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
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

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.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible