BOOK REVIEW / Daydream believer

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