In some ways, you’ve got to hand it to Craig Raine. Two years ago, after a distinguished career as a poet and all-round man of letters, he published his first novel — and received a series of reviews that, as Woody Allen once put it, read like a Tibetan Book of the Dead. According to virtually all of them, Heartbreak was fragmented, name-dropping, pretentious, and not really a novel anyway: more a loose collection of thoughts, revealing an alarming obsession with sexual organs. But with The Divine Comedy, Raine responds with almost heroic defiance. If you felt like that about the last book, it seems to shout, try this one for size.
In Heartbreak, for instance, the fragments were comparatively chunky, even featuring some recognisably extended narrative. Here, the bits of story barely get a look in amid all the literary, personal and anecdotal reflections on what they might mean. As for that possible obsession, the only change is that it’s men’s rather than women’s parts which now take centre-stage.
Rysiek Harlan, one of two adulterous main male characters, is introduced immediately — but only for a paragraph. He then disappears until page 33 while we get — among much else — an extended anecdote about the perils of circumcision; a discussion of phallus-related birth defects; a re-imagining of the rape of Dinah from the Book of Genesis (apparently she just wanted some uncircumcised sex action); and a scrupulously sourced analysis of the size of Joseph Brodsky’s, Ernest Hemingway’s and W. H. Auden’s penises.
Not long afterwards, poor Rysiek is left to suffer impotence for another 30-odd pages while Raine ruminates on Stravinsky, Aristotle, Francesca Ennis, the egotism of Primo Levi and several more writers’ genitals. (Perhaps the most characteristic sentence in the book is: ‘John Updike, in his 1999 collection of reviews and essays, More Matter, summarises the current state of scholarship on the size of Scott Fitzgerald’s penis.’) As in Heartbreak, the main influence here is clearly Milan Kundera. In Kundera, though, the authorial interventions serve to illuminate the fiction. Here they come close to burying it.
And yet, despite its obvious flaws, I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy the book. If you can suppress the nagging question of what on earth Raine thinks he’s up to (admittedly not easy), you may well find many of the individual passages hard to resist. After all, who wouldn’t want to know what happened when Raine asked Valerie Eliot about John Peter’s homosexual interpretation of The Waste Land — an essay withdrawn when her husband threatened to sue? Or read the gossip about many of Raine’s well-known literary pals? (OK, so those pals mightn’t.) Or even — let’s face it — learn all that stuff about famous people’s penises? At times too, there are moments of genuine and uncomfortable psychological insight.
In other words, the criticisms of Heartbreak can — and probably will — be applied to The Divine Comedy as well. Yet, it really shouldn’t be denied that the experience of actually reading the novel is often great, if slightly weird fun.