If we didn’t already know that Milan Kundera is one of Craig Raine’s literary heroes, then it wouldn’t be too hard to work it out from his first novel.
If we didn’t already know that Milan Kundera is one of Craig Raine’s literary heroes, then it wouldn’t be too hard to work it out from his first novel. As in Kundera’s later fiction (Immortality, Slowness, Identity, Ignorance), there’s the stark one-word title laying out the theme to be interrogated. There’s the same relentless erudition — so that even Raine’s two-page thematic scene-setter finds room for Dickens, Beckett, Auden and Henry James. More obviously still, there’s the same mix of straight narrative with essay-writing, fragments of autobiography and much learned editorialising about what the characters are up to.
But, as it turns out, you need more than just all this to match Kundera. After that literature-laden introduction, we get the tale of an elderly Englishwoman who once sailed to Chile to marry her fiancé, but was jilted at the quayside. From there, it’s off to American academia for the love affair between a disfigured lecturer and a poet, which prompts Raine to ponder the ‘poetics of crying’ — before we head back to Britain for a couple with a Down’s syndrome daughter. Next comes a solid piece of lit-crit on the role of Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra.
Each of these elements works perfectly well on its own. Yet, the longer Heartbreak goes on, the clearer it becomes that one thing Raine hasn’t learned from his master is how to combine them into what Kundera likes to call ‘a polyphonic whole’.
Even as you’re being swept along by an individual bit of story-telling or scholarly speculation, there’s often the nagging question of what this particular passage is doing at this particular point in this particular book. Admittedly, many sections do have features in common, but these feel more like tics (or possibly obsessions) than literary motifs. The size and shape of every female character’s breasts, for instance, are carefully noted — along, in many cases, with the precise topography of their bottoms and of what Raine generally refers to as their ‘fannies’.
One reason for the lack of unity is famously not unusual in first novels — but perhaps more unexpected when the novelist in question is such an old literary hand, with 30 years behind him as a poet, critic, academic, feuder and editor. Essentially, Raine seems to throw in more or less anything that’s been on his mind: from the link between creativity and sex (over-rated in his view) to the importance of loyalty in friendship (ditto). This being Craig Raine, there’s also an unmistakeable sense of score-settling in some of the most wildly irrelevant asides, which include attacks on Newsnight Review, Paul Muldoon’s hairstyle and Richard Curtis’s misreading of Auden’s Stop All the Clocks in Four Weddings and a Funeral. And with all that going on, it’s maybe not surprising that for large parts of the book Raine appears to forget about interrogating the theme of heartbreak altogether.
Taken page by page, the novel does remain an entertaining read, full of good snippets. Yet, Raine’s endlessly discursive — or, if you prefer, completely rambling — approach also means that the overall result achieves the rare feat of being both enjoyable and distinctly frustrating at the same time.