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.

Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Graduate Pricing Analyst - 6 months / 1 year analytical experience

    £20000 - £25000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

    Project Manager (retail, upgrades, rollouts)

    £40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Project...

    Hourly Paid Teachers

    £20 - £25 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: randstad education are curren...

    Technical Project Manager - Software and Infrastructure - Government Experience

    £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Central Lon...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits