Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99 Order for £11.69 (free p&p)from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
A Book for All and None, By Clare Morgan
Moved by a mix of fact and fiction
Wednesday 22 June 2011
The art of parallel narratives is one that thrives on juxtaposition, but here's a trio I would never have expected to see: Virginia Woolf, stumbling on the inspiration for To the Lighthouse in a Pembrokeshire village in 1908; the violence of the post-war insurgency in Iraq; and Friedrich Nietzsche in Orta in Italy in 1882, goatishly stroking his moustaches over Louise von Salomé, the young Russian with whom he became briefly infatuated.
What links these disparate events is a pair of academics: middle-aged Beatrice Kopus (a Woolf scholar) and the older Raymond Greatorex (Nietzsche). Beatrice seeks out Raymond for help substantiating her hunch that Salomé, who danced a little around the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group, might have instilled some Nietzschean philosophy in her subject. Estranged from her husband, Walter, who is boss of a dodgy Halliburton-like outfit (thus the Iraq-set sections), she falls into a romance with Raymond and they retreat to his family home, in the hills above Newport, and journey as if on a lark to Orta, to chase down the gloriously unlikely possibility that Nietzsche had carved his and Salomé's initials into a tree trunk.
The great theme of the novel is that paradox of biography: that though the past is immutable to those who lived it, it is only ever available to us as conjecture. No wonder Beatrice's paper on Woolf starts to take on the cadences of fiction. As Morgan states in her acknowledgements, the facts, of Woolf's life especially, are mere counters in a speculative game that is every bit as wild as Walter's ambition to build a Blairishly multi-faith international school in Baghdad.
Some of the various whirling elements could have been trimmed, especially those that try to slip inside the mind of Nietzsche. Woolf is easier, perhaps because she herself set this particular template for fictional characterisation. Sparkling sentences sit alongside muddier passages. Things tighten, though, and as Beatrice, Raymond and Walter's plans come to various kinds of fruition and ruination, Morgan manages that symphonic trick of weaving her parallel narratives into a spell-binding, effortlessly propulsive unity. Symphonies must end, though, and this one chooses, rather doubtfully, to give its final notes to Morgan's over-manipulated factual characters, rather than her rather wonderful invented ones.
MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word
Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Sean Abbott: Messages of support flood in for bowler following death of batsman Phil Hughes
- 2 Exodus Gods and Kings: Ridley Scott never considered casting 'Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such' in lead role
- 3 Girl, 7, gets Tesco to remove 'stupid' sign suggesting superheroes are 'for boys'
- 4 This letter from a reader explains why women can’t play football
- 5 'You should come to my house and eat cheeses with me': 4-year-old sends adorable love letter to girl at school
I'm A Celebrity 2014: Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' close to camp
This house and dental clinic 'piled up like bricks on the brink of collapsing' is why Japan wins at architecture
Exodus Gods and Kings: Ridley Scott never considered casting 'Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such' in lead role
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Jurassic World trailer already facing criticism from palaeontologists
Ukip says babies born to immigrants in the UK should be classed as migrants – which would include Nigel Farage’s own children
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
The young are the new poor: Sharp increase in number of under-25s living in poverty, while over-65s are better off than ever
Tamir Rice: 12-year-old boy playing with fake gun dies after being shot by Ohio police
Rochester aftermath: Sacking of Emily Thornberry will make work of Labour MPs '10 times harder'