BOOK REVIEW / Barking up the family tree: Craig Raine's double-barrelled family saga, written in triplets, is a 'novel in verse'. But is it faction or fiction, history or hoax?

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Once upon. Poet, critic,

editor, controversialist. Loves Joyce

as Hockney loves Picasso,

immoderately. (Agony of inwit,

uxoriousness of influence])

Make it strange, make it, qua

the quiddities, new. For Chrissakes

hold your cliches, let the poet

make love to minutiae

for this - look] - is like that

and that may be luckied

out of this, Lolita'd

into imagination's motel

(Prop. the Rev English Langwidge)

for a trip who knows where.

It was like . . . it was like

watching Donne on The Late Show

('The ruff or the shroud, John?'),

it was Ovid ab ovo, Captain Marvel

of the metaphors, it was a Charleston

on the roof of a taxi doing

one of those round-the-world

jobs in aid of Mind, it was Stephen's

voice-over for Bloom, raised

to the purple, Seurat with a dash

of Magritte, it was a fax all

the way from Mars. Then phut]

our poet's back in the hat, gone

with the susurrous of white cotton

gloves, seen but not heard, fled

the fleshpots and column inches

to the calm of New College

where he broods over

the law of excluded muddle

(everything is what it isn't),

juggling with epic like

Keats's gnats scribbling hail

and farewell, a rich red 20th-century

borscht laid out as nouvelle cuisine,

like . . .

BUT YOU get the picture. That burlesque gives a rough idea - a very rough idea, his admirers will say - of what Craig Raine's History: The Home Movie looks like on the page: a cross between Dante's terza rima and the bare ruin'd choirs of late Plath. Ten years in the making, this Novel in Verse, as it is subtitled, offers 'an epic history of Europe from 1905 to 1984', tracing the private and public fortunes of the Pasternak family in Russia and western Europe, and the Raine family in Oxford.

My first impression was that it isn't a novel and it isn't in verse, not at least if we take verse to mean some sort of measure or music. I was also bewildered by the plethora of names and diminutives, the lack of scene-setting and those nudge-words which commonly signpost us towards our emotional destination, where we can draw up a chair and warm ourselves on a blaze of received wisdom. But these bewilderments and resistances soon give way to admiration and the basic readerly tug of curiosity. This is one of those poems that teaches you how to read it as you go along, and the rewards increase the more you attend to its subtle shorthand, its passionate exactitude, and its narrative line, which is as taut and spare as a Byron or a Clough is leisurely and expansive.

A brief Prologue invites us to see the author-narrator as a 'Secret Police . . . An Alphabet . . . What else but the filth/in a thousand disguises?' This Eliotic credo ('He do the police in different voices') tells us that 'filth' is to be construed as (i) the pigs and (ii) the lowdown, the basics, the basement tapes of history, expletives lovingly included. As this chronicle play unfolds - essentially a kaleidoscope of intense moments in a variety of lives - it becomes apparent that this is an epic of minutiae, dramatically framed and spotlit by Raine's familiar way with startling similes and metaphors, some of them brilliant, some merely strained or self-advertising. And the title is exact. This is history (famous or infamous, well-known or fascinatingly novel) not as some pattern or chaos seen from above but as it forcibly impinges on a particular man or woman at a particular time and place. If there is any 'overview' on offer it is that sardonic, late-century one which fishes about under monuments and takes nothing on trust, body-searching both the Ozymandiases and the rude mechanicals for complacency.

Two family trees in the prelims give us our only extrinsic bearings, three generations of Pasternaks and Raines. The book begins with the former at their Black Sea dacha in 1905 (Leonid painting, Rosa his wife strumming the piano, the four children playing about in the house or garden), and the latter in the shape of 'Oxford's own Miss Queenie Ray' (later Raine) about to do her music hall turn as a 'toff taken short' for Edward VII. Subtlety-hunters will note that the quoted phrase also does duty as shorthand for what will soon happen to Russia's patrician intelligentsia.

From there we proceed to the trenches of the Great War, the Russian revolution, a rape in Garden Square, Oxford, the embalming of Lenin, Yeats lecturing on Theosophy, Norman the boxer (Raine's dad, whom we have met in previous books), Stalin's famous phone call to Boris about Mandelstam, Boris and Tsvetayeva, uncle Eliot Raine's marriage to Lydia Pasternak, Boris's sister, the compelling adventures of a character called Roniger, the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, Eliot's career as psychiatrist and womaniser, Norman's ditto as boxer, soldier, faith-healer, the Blitz, a society trial, Boris's death, and much too much more to enumerate here. It ends with Craig and 'Lisa', a putative cousin, visiting Germany in 1984, and a talismanic photograph of Lisa's father Eliot on his deathbed.

This juxtaposition of Russian and English events is intended as a structural principle (and can be hunted down in details like the one mentioned above), but is too often factitious to be more than a device. Much more convincing is the wealth of detail that goes into Raine's fascinated and fascinating reconstruction of events, and the suppleness of the language he has devised to take us in and out of the characters' mental and physical predicaments. Those who grant the cleverness but tack on many buts about the author's supposed coldness should read '1935: Learning to Breathe', a brilliant account of the death of Boris's stepson Adik, which is steeped in precise, compelling information (about the physiology of breathing) and irreparable loss; or '1955: Radiation Sickness', a fine evocation of Shura Pasternak's terror at being summoned by the Party to update the files on his traitorous overseas relatives; or '1960: False Teeth', about Boris's own death and the two women rivals for his memory and remains, Olga and Zina. (Shades of our own dear Hermit of Hull.)

Various puzzles crop up, not least the exact historical status of Dr Eliot Raine, the richly interesting psychiatrist who marries and later abandons Lydia Pasternak. Why doesn't he figure in 'A Silver Plate', Raine's autobiographical memoir in Rich (1984)? And why isn't Raine's real-life brother, who appears memorably in this narrative, set down in the family tree, nor indeed Raine's own marriage to Ann Pasternak Slater (Lydia's daughter), which presumably was a crucial ingredient in the origin of this whole enterprise? Who exactly is Roniger? Who are David Kroll and his daughter Natasha? Above all, what are we to make of that familar little disclaimer at the end - 'All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance etc' - when we know full well that most of them were as real and as large as life?

A little extramural research reveals that Eliot and his marriage to Lydia are a complete invention, and, to compound the already peculiar, that Eliot is the name of Raine's real-life father-in-law, a real-life doctor. Collapse of ingenuous reader . . . So Henry Raine, the apparent grandfather, wasn't really a college Scout, Queenie never went near the music hall, Norman never boxed and got blown up at a munitions dump during the war. But hang on, other evidence tells us different]

This leads us to think again about the ground under our feet (just as historians do?), and to move towards a couple of tentative conclusions. One, that the author has interwoven fact and fiction, history and hoax, just as Solzhenitsyn, Grass, Rushdie and Julian Barnes have done before him. Two, that history is what you make it, or what you make of it: a documentary, a statistical nightmare, a Tom Stoppard play, a Kundera novel, a Keystone Cops (by way of Eliot and Dickens), a Raine of glistening details and possibilities. One such is that your wife might be your cousin. Another is that a slippery uncle might share a name with an invisible poet and cross paths with the likes of Wittgenstein and Yeats, thus opening up all sorts of reportorial opportunities. There has always been a crossword puzzle element in this poet's proceedings, at both linguistic and larger levels, and it looms large again here.

Like his hero Joyce, Raine's ambition is to describe everything (with the accent on every) the way it is, especially that famous trinity, birth and copulation and death. Sex is too much with us, of course, done to death on all sides, but since it largely exists in a linguistic miasma of failed adjectives, breathy nouns and brutal slang it remains a sort of Everest for young tigers eager to demonstrate their technique. (See Nicholson Baker et al). So here we have virtuoso descriptions of cunts, pricks and pubic hair, of menstruation, of wanking ('he came like a gong,/again and again'), of come ('the smell of bleach', 'the tang of bloater paste'), of the sound of a woman crossing her stockinged legs ('whsst, wssht', in a Joycean reprise later applied to the drawing of blackout curtains), and so on.

These are enjoyably shocking, and sure to raise accusations of bad taste, not to mention voyeurism and pornography; but we know from comments made elsewhere that Raine regards 'tasteless' as a compliment. It means kicking the shibboleths in the teeth, evading the attentions of the cultural police, those watchful guardians of the done thing. True enough, but of course there is tastelessness and tastelessness, the warranted and the gratuitous, and this poet sometimes walks a fine line between the two. His description of a woman attacked by a mad axeman, brutally awash in cricketing metaphors, is similarly questionable. Bad taste or fearless truthtelling, while our invisible correspondent pares his fingernails?

Sex often excites this book to a sort of rococo. When the young Jimmy Raine is out in the chicken shed masturbating over Film Fun 'His cock is there/as a short stretch of nothing/for maybe a minute,//before it jumps like a frog/in his hand, for plie/after plie, after plie. After plie'. In one sense this is no more outrageous than Ted Hughes's comparison of Mozart's brain to a shark's mouth, but Hughes's simile is part of a larger argument, organically linked to the overwhelming question that 'Thrushes' asks, whereas Raine's are scattered about like hundreds and thousands on a cake.

There's one aside - 'he turns like someone waking//from the workings of a poem./ Suddenly sees a whole world lost' - which hints that most poetry leaves out most of the world. This is elaborated on by Pasternak in the midst of the Terror:

But what power has poetry against. . ?

Borya leaves his question levitating.

Against the permafrost, he thinks.

Against the grind, the beach like liver,

against the black mosquito storms,

against the heaps of seaweed,

for use as fertiliser, effervescent,

stinking of stale sex,

stacked by connoisseurs of poetry.

This works literally and metaphorically, spreading its content equally over a regime which destroys writers and those writerly exquisites who are connoisseurs of nothing more than 'stale sex'.

If Joyce is one important influence, Kipling is another. His almost mystical respect for the names and functions of things is often mirrored here, from prosody to the pathological pack drill of the embalming room. When Henry Raine arrives home from the war in 1919 he wanders round the house:

opening cupboards and drawers,

finding the ivory napkin rings,

a set of six, like smokers' teeth,

a tea-strainer's peeling chrome,

Caswell's Kid Reviver,

a tin of Huttonizing Fluid,

the Book of Common Prayer

worn away at the corners:

and his desire, yea,

is like to a thick tile of honey . . .

The humble names have become holy, a litany of goods (in both senses) reclaiming a soldier from the shambles of the trenches; and the overtly biblical touch ('yea, is like to') underlines the point that this is a momentary Song of Songs, stiff upper lip style, celebrating that most potent of British words - home.

Henry and Queenie eventually go to bed and make love, though not before she briefly 'hates his heart/for sounding so frantic,//like something buried alive'. There are many such fine and tender moments in the book to set against the brutal and shocking ones. Each episode has its own self-contained logic, but it's hard to see the sum of these adding up to a novel in any conventional sense, or indeed in the sense we attach to the verse-novels of Byron or Pushkin, Spenser or Tennyson. Unless, that is, we take the protagonist to be history itself, by turns a poet and a boxer, a comfortable bourgeois and a threatened exile. Such links and developments as there are in the story are all a matter of juxtaposition and implicit suggestion, as when the young Boris gazes out to sea at a naval squadron - 'The red flag . . . is reading black against the sky' - and has a prevision of what Communism holds in store; or Leonid 'wipes his hands on history//or throws it . . . //Then newsprint stirs and blooms,/as if the letters lived'.

Key images also carry narrative import. The 'tiniest/black barathea butterfly' on the leather headband of Henry Raine's hat metamorphoses into the 'butterfly of excrement/blotted into his pyjama bottoms' when he is in bed terminally ill. This is a good example both of Raine's fearlessly observant eye and of his canny ear. Try substituting the four-letter word for 'excrement' and you lose not only the compassionate tone but the dactylic echo between such disparates as a butterfly and a shitty stain, the blot we all make of our copybooks when out of control. Far-fetched? Yes, but worth the fetching, as Dr Johnson famously observed of the metaphysicals.

There are narrative dissonances too, as when Pasternak voyeuristically peeps through a hole at a young girl bathing while attempting to field Stalin's phone call; or when Eliot's joyless banging of a nurse is told in parallel with a grisly story about an RAF corporal beaten senseless by his own side at Dunkirk because they have been shot up by allied planes. Chaplin's film The Great Dictator figures in the latter episode, as does the elderly Kaiser sitting in his invalid carriage 'watching the North Sea mixing cement'. No doubt a good graduate student could weave a whole web of pertinent allusions to public and private squalor, but other readers will express unease at some of Raine's architectural props, his yoking together of various sorts of horror in order to produce a frisson of excitement. Line by line it's a dazzling firework display, a masque of steady brilliance, but what connections are really being made between countries, families, politics, and personal desire?

What grabs you, in fact, is not plot or development of character but the sheer relish of the poem's language and reportage, its hand-held brilliance as it advances into the interior of our brutish and enthralling century. Raine is a first-class elegist, when he wants to be, an excellent mimic, in a variety of modes ranging from Hooray Henry to Scottish demotic, and a walking cyclopaedia of out-of-the-way knowledge.

Such talents are occasionally obscured by the modish penchant for sex 'n' violence, the pugnacity (inherited from his boxing father?) with which he squares up to a text - see his critical essays - or 'a toddler's tiny prick/au poivre with sand' or a tragedy. Or indeed a birth, as the clinical description of one in '1929: Locum Tenens' demonstrates. The baby is born dead, Eliot (the doctor, attempting his first delivery) is shattered. The poem ends:

Now he can afford to feel

for the worn-out face

like a Victorian penny,

suffered, utterly spent,

a ghost which has seen a ghost,

forever vague,

the mind's veronica.

Lots to admire in the tenderness and mystery of that last triplet, but it's that 'Now he can afford to feel' which maybe gives a clue to Raine's aesthetic. First deliver your baby.

'History: The Home Movie' is published by Penguin at 18 and 9.99