On the face of it, Nicholson Baker’s books are a varied bunch. His fiction ranges from the ultra close-up observations of daily life in the early novels to the hard-core sex of Fermata and Vox (a copy of which Monica Lewinsky famously gave to Bill Clinton). His non-fiction includes a tribute to John Updike, a plea for libraries not to abandon card catalogues and an attempt to prove that Winston Churchill was a bloodthirsty anti-Semite.
There is, though, one quality they do share — and that’s an unmistakable obsessiveness. It’s a quality definitely not lacking in Baker’s new novel either.
The narrator of The Anthologist is Paul Chowder, a middle-aged poet in crisis. His girlfriend of eight years has left him. His career, once moderately successful, has stalled. Above all, he’s supposed to be writing the introduction to an anthology of rhyming verse, but can’t get round to it. He decides to fill in the time, as he explains at the start, by telling us ‘everything I know about poetry’.
From there, Paul is as good as his word. We get close readings of several individual poets from John Dryden to Elizabeth Bishop, and scattered thoughts on dozens more. There’s a passionate lament for the ‘tragic’ disappearance of light verse and an analysis of the influence of amphetamines on the work of W. H. Auden. Even so, where the obsessiveness really takes off is in the discussions of metre and rhyme. Certainly it’s difficult to think of a novel by anyone else that might contain such ferocious and repeated attacks on the received wisdoms about iambic pentameter.
According to Paul, the first lie is that iambic pentameter is ‘pre-eminent in English poetry. No it is not. No it is not.’ (Instead, he argues many times, the classic English rhythm is four beats a line.) The second is that pentameter consists of five beats, whereas in reality it’s ‘a slow waltz’. No wonder that, as he puts it with characteristic understatement, ‘that single nonsense word “pentameter” has caused untold confusion, pain, and suffering.’
And the heresies don’t end there. Although Paul likes, and writes, free verse, he regards the abandonment of rhyme in contemporary poetry as not just a mistake, but a betrayal. On seeing a new poem, he confesses, ‘I always secretly want it to rhyme’ — adding the disconcerting challenge, ‘Don’t you?’ He also reminds us that rhyme came under attack as early as 1602 when Thomas Campion decided it was uncouth. Yet, if Campion had won, we’d have ‘four hundred years of pretend Greek and Latin meters … instead of Marvell, and Dryden, and Cole Porter, and Christina Rossetti, and Gilbert and Sullivan’ (continues in this vein for some time).
As the material for a novel, this might all sound a bit whimsical — but it’s far too heartfelt to be that. More importantly, while there’s no denying that one reason for reading The Anthologist is to find out lots of interesting stuff about poetry, it does remain a novel. As obsessives go, Paul proves surprisingly good company — but this is partly because, in Baker’s cunning hands, he can’t prevent his non-reading life from leaking out round the sides in ways that are simultaneously funny and painful.
In other words, as in Flaubert’s Parrot, we gradually realise that the narrator is providing his avalanche of literary information (and sometimes speculation) as a means of both avoiding and exploring his grief — so that the book ends up a sharp, often touching character study as well as a compendium of fascinating facts. The combination of the two duly makes for a richly enjoyable read.