Annabella, is part of the reason Hannah is ready to “settle” on Tennyson. Annabella’s beauty eclipsed Hannah’s like the sun eclipses the moon, or at least outshines it. As Hannah says, “It aligned men, stiffened their backs, knocked their hats up from their heads.” Poor Hannah. Foulds really makes us feel for her having to compete with someone as gorgeous as that. And though she might be only a peripheral character, it’s Hannah who embodies this book’s principle theme. When she finally moves on (it’s not a spoiler, we all know Tennyson did not marry a “Hannah Allen”) she thinks “after so much nothing at all, life was finally happening, but not at all as she’d imagined.” It’s just one simple sentence, but in it is embodied the thrust of the entire book – the nature of self, and the fact that life moves on for all of us, but almost never as we expected, and seldom as we’d hoped it would, and that our sanity depends on our acceptance of this fact.
Writing about people who actually lived is one of the most difficult tasks a writer can give himself. “Real” people, people who actually lived, can seem forced and wooden when compared to entirely fictional people the writer can manipulate in any way he chooses. Obviously, the success of The Quickening Maze depends on Foulds’ voice, on his success in capturing the historical as well as the invented, and Foulds does a wonderful job in bringing Allen, Clare, and Tennyson to life and in making the reader care. We get the idea that he’s truly captured the essence of each man. He writes lyrically, and he writes meticulously. His writing is precise and dense and never vague, and he has a keen eye for detail. When the nearsighted Tennyson bends to undo his skates (Tennyson spends a lot of time skating alone on a frozen pond), Foulds writes:
Thick hair, actually think hairs – a wide diameter to each hair – flowed from the crown in strong waves.
And then there’s Clare, complaining to the Gypsies who live in Epping Forest (Clare was very much attracted to the nomadic Gypsies):
It’s criminal what is nominated law now. Theft only, taking the common land from the people. I remember when they came to our village with their telescopes to measure and fence and parcel out. The gypsies then were driven out. The poor also.
And here is Foulds describing a night Clare spends in the forest with his Gypsy friends:
He loved lying in its lap, the continuing forest, the way the roots ate the rot of leaves, and it circled on. To please himself, to decorate his path into sleep, he passed through his mind an inventory of its creatures…And just before he fell asleep, he saw himself, his head whole, his body stripped down to a damp skeleton, placed gently, curled around, in a hole in the earth.
Though Foulds does a wonderful job writing about those who really lived and recreating their lives, it’s when writing about the “mad” that Foulds is at his best. Clare, himself is drawn with particular sensitivity, as one can see in the passage above. But there’s also Margaret, another inmate at High Beach, an anorexic, who imagines herself to be holy and even has a vision of an angel in the forest:
The wind separated into thumps, into wing beats. An angel. An angel there in front of her. Tears fell like petals from her face. It stopped in front of her. Settling, its wings made a chittering sound. It reached out with its beautiful hands to steady itself in the mortal world, touching leaves, touching branches, and left stains of brightness where it touched.
And here is Foulds describing the place where Allen, not without regret, had to assign the violent and most severely afflicted. Foulds writes that it:
...was full of real madness, of agony, people lost to themselves. They were fierce and unpredictable. They smelled rank. They were obscene. They made sudden noises. Their suffering was bottomless.
The Quickening Maze is impressionistic, and so is Foulds’ beautiful prose. He can say in one sentence what it takes other, lesser writers paragraphs to tell us. The excerpt below is a wonderful example of this economy of writing:
Hannah turned and saw her sister’s face in the window...She retreated out of sight like a fish from the surface of a pond, leaving the glass dark.
Or, writing of Margaret:
Margaret stood in the dead of the world...In the black forks of the trees hard snow was pock-marked by later rain. Crows, folded tightly into themselves, clasped branches that plunged in the wind.
We get the best of both worlds with Foulds. The Quickening Maze is a shimmering, stylish, poetic book, but it’s not a book that sacrifices plot and substance to style. There’s plenty to anticipate in this novel, and we become totally involved with its characters – real and invented – and we feel what they feel, as much as we are able to do so. That the book is written in gorgeous prose doesn’t surprise me. Adam Foulds won the 2008 Costa award for his long poem, The Broken Word, and he’s exceptionally skilled. That a poet is able to succeed so well as a storyteller was a bit surprising, but it was a surprise of the most wonderful kind.
I’ve included so many examples of Foulds’ writing in this review because this is either going to your “type” of book or isn’t. I don’t think there will be a lot of middle ground. Needless to say, it’s definitely my kind of book, and while I would have loved to see it win the Booker, I wish it could have been competing in any year other than 2009. I felt sure it couldn’t beat Hilary Mantel’s soaring and gorgeous Wolf Hall, and truth be told, gorgeous as it is, I don’t think it should have. Wolf Hall was a fabulous and monumental achievement.
Still, in almost any other year, The Quickening Maze probably would have captured the prize. The book is intense, intelligent, sophisticated, and beautifully strange. To Foulds’ enormous credit, he never portrays madness as an exalted state of literary enlightenment, as so many other writers have done. Although this book is lofty and lyrical and poetic, it never backs away from the truth about madness, and it never allows its reader to do so, either.
Near the book’s end, Clare is sitting among the band of Gypsies, with whom he so identifies. Sitting there:
...he saw a tree lying on its side, barkless, stripped white, ghost-glimmering through the others…He pitied it, felt suddenly that he was it, lying there undefended, its grain tightening in the breeze.
Though Clare pities the tree, to Foulds’ enormous credit, we don’t pity Clare. Instead, we understand him. We understand how each life is lived at the edge of madness, how one traumatic event could plunge any one of us into never ending darkness.
The Quickening Maze is a gorgeous book, a rare gem, polished to perfection. It combines both the keen eye and inherent sense of clarity of the poet with the more flexible reach of the novelist, and it does both at their very best.
Recommended: Not to be missed for those who love highly literary fiction. This is a lofty book, and one that many would describe as “arty.” There’s nothing in it that’s difficult to understand, though. Foulds’ clarity of writing is too precise for that.
Note: Some readers have asked me what “the quickening maze” was. I have no better answer than that given by the professional reviewer, Tom Gatti, who wrote in “The London Times,” “The ‘quickening maze’ is both the confused paths of Clare's life and the twisting pattern of the forest. Lost in the former he is terrified, but lost in the latter he is willing to submit.”