BOOK REVIEW / Memory drowns the bureauprats: 'The Last Lesson of the Afternoon' - Christopher Rush: Canongate Press, 9.99 pounds: Jason Cowley on the long melancholy withdrawing roar of Christopher Rush's intimate and compelling new novel
Saturday 13 August 1994
Campbell Mackay is a middle- aged minor poet and a stalwart schoolmaster; he has been forced by the reforming zeal of modish 'bureauprats', in thrall to a pernicious egalitarianism, to walk away from the profession he loves.
Preparing for his last lesson - a lecture on Milton's 'Lycidas' - he looks back over his long, thin-spun life with infinite weariness and regret. As a young man he was fired by a Leavisite belief in the supreme civilising qualities, the revitalising powers, of great works. This was why he spurned research opportunities at Cambridge to teach in his beloved Scotland. But now sickness and decay is in all that he sees.
Where once his life was sustained by immense visions, a tremendous sense of purpose, he now fears the shadow of sudden death hanging over him. Cocooned in his isolation, like Samuel Beckett's Krapp, endlessly listening to old taped recordings of his own voice, he thinks only of the past - and also, of course, of great writers (swathes of the book are devoted to eager summaries and mini-essays on his favourite novels and poems).
Yet it is only when he stops dreaming about literature that the novel stirs into life. Rush writes well about adolescence, with its secrecies, its petty rivalries and its trembling anxieties, and the best passages are those which drown the reader in waves of memory. We read with the shock of recognition of Mackay's first self-induced ejaculation; his clumsy teenage crushes; and his keen hatred of fellow pupil Cranford, who later returns as a loathed educationalist.
Formally, the novel is interesting, too. A whole mass of allusions, half-remembered quotes and misquotes perpetually interrupt the flow and rush of the narrative. The juxtaposition of babbling voices, many speaking against each other, emphasises the notion of Mackay's disintegration, the dislocation of the pronoun 'I' and the fading of the omniscient narrator.
If there is a problem here it is that the self-affirming Mackay is forever showering himself in praise. Though much of what he says about declining educational standards and the triumiph of a system that aspires to 'safeness, sameness and tameness' has the force of common sense, he never allows alternative views, dissenting opinions to flourish. His anti-hero Cranford is a mere shadow, a voiceless grotesque, a hovering menace. He is never given the chance to explain why he favours change, a new conformity. 'A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,' wrote Edmund Burke, and one continually longs to remind Mackay of this.
In the end, although one eventually tires of the long melancholy withdrawing roar of Mackay's rantings and also of his elaborate strategy of self-enthronement, there is something impressive and memorable about his fundamental energy, his blind fury. With his vigorous opposition to the New English Bible and his loathing of Kathy Acker, he may at times sound uncomfortably like the very worst kind of tweedy reactionary, but at least he cares.
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