Heartbreak

In a career spanning more than three decades, Craig Raine has been as dynamically involved in the literary scene as any writer since Ezra Pound. He has successfully inhabited the roles of avant-garde poet, critic, editor, mentor and committed champion of young authors. Until now, however, he has never tried to channel his many talents into writing a novel.

Heartbreak consists of about 30 discrete narratives, sewn together by the theme of the title and by the voice of an intrusive narrator. Based mostly in Oxford and London, and in the worlds of academia and the media, the stories portray a narrow cross-section of middle-class English society.
There is a lot of sex (most of it loveless, none of it lovingly described); a lot of betrayal; a lot of middle-aged men "fucking" much younger women; a lot of musing on everything from sentimentality to sexual fantasy; and an awful lot of talk about writers and writing.

Raine presumably hoped to fashion out of this material something like the free-form, philosophical novels of Milan Kundera (of which he is a vocal admirer). But evidently that is a tough thing to achieve; and in Kundera's case it is made possible only by the charm of his characters, and by his own apparent delicacy and sensitivity - all three of which qualities Heartbreak lacks.

As a novelist, Raine comes close to realising the precise opposite of negative capability. It soon becomes clear that the narrator of Heartbreak should be identified straightforwardly with the author himself. On the first page of the novel, he tells us that Richard Curtis is not only "the scriptwriter of Four Weddings and a Funeral", but also "my ex-pupil". He goes on to direct our attention to two articles published in Areté (the literary magazine that he edits) and to talk about his relationships with the Czech poet Miroslav Holub and William Golding's widow.

Since Raine-the-narrator is the only character present throughout the novel (its very last word is "me") and since he is accorded most of the
insights and jokes (such as they are), it is fair to describe him as its hero. But a number of Raine substitutes crop up among the minor characters, too. When one particularly Raine-like figure (an Oxford don who has a son at the Dragon School and whose favourite poet is T S Eliot) is given the name Rex, the narcissism of the project becomes difficult to ignore. Raine's perspective on the world, as exhibited here, is reminiscent of the scene in Spike Jonze's film Being John Malkovich in which Malkovich goes through a portal to his own mind and enters a landscape peopled entirely by his clones.

Raine appears to be indifferent as to whether the stories in Heartbreak work as fiction (his treatment of such basic elements of the novel as scene-setting and character­isation is entirely cursory); their main purpose is to provide a supporting framework for his thoughts on various subjects. This is a book in which a simple narrative sentence such as "She began to cry" is closely followed by a page of grand essayistic sentences such as "We need a poetics of crying" and "Wilfred Owen talks about the eternal reciprocity of tears".

Not only do these authorial comments rob the individual stories in which they occur of any power to convince or move, but they are unedifying in their own right. It is simply wrong to claim, as Raine does, that "tears come with a non-negotiable, fixed-rate moral currency". We all know, after all, what is meant by crocodile tears.

Even the things we might have expected Raine to do rather well - physical detail, metaphors - he mishandles here. The word "fizz" in the sentence "A fine fizz of sweat could be seen at her blonde hairline" is less inventive than it is bizarre; a phrase such as “an astonishment of lips" (used to describe a woman's labia) sounds quite good, but is literally meaningless; and anyone whose "arsehole" looks very much like "a dark pink peach stone" should seek medical help.

The dialogue is just as affected. A kind of syntactical stutter attempts to do the work of conveying the natural rhythms of speech. A teenager says to her middle-aged lover: "You are lucky at your age, bloody lucky, to be having nooky with a slip like me." A middle-aged man asks his teenage lover: "Am I imagining this, or is your fanny more - how can I put this indelicate matter delicately? - even more hirsute than formerly, if that is physically possible?"

Raine is a good poet and an excellent critic, but, on the evidence of Heartbreak, he is a far less accomplished novelist. His publishers have done him no favours at all in accepting this book.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals