Book review: Life study

The Cure for Love by Jonathan Bate Picador, pounds 16.99

Jonathan Bate is well known as a literary critic, especially of Shakespeare and Wordsworth. His first novel is a compendium of critical theories. But it is a lot more fun than the textbooks, and as much of a tease as its heroine.

His middle-aged hero wakes up in hospital. He has fallen on to rocks and suffers total amnesia. Luckily, the most accessible of all great writers, Shakespeare - for it is he, though he is never named - happens to be occupying the next bed. He gives the hero a name, William, and the first clue to recovering his memories of the sexual obsession that has all but destroyed him. Shakespeare's sonnets establish him as the expert on the subject.

Encouraged by his psychiatrist, William begins to write, and slowly reconstructs his past life. Other Williams, Wordsworth and Yeats, fill in with quotations. William is not entirely solipsistic about names: John Donne, with his misogynistic spleen, and John Ruskin, with his lech for young Rose La Touche, supply material too. But it is William Hazlitt who emerges as the dominant voice in William's story, and their identities become indistinguishable.

Both are failed painters, critics of Shakespeare, gritty, accomplished essayists and political dissidents: Hazlitt just after the French Revolution, Bate's William during the Thatcher years. Neither notices the inconsistency between his radicalism and his contempt for the working-class family he lodges with. Neither sees how exploitative is his craze for the daughter of the house - Sarah Walker, in both cases - who brings his breakfast, cleans his room and services him sexually while keeping her clothes on.

Hazlitt is little read now. His Liber Amoris, the account of his relationship with Sarah published in 1823, was widely derided. But it is a horribly powerful piece of writing which the 1990s William can reproduce verbatim as his own experience. 1820s, 1990s: same difference. Our William is quite unaffected by feminist thinking about sex or literature in the intervening years. But we must not mistake William for Bate.

While Hazlitt was visiting Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Lake District, he tried to rape a Keswick woman and flogged her when she fought him off. The local people were furious. By Coleridge's account, 200 men on horseback hunted him through the woods around Keswick. He was lucky to get away alive, supplied with money and clothes by Wordsworth, and wearing Coleridge's shoes. It was the end of his very short friendship with both poets.

Our William makes his own literary excursion to the Lakes. But it is the woman who sexually attacks him, of course. He edits out his own brutality though he can't quite edit out his absurdity. Occasionally, a dry comment from his ex-wife further undermines his unreliable narrative. Bate makes his reader work hard to distinguish the different chronological layers.

Sarah is the novel's witty central metaphor. She is life itself, never to be experienced in the raw but only through the fabric of a language already written for us when we are born. Writers, far from being sources of humane wisdom, are nastier and more deceitful than average; habitual readers the more deceived. Even when we know that, there is no escaping the primacy of the book. The cure for love is another love. But there is no cure for writers and readers, condemned to glimpse reality for ever through a haze of quotations.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

    £90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

    £100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

    Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee