Thursday, 11 June 2015
The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen
Her hands lay in her lap and she considered them… She said: ‘I am sorry, hands, because you served me well and I have not been good to you.’ Her eyes travelled to her legs sticking out in front of her, the thin shins and dun-coloured tights. She said: ‘And I am sorry, legs, because all your life you sat at a desk and you shifted on the seat of hard chairs.’ She considered the sleeves of her blue mackintosh. She said: ‘And I am sorry, arms, because you never wore bracelets and never hugged and never saw much of the sun.’ Her head hurt very much then, and she closed her eyes and said: ‘And I am sorry, head, because you worked for so long and I never rewarded you, only made you work harder.’ Then her eyes were hot and the pain in her chest was very great and it occurred to her for the first time that it came from her heart. She said: ‘And I am sorry, heart, because you beat fast for fear many more times than for joy, and never for love.’
observations: Above is the kind of passage that makes this book well worth reading. But there’s a lot more that isn’t anything like that.
If you could imagine Kate Bush, Jeanette Winterson and Anita Brookner getting together to write a book you might come up with this one. Grace McCleen is obviously a formidable talent, and there are passages and sentences that are amazing. When I started reading it, it pulled me in immediately: I really wanted to know what was happening to these characters.
But then she kept losing me, and/or making me uncomfortable.
The book is infuriating – it’s 50% lovely and interesting, and 50% dreadful, as if written by an undergraduate having fantasies about her tutor and her future life in academia. And, what’s more, an undergraduate in around 2000, not 1980 as claimed. The heroine simply didn’t convince as a student of 1980, nothing rang true. McCleen seems to have decided that in the modern part of the book she wanted Elizabeth to be in her 50s, and the time now, but this put everything else out – how old are Edward Hunt and the porter supposed to be in the second half of the timeframe? It makes no sense.
To take one more problem (and I have a list of them): There is a long detailed description of a tutorial about Marvell’s poem To His Coy Mistress. The poem is repeatedly referred to as a sonnet. It is not a sonnet. This is not a casual mistake (she refers to it as a sonnet FIVE times, it is being compared to another sonnet). I don’t think I’m just being pedantic: these are students studying English Literature at what is obviously Oxford University****, and the whole book can only succeed if you are convinced of the brilliance of the heroine, her tutor, all the other undergraduates, and the author.
I read the Kindle edition of this book. In the paperback version, after this mistake presumably had been pointed out, the first reference to the poem as a sonnet has been corrected. But the remaining four mentions – over the next two pages – still stand. Is this not positively insulting to the reader, and even more embarrassing for the publishers, editors and author?
*** Though perhaps not. The heroine mystifyingly travels for several hours on a train from Waterloo to get to her ‘city of books’. I thought this was another mistake, but perhaps the ‘city of books’ is Bournemouth?
So this is a book about a very bright young woman, not quite appreciated, but then a male tutor suddenly sees through her shyness and awkwardness and knows she is a genius. You’d say it was wish fulfilment, but then - a bright girl who sacrifices everything to her academic future and has no human relationships - no-one could wish for that. (Anita Brookner, anyone?) I didn’t feel sympathy for her: I thought she was annoying, and found it difficult to believe she had made a success of her career.
The reason this is SOO exasperating is because some of the writing is so good – there are passages, particularly near the end, that are sublime. But the clichéd Oxford interview scenes, the twinkly old porter, the ‘acceptance’ letter (acceptance to what?), the fake humility, the train journey – all drag down the book.
The images are fashion adverts: the beloved male professor is, of course, quite scruffy with scuffed boots and shapeless clothes.