Elizabeth Stone, English professor at UCL, has long lived on ‘paper and words and thin air’. Single, friendless, dessicated, respected, she passes out during a faculty meeting and wakes to find herself ‘attached by a chain of spit to her own cardigan’. A brain tumour is diagnosed, and removed. Expecting death, Elizabeth receives the news that her treatment was apparently successful as a gift: ‘Time had been returned to her.’ She takes her bravest decision in 30 years and goes back to ‘the city of books’ where, as an undergraduate, she had the only profound emotional experience of her adult life.
When Elizabeth was seven, her unstable mother disappeared, leaving her only child forever feeling ‘halved, like a house fallen into the sea’. Unsympathetically fostered, she sought companionship and refuge in books. From the hour of her admission interview at Oxford (for so it is, though it’s never named), Elizabeth is in thrall to her tutor and mentor, Edward Hunt, an unprofessorial northerner in jeans and bovver boots who loves Bach and Joy Division, and whose room is crammed with books, ‘amorously interleaved, rudely splayed or tightly bound… whispering, confidential… spine to secret spine’. To Elizabeth, her task is clear: ‘He had locked her in a chamber filled with straw which it befell her to spin into gold.’ She has to be the best student Edward has ever taught.
What follows is an intense study of aloneness, at times both moving and beautiful. The ageing Elizabeth’s quest for academic gold is given fresh urgency by the tumour; she renews contact with Hunt (both surnames are resonant) and is belatedly, agonisingly, forced to confront the emotions she has systematically denied herself. I’m reminded of The Remains of the Day; there’s a small debt to Mrs Dalloway, too, and perhaps a whiff of Finnegans Wake.
This is not to say that The Professor of Poetry is derivative, but it is avowedly a book about books. Poetry threads through every page; Shakespeare, Marvell, Wyatt, T.S. Eliot. Like Eliot, Grace McCleen meditates on time, on the meeting point of the real and the imagined, on the pursuit of the ungraspable moment. And though her protagonist claims not to ‘hold with moribund female poets’, her thin-skinned sensibility is as disordered as Sylvia Plath’s. In her tutor’s hortus conclusus, the roses, freighted with symbol, are ‘enormous, ragged, feathered; velvet, silky; pleated, fleshy; ruffled, seething; coiled’.
McCleen is not afraid to propel her reader deep into the not always user-friendly world of literary criticism. This suits this reader; I read English at Oxford at exactly the same time as the fictional Elizabeth, so I gobbled up details of essays and libraries and book stacks with a kind of quivering nostalgia. It remains to be seen whether others, differently educated, will find, say, the description of a seminar on Wyatt’s ‘Whoso list to hunt’ quite so powerfully charged.
I’m tempted to mark this novel like an essay; I think it’s a pity that, in a book about words, ‘enormity’ is used incorrectly several times, and I wonder why ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is described as a sonnet. I’m not keen on Albert, the college porter, a Shakes-pearian trope whose role is to put the world of academe in context, but who is only a cliché of kindliness. And Edward’s smoking in tutorials is meant to mark him out as a rebel, but doesn’t; everyone puffed away like steam trains in those days.
But essentially this is a remarkable piece of work, empathetic, intelligent and genuinely poetic. Alpha double minus. Will do even better.