Elegy for Gurney

Sarah Howe

  • In Zodiac Light by Robert Edric
    Doubleday, 368 pp, £16.99, July 2008, ISBN 978 0 385 61258 6

Robert Edric specialises in historical backwaters. His novels, 19 to date, unfold in isolated fishing villages, colonial outposts or Alpine spa towns. What these places have in common is that they seem removed from larger political conflicts, though they replay them in claustrophobic miniature. Edric’s imagination has always been drawn to the peripheral, to characters who are set apart, or seeking a geography to match their sense of spiritual exile. For the same reason, his historical fictions tend to cluster at the fag end of things, giving the impression of a camera left running long after the event proper has finished. War’s inglorious aftermath preoccupies several of the recent books, the years 1919 and 1946 in particular. In Desolate Heaven (1997), Peacetime (2002) and The Kingdom of Ashes (2007) are populated with men and women bewildered and resentful at having been inadvertently left alive. A twist on the traditional tale of the soldier’s return, they follow the homecoming of men for whom home no longer exists.

Edric’s latest novel, In Zodiac Light, revisits similar terrain. Set in the City of London Mental Hospital, Dartford, its protagonist is the poet-composer Ivor Gurney, who was a patient there from December 1922 until his death from tuberculosis 15 years later. Edric’s fascination with lives on the margins makes Gurney a logical choice. As a poet, his star has spent decades slowly rising. Two collections, Severn and Somme (1917) and War’s Embers (1919), were greeted with a courteous near-silence that ensured the rejection of his third. Born in 1890, Gurney was the son of a Gloucester tailor. He won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1911 and studied under Vaughan Williams, who recognised the genius of his early song-settings. Gurney’s mental instability was already apparent when war interrupted his studies. He served as a private in France and wrote his first volume of poems before being wounded, gassed and finally sent home. His discharge unleashed a long period of suicidal turbulence, which culminated, in 1922, in his being committed to a private asylum. Gurney’s life is full of dramas that could furnish the plots of biographical fiction, but Edric ignores most of them to focus on a small slice of his early institutionalisation. The action of In Zodiac Light takes place in a fragile parenthesis – the spring of 1923 – overshadowed on either side by Gurney’s tumultuous war years and his final breakdown.

The narrator, Irvine, is a sympathetic but reserved young doctor charged with Gurney’s care. The novel’s delicate counterpoint of psychiatrist and war-damaged poet invites comparison with Pat Barker’s Regeneration (1991). But whereas Barker was concerned with the immediate ethical dilemma of returning mentally shattered men to the trenches, Edric is interested in the war’s lingering psychological fallout. Like most of the novel’s characters, Irvine wrestles with the past. The death of a brother in France, the loss of his parents, their scorn for his having chosen to be a doctor, all weigh heavily on his narration. Although we never hear about Irvine’s war service, it is tattooed on his body and mind: he has a gun-shaped scar on his flank. Scars, bruises and disfigurements are the metaphorical stock-in-trade of a novel about war’s enduring effect on both the individual and the collective consciousness.

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