Craig Raine's The Divine Comedy is a game of two halves. (Dante's was one of three thirds.) His subject – the "basic grammar of sex" – is boldly and baldly put: "Body parts – his body parts in her body part, their body parts in her body part." Raine's second act aims to inject these parts with some art: "The entire glans was not revealed – only the tip with its goldfish mouth. The penis in its polo neck."
Yup, Raine's second novel is about sex – and moreover, how sex in a novel should be written. How is it different, for example, in youth? "First sex, early-twenties sex, has all the physicality, all the strenuous overacting, of silent film. Then couples find themselves in the talkies." The existence of Raine's novel might imply a third stage to this evolution: that after everything sexual has been done and said, there's nothing for it but to write.
Of course, Raine has wrestled with the subject before: in his infamous poem "Arsehole" (after Rimbaud), and his elegy for a lost lover, À la recherche du temps perdu. (Wherever does he get these titles?) Both fit the bill of Raine's "Martian" poetry, which revivifies commonplace parts of life by making them appear alien and deeply personal. His novels, including 2010's Heartbreak, wed this process of estrangement to a form borrowed from Milan Kundera: "A last 'digression'", Raine calls it.
In The Divine Comedy, what this means is a loose collection of stories featuring highly strung poets living in Poland and having sex, not having sex, trying to have sex, writing about sex or talking about sex. These encounters are narrated in forensic detail, but with a detached and knowing tone that suggests a gynaecological thesis rather than a work of erotica or pornography. Another example of dirty talk is relayed with the prissy precision of Raine's own poetry: "I want to, aah, suck a dog's ridgy, aah, sharp little cock".
Raine's highbrow soap operas boil over into restless digressions. These fuse literary gossip, naughty newspaper articles, nuggets of literary criticism (a coy hand job in Henry James's Wings of a Dove), and meditations on bawdy etymology. Some of Raine's tropes are so specific you can predict them in advance: allusions to his own Areté magazine, his mate Ian McEwan, his poetic rival Joseph Brodsky (hinted to have a small penis), disability, and the sex lives of T S Eliot, Henry James and James Joyce.
The Divine Comedy is certainly memorable, blessed with several very funny farcical moments. Raine knows that The Divine Comedy will raise titters and hackles, that it risks embarrassment and mockery. His response is to keep a straight face and crack deadpan jokes. The Divine Comedy must be one of the more pun-heavy books ever written: "penis ennui" for example, or more unforgivably, "The proof of the pudendum".
This badness suits a story so preoccupied with base matters, and with teasing apart sexual metaphor from sexual innuendo and the sexual, plain and simple. But levity, like foreplay, requires a light touch. Raine's relentless recourse to alliteration ("Funny thing, foreskin") and word play ("Funny thing, humour") grows tired and even tiresome. Combined with the insistent rhythm of his prose, its unvaried tone and two-dimensional characters, it's like hearing your next-door neighbours go at it for hours, the headboard banging unremittingly against the wall.
More intriguing – though no less distracting – is Raine's self-consciousness as a novelist. Hardly a joke goes by that isn't explained in triplicate. More charmless is the moment he lords it over us like a teacher patronising an unprepared student: "Remember Sartre's waiter in Being and Nothingness? No? OK, I'll remind you." Raine, it seems, is not content with merely writing his novel, he wants to provide footnotes and a running commentary. In this latter respect, he may well be better qualified than most, but it robs The Divine Comedy of a certain good grace. It's easy to be superior when you are asking all the questions.
This tension between assurance and insecurity leaks into the book: Raine lambasts people who affect "self-serving self-effacement", and defends those despised for "perceived cockiness". The tussle climaxes when he dresses down critics who exalt "the undistinguished and indistinguishable" (Brian Moore?!, William Trevor?!) and dismiss "obviously good writers ... as egotists who are interposing their writing between the reader and the reality to be rendered".
Is Raine thinking of himself here, and his "obvious", if unsatisfying novel? Doubtless the Literary Review will nominate The Divine Comedy for a Bad Sex Award. But, Raine implies, they would be fools and prudes to do so. He cites George Eliot's conviction that literature's moral function is to "widen our sympathies", before arguing that readers are "inevitably outraged by good art because it deals with what is the case, not with what ought to be the case". Possibly so. But whether The Divine Comedy is good art, moral literature or simply a load of bollocks ingeniously described, I will leave to your personal discretion.
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