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.

Irvine is galvanised by Gurney’s arrival at Dartford. In the quest to understand his mysterious patient, he is helped and hinder-ed in equal measure by Gurney’s roommate, Oliver Lyle (another of Edric’s damaged creations). Irvine finds himself increasingly irritated by the need to tiptoe around Lyle, who is the older man’s long-term companion and self-appointed protector from their previous asylum. Edric hints at their relationship through a series of small but eloquent gestures: Lyle resting a hand on Gurney’s shoulder is enough to bring one of Irvine’s precious interviews to a close. Barely into his twenties, Lyle is a conscientious objector of Quaker origins, who was imprisoned during the war. His psychological deterioration is a product of the tortures he suffered as a ‘conchie’ at the hands of his fellow prisoners. If he wanted to, Lyle could return to Gloucestershire, where a medical board will probably grant him parole. To Irvine’s frustration, he holds off, partly because of his commitment to Gurney and partly because institutions are now his only home. Lyle is another of those orphans, like Irvine, whose entire family has been picked off by combat or grief. His response is a childlike possessiveness, directed first at Gurney and then, more dangerously, at a nurse, Alison West.

As well as a cast of invented doctors and inmates, Edric’s Gurney interacts with two historical figures familiar from Michael Hurd’s biography, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (1978). The first is Marion Scott, a friend from Gurney’s Royal College days. She would loom large in any account, as the person who collated Gurney’s scattered manuscripts and intervened with his doctors to help him write. Edric’s plausible if somewhat uninspired take on her is as the tireless ‘Mother Hen’, forever clucking around her charge. The second figure is Gurney’s fellow poet and Gloucestershire lad, F.W. Harvey – the addressee of Gurney’s best-known poem, ‘To His Love’. Gurney’s relationships with these two people – by turns bantering, childlike and latently erotic – are a biographer’s conundrum. Edric manages to evoke some of these complexities, particularly where Harvey is concerned. He draws a contrast between Harvey’s affectionate anxiety for his friend and Scott’s more nagging ambitions. (In a moment of brooding clarity, Gurney calls her an ‘insister’.) Too often, however, the nuances are announced by Irvine’s psychologising platitudes (‘Perhaps they were substitutes for his own family’), rather than the characters’ carefully observed interactions.

Edric’s selectiveness with the historical record shapes the otherwise intractable material of a real life into an aesthetically compelling order. But he sometimes gives in too readily to the demands of fiction. This is particularly the case when it comes to closure. Scott arranges a concert of Gurney’s music in the asylum. The story builds towards the evening of the performance, which turns out to be more of an elegy for Gurney’s lost genius than a stopping-place on the way to recovery. Yet a sudden irruption of violence mars the conclusion to what is otherwise a mood-piece of impressive restraint.

In Zodiac Light is generally best at its least neat. Although they comprise a relatively small proportion of its pages, the wandering middle sections recording Gurney’s conversations with Irvine and his other visitors paint a haunting portrait of a man slipping through mental states – now affectionately jovial, now tormented by hallucinations and imaginary electrical waves. During these sessions, Gurney’s memories float disjointedly to the surface in response to Irvine’s questioning. At their most pedestrian, the exchanges lightly digest the facts of Gurney’s peripatetic existence: ‘You were discharged from Napsbury in October – 18, and committed to Barnwood House in the same month – 22.’ But Gurney also recalls his war years in a series of intense fragments: a young soldier is sung to by his fellows as he bleeds to death; a German pilot jumps from his plane ‘like one of Lucifer’s bad angels’. ‘I don’t know what had hit it. German. Came down like a sycamore seed. Got the air beneath it. Round and round. And then the pilot jumped out of it. We all watched him climb out of his seat and then balance himself on the wing. That’s how slow the machine came down. And then he just jumped.’

The terse, choppy delivery bears little resemblance to the style of Gurney’s war poems, though both contrast the horrors of combat with rural tranquillity. In Zodiac Light quotes very little of Gurney’s verse directly. Edric attempts a subtler kind of pastiche, re-creating a sparer version of the poetic voice: ‘As he said this, his voice slowed and deepened slightly and I heard an echo of several of his poems, as though he might even perhaps have been reading from one of them.’ The reader detects the resemblance without feeling it has been laid on too thick. Edric creates a flexible idiom for his Gurney, whose tendency to drop in and out of Gloucestershire rhythms signals his troubled awareness of class.

In Zodiac Light is interested in how much we can know about people. It makes us want to see inside Gurney’s disintegrating mind, without ever quite granting us access. This urge is first and foremost Irvine’s; like him, we can only observe his patient from the outside. Irvine eventually admits to himself that Gurney’s soul is unreachable: he keeps his ‘necessary, sustaining secrets to himself’. As a character in the fiction, Gurney works largely through absence. Edric redistributes scenes from his past among the other characters: the death of Irvine’s father after a long illness, Lyle’s self-destructive passion for the older nurse. The overwhelming impression is of a novel mourning the absence of its own hero.

In the gaps left by Gurney, Edric fills out Irvine’s upbringing, through a series of recollections focused around his father’s passion for apiculture. The prompt for these flashbacks is Irvine’s drive to repair a group of dilapidated beehives in the asylum orchard. He is helped by Gurney and West, a trio drawn together by their childhood memories of beekeeping. This just about works within the naturalistic setting (if you are ready to ignore the coincidence of three major characters having fathers or uncles who were all obsessive beekeepers). Edric’s account of the colonies’ resurrection has affecting moments, but also a distorting effect on the narration. Unlike, say, Ishmael’s idiosyncratic flurries of cetology in Moby-Dick, Edric’s excursions into bee lore make the characters sound like encyclopedias: ‘I knew, too, that Achilles, Alexander the Great and all the Earls of Southampton had been embalmed and then buried in honey.’

Edric is a virtuoso of atmospheric settings. Peacetime, which follows the postwar life of a tiny community perched on the Wash, conjures up the bleakness of the Fenland backdrop. The action sticks to its restricted stage with all the rigour of classical tragedy. In Desolate Heaven – Edric’s best novel – similarly confines itself to a remote Swiss spa town, towards the end of the tourist season in 1919. The story anticipates many of the elements of In Zodiac Light. A young Englishwoman, Elizabeth Mortlake, seeks solace from the loss of her brother, a pilot. Her chosen resort is next door to a British military hospital-cum-asylum, specialising in facial reconstruction. Its patients have suffered a variety of physical and psychological mutilations. In suitably glacial prose, the novel charts their contact with Elizabeth over the dying of an Alpine summer. The emotional temperature swerves as unexpectedly as the landscape itself, from bright sunshine into mountain-shadowed chill.

By comparison, In Zodiac Light comes up short, leaving the historical grounds and wards of the Dartford Asylum all too sketchily imagined. Instead, it dwells on the overdetermined symbolism of the beehives. As Irvine sorts out colonies that can be ‘saved, allowed to survive, to struggle through to spring’ from others ‘collapsed beyond retrieval’, beekeeping starts to sound suspiciously like therapy. Edric hopes the bees will bear the novel’s emotional and political freight, but he piles too much onto them. The decaying hives variously stand for the hospital’s inmates, Gurney’s failing creativity, the casualties of war and a state that perpetrates such injustices as imprisoning Lyle. Our hazy sense of the asylum as a real place struggles to ground the novel’s allegorical aspirations. At times, Irvine seems almost aware of the symbols thudding all around him. He laughs that the local shipping channels are called the ‘Lower Hope Reaches’: who would have known Kent was an allegorical landscape?

Another unfortunate consequence of In Zodiac Light’s dalliance with allegory is the flatness of its villains. The hospital’s hierarchy has Osborne, a shamelessly careerist acting superintendent, at its head. His chief enforcer, Cox, is a morphine-using bully and ex-sergeant who glories in Dartford’s punitive militaristic regimen. Cox is blackmailing Osborne, which gives him free rein to tyrannise patients and junior doctors alike. The hospital is run by Cox’s staff of surly orderlies, too alike to be told apart. As bad guys, they unhesitatingly oppose Irvine’s every move. He in turn is baffled by their hostility towards the men in their care. Eventually, with his psychiatrist’s cap on, Irvine puts it down to a society ‘unsettled and endlessly disappointed by these constant reminders and tethers’ to a past it would rather forget. Irvine’s antagonists represent nothing more than a generalised social malaise, their impoverished motives a symptom of the nation at large. Irvine does not succeed in changing the way the asylum – or 1920s England – is governed. By the novel’s end, Lyle has already gone and Irvine is about to leave. And Gurney, like ‘a weather vane caught in a changing wind’, settles into his life’s final course.