Count the Commas

Terry Eagleton

  • Heartbreak by Craig Raine
    Atlantic, 186 pp, £12.99, July 2010, ISBN 978 1 84887 510 4

Craig Raine’s Heartbreak is a novel in the sense in which Eton is a school near Slough. The description is true but misleading. It is really a collection of short stories, loosely linked by the topic announced in the title; but perhaps because the English are said to be averse to buying such volumes, the publishers have represented it as a novel, rather as Jedward are represented as singers.

One influence behind this loose-limbed, laid-back kind of novel is Milan Kundera. In its bleakly disenchanted portrayal of sexual love Heartbreak is a Kundera-like work, interweaving description of various fragile relationships with authorial reflections on the human condition. Like Kundera, too, the text is laconic and disjointed, structurally as well as semantically terse, made up of episodes that travel no more than a few pages. What can seem to be genuine wisdom in the case of Kundera, however, is too often either smartass or banal in the case of Raine. ‘Tears,’ the narrator tells us obscurely, ‘come with a non-negotiable, fixed-rate, moral currency – as do Hitler (negatively) and Shakespeare (positively) … they are like diarrhoea.’ ‘We need,’ he adds, ‘a poetics of crying.’ There is talk of the ‘semiology of innocence’. We learn with a mild frisson of amazement that ‘all art is sincere and artifice,’ as well as that Shakespeare is a genius despite some of his stuff being a bit iffy. There are pregnant pronouncements such as ‘the myth of our attractiveness survives its destruction’; in the margin the reader is silently invited to inscribe a large approving tick. ‘At every age,’ we are informed, ‘there are always bits of ourselves that are hidden from ourselves.’ Or, as in this novel, bits that might be better off hidden. When it comes to sex, one must recognise that ‘distaste is fatal in this notoriously tasteless area, which is full of acquired tastes. (The taste of semen, the taste of vagina, the differing tastes of both.)’

There is, in short, plenty of stuff to keep Pseuds’ Corner busy for a fair few months: ‘Francesca’s fanny was a glorious irrepressible Afro pompon (“to go with my Botswana bottom”)’ might do for a start. A woman’s breasts move as she walks in a pattern ‘simple but somehow contradictory. As a drop of water fattens, stretches, shrinks: undecided in the suspense of its own elastic eternity.’ As with many Raine conceits, it is the voulu, blatantly unfelt quality of this that leaps from the page, the way it keeps a proud eye on its own verbal pirouetting. A pair of female nipples are ‘asymmetric hernias’. There is much rustling of the author’s Things I Saw Today that Look A Bit Like Other Things notebook. This is a poetry conceived in the wits rather than the soul. Images which try to get up close to the physical succeed only in banishing it in a blur of abstraction.

There are plenty of these Martianisms, ranging from the mildly impressive (‘the perfect stutter of hat’ to be seen in a man wearing several panamas at once) to the uproariously absurd: ‘He had the uneven wide thin lips of an alligator who has remembered a joke and is wondering whether to tell it’ is not too hard to locate on that axis. Neither is ‘Holub had the mouth of someone who knows he will be asked to inform in exchange for permission to travel to the USA.’ These mouths cannot be visualised, any more than Auden’s ‘Anxiety receives them like a grand hotel’ can be. Auden’s habit of offering us images that seem perceptible at first sight but on second glance are not (‘They lie apart like epochs from each other’) is genuinely Metaphysical, yoking together concrete and abstract so that each interestingly interferes with the other. Raine’s images, by contrast, are too fastidiously self-regarding, too enraptured by their own show-off contrivance, to light up actual bits of the world. Rather than setting up a revealing interplay between sensation and idea, they dissolve the former into the latter. A woman’s lips (the book is obsessed with mouths) move in ‘marginal, significant shifts, gatherings, gives and resistance. Concluding like a wave finally washing the lowest step of a quay with a little flamenco of foam.’ Once again, the thing perceived disappears up its own description. Another woman bites her nails so that ‘each quick was bared, a frayed frontier of pink, the grip-seal on a plastic bag, a gap, a gash, recovering cosmetic surgery.’ In a flash of bogus meta-commentary, Raine adds coyly: ‘How many epithets is that? Count the commas. A handful. Five,’ which magnifies the self-preening rather than letting it off the hook. An arch knowingness isn’t the same as a redemptive self-irony.

As with Flaubert, the very scrupulousness with which things are depicted prevents us from doing more than squint at them sideways. The Martian image displaces attention from the thing being described in an attempt to capture its essence. In Flaubert’s case, however, this linguistic self-subversion is deliberate and ironic, a moral strategy all its own. Only the most sweetly charitable of critics could say the same of Raine.

That so many of the somatic images backfire is a problem for the novel, since they represent the mode in which its author seems most at home. He is better at grasping his characters as fleshly bits and pieces rather than as intricate moral creatures. They are caught in a series of snapshots rather than displayed in an evolving dramatic narrative. The sensibility that allows Raine his eye for the offbeat detail unfits him for any more sustained treatment, which is one reason the episodic form of the novel suits him so well. When he writes (mouths again), ‘this mouth, those thin lips, are what it sometimes means to have a broken heart,’ the sentiment is not only mildly mawkish; it also pinpoints the way in which physical details here too often stand in for a more inward investigation.

As a book fascinated by such details, Heartbreak is obsessed with that most voguishly postmodern of phenomena, the body, a term that must nowadays figure in the book title of every aspiring academic on pain of loss of tenure. The female anus, suitably aestheticised, crops up rather a lot: ‘The beautiful blot of her arsehole. A dark-pink peach-stone. An astonishment of lips.’ (One presumes he has slipped here from one thing to another, unless the woman in question is anatomically unique.) Another arsehole is compared to a café au lait, enough to keep you out of your local bistro for a fortnight.

There is a vein of fascination with physical disfigurement and destruction. Colin, recovering from cancer of the throat, has a neck which ‘had gathered round a raw hole, withered like a sick plant. And his voice had changed. It crackled and buzzed like a walkie-talkie.’ Frazer, having survived his lover deliberately driving her car over him and setting him on fire, ‘was without eyebrows or eyelashes, and his features had the abbreviated quality of Down’s Syndrome … The red, uneven, shining skin had plastic patches of white fat [like] layers of overlapping Parma ham.’

The novel suffers from a surfeit of literary, as well as linguistic, self-consciousness. Characters are continually pelting each other with chunks of Shakespeare or T.S. Eliot. There are even a couple of discreet allusions to Areté, the author’s own literary journal, though with commendable delicacy Raine refrains from providing the address of the subscriptions manager. The reader stumbles unexpectedly on a brief essay on Shakespeare’s Enobarbus. People say puke-makingly pretentious things like: ‘The art of drama, no, the essence of drama is unpredictable inevitability.’ Someone says to someone else, ‘propinquity creates its own pressures,’ a line nobody could actually pronounce without sounding like a drunk. A character writing out a large cheque for neat little hearing implants quotes the lines ‘A condition of complete simplicity/Costing not less than everything’ from Four Quartets. Since the novel is too precious and self-important to be funny, too innocent of emotional warmth or a sense of its own absurdities, this kind of stuff has to pass for wit. As far as non-funniness goes, the trouble begins as early as the dedication, in which the author thanks his son for giving the book ‘one of its best jokes’. Would that be the one about tears as diarrhoea, Francesca’s fanny or the alligator wondering whether to tell a funny story?

In this brittle, overbred world, people can be found speaking to each other in the oblique, emotionally constipated tones of a Noël Coward drama. Francesca thinks it smart to imitate African English. The novel has a notably tin ear for human speech. Someone who is clearly not from a Glasgow housing scheme asks: ‘Where is it, somewhere in Walter Pater, where he says that Leonardo says that all improvements in arts stem from a sense of dissatisfaction?’ The slight air of uncertainty and studiedly dishevelled syntax are meant to add a touch of the vraisemblable to this woefully wooden dialogue.

Richard Wagner, apparently reading from a Teutonic tome laid on a lectern, says to a friend: ‘Schopenhauer says the universe is driven by blind, impulsive will. The World as Will and Idea. He says goodness can only exist, if this will is repressed. But it is difficult, very difficult, to control this essence, this force. It has no altruism. There is no altruism.’ That ‘difficult, very difficult’ is a feeble stab at the living voice, comically undercut by the robotic idiom that precedes it. Another character speaks of ‘some … dump in fucking wind-tormented Ireland. I remember going for a walk in one of those places. Got an amazing headache in seconds from the wind parting my fucking hair in a hundred different places. Every which way. I thought I had a brain tumour. Seriously.’ Nobody actually says ‘wind-tormented’, so the poeticism has to be deflated by that ‘fucking’. The notion of the wind parting one’s hair in a hundred different places is another shamefaced piece of poetry, which must be countered by the sham colloquialism of ‘every which way’. In general, the novel’s idea of how to make conversation sound authentic is to sprinkle it with two or three ‘fucks’ a line, which succeeds only in making it sound phoney.

Heartbreak has an English middle-class reticence when it comes to the deep exploration of feeling. There is a sense in which the novel rationalises this defect by taking refuge behind its stiff-upper-lipped characters. We are told that people are in love or despair, rather than seeing this in action. The book’s title suggests that it is about love, but it is really about sex. Sometimes there is straightforward, honest-to-goodness shagging, while at other times the sex is more pluralistic, perverse and postmodern. ‘How did this come about?’ the narrator asks himself. ‘That a 62-year-old man should be fucking the lesbian lay of his heterosexual heartbroken daughter?’ The alliteration reflects the sexual doublings.

The world of this novel is not a pleasant one. It is a sex-obsessed place full of beautiful, genetically faithless people who talk mostly about art and shagging when they’re not saying ‘fuck you’. Friendship in this hermetic sphere is ‘one friend betraying another friend to a third friend’. Happiness and self-fulfilment are for the most part outlandish fantasies. And, as Schopenhauer remarked, there is no altruism. It is a high-minded cliché of contemporary fiction that love is doomed, social hope bankrupt and virtue wet behind the ears. In this context, the most outrageously avant-garde novel would be one in which someone was happy for a change.