BOOK REVIEW / Daydream believer

JACK JUGGLER AND THE EMPEROR'S WHORE by John Arden, Methuen pounds 16.9 9

THIS is the sort of novel a blurb writer inevitably labels "teeming". It's bustling with scene changes. It leaps centuries, providing parts for historical figures famous and obscure. The sex is various and rude. Even the title is jumpy. It resounds with literary echoes of Jacobean and Tudor drama - Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher - with filial incest, murder and retribution. It seems throughout that John Arden's new novel should start rollicking any minute, but after 600 pages the reader feels that the rollicks have been curiously thin on the ground.

The characters are drawn lividly enough. Jack Pogmoor is a fat, lusty theatre director known as Jack Juggler because of his revival of a play by that name and because he famously juggles effects on stage with striking results. He collaborates in the Sixties and Seventies with playwright Fidelio Carver and Fidelio's twin sister Leonore, a gifted stage designer. Leonore marries Jack, to Fidelio's dismay, since brother and sister have had a life-long incestuous relationship. Leonore is also a part-time lesbian.

The historical layers of the novel are linked to theatrical productions involving one or all three of these characters. These are 1) the tale of an 18th-century murderer called Eugene Aram who probably killed his wife's lover and 2) an account of Napoleon's last days on St Helena in the arms of a woman whose husband is slowly poisoning the emperor with arsenic.

Arden seems particularly to relish these historical sojourns, and they are among the book's great strengths. But what jars credibility is the artifice with which he winches these period pieces into place.

To tell us of Eugene Aram, Arden has Leonore dream a highly detailed 90-page dream set in 1766 about a friend of Aram's called Miss Cordelia Pole-Hatchett, who is writing her memories of the murderer. "Somehow - apparently without speaking aloud, for her lips do not move, she sends every word of them into Leonore's ear" (230 years later and in a dream, remember). Then Arden flourishes a bit of stage direction: "A quill pen flashes over quires of bright white paper; Cordelia's face and moving hands are as bright as the paper in the golden pool of candle light. Beyond and all around is thick black dark." And hey presto, our disbelief is supposed to be suspended. You can juggle like this on a stage, but dreaming someone else's convoluted diary is a pretty arch novelistic device.

Another is the 80-page letter Jack writes to his solicitor, complete with dialogue and emotional soul-baring, to fill us in on his involvement in a murder case. (His legal fee must have been murder too.) And Jack seems to hallucinate the entire Napoleon section on the Cudworth railway platform, conjuring up a poisoning Count and a sexually obliging Countess Montholon to see off tired old exiled Bonaparte.

The most satisfying aspect of this novel is the way in which the historical underpinning thematically supports the 20th-century dramas - of infidelity, treachery, revolutionary politics (Fidelio is an ardent lefty) and backstage passion. Yet it would probably all feel less rickety if held together with something more substantial than improbably long letters and dreams.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US