BOOK REVIEW / Carnival in Munich: duel in the clown: 'The Feast of Fools' - John David Morley: Abacus, 8.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
JOHN David Morley's new novel is lifelike only if life is like a dome of many-coloured glass. In first-rate works such as Pictures from the Water Trade and In the Labyrinth, he has shown himself to be a writer of immense variety and wit. Now he has taken the Persephone myth, crossed it with a scandalous tale from Munich, and built stained-glass around it.

The novel is prefaced with a dozen pages of the kind you get in a guide to Chartres. First the elaborate book and chapter headings, based on the zodiac for the six months of Persephone's abduction. Then an incomplete list of characters, with some of their inter-relationships: Persephone / Stefanie, married to Brum; her mother, Ceres / Constanze, and an elder sister Martha, married to Hieronymus Kornrumpf.

Stefanie leaves Brum on her wedding day, whisked away by a Pluto on horseback in the English Garden, and leaves him painting a mural, then designing a stained- glass window of his own, both relating back into the novel. Max, her undertaker lover, buys Brum's paintings of Stefanie and Brum steals them back: they settle the matter with an unusual duel behind the bushes at the Black Lodge fencing club. At the end of the winter, Stefanie returns to Brum, and the masquerade is over.

Why on earth should anyone care, was my unjust reaction on a first read. The style is as dense as the 'Dresden fruitcake loaves laid out like corpses whitely dusted', and as full of curranty borrowings: 'Stollen fruit is sweetest.' Trying to do a Joyce on Munich - with Persephone Ulysses - has tempted John David Morley into some of his less successful imitations: the Aeolus newspaper-office scene is revamped, and there's a long Defoe bit on the fog, and a Rococo carnival bit, with Chomsky pillaged for wordplay (Prostrate coffee sneezes under water), plus a chapter divided up by alphabetical headwords. Stefanie and her sisters take time to come into focus, while Brum, Max and Hieronymus seem almost ready to stride out of the stained-glass and set off down the street.

Where are their histories? That is what I wanted to know at the end of my second reading. What have the older characters been up to for the last 50 years? John David Morley manages a prismatic shift of viewpoint, scattering the light into some corners but leaving others in pitch darkness. What resonances are the uniformed duellers supposed to conjure up? And what about the huge warehouses full of baled-up second-hand garments? Who wore the clothes? Whereas Joyce confronts Dublin's hatreds and smelly holes and corners, Morley throws buckets of whitewash at those of Munich (like Brum at his mural painting) and leaves gaping holes in his window.

It is in the passage-work that the quality of this novel shows up. The style is rich and amethyst; there are memorable phrases, descriptions that stick in the mind like tunes or smells, and a relish for a huge vocabulary which is put to work on pear-picking, frost, sex, furniture and much besides.

The Feast of Fools itself is Circumcision (perplexingly described as a Jewish festival) and was in medieval times the excuse for a lot of out-of-tune braying at Mass. This Munich carnival extends over half the year and the whole of the city, and the festival atmosphere survives the breaking-up into fragments of this fairly straightforward tale. One can forgive a lot of the leading - the astrology, the calendars, the mythological scaffolding, the fey dedication, the dog called Procyon, the too-necessary maps, the chapter-headings (Joyce ditched his) - for the bright glass in between.