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Allan Massie on The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine


CRAIG RAINE is a poet, and The Divine Comedy may be described as a poet’s novel. This is not necessarily a compliment, though good poets have, of course, written good novels – here, in Scotland, one thinks for instance of Iain Crichton Smith and Andrew Greig. But their novels are not “poetic”.

They are not full of self-consciously fine writing. They have characters in whom the reader can take an interest, and even plots. Because they have these essential ingredients of the novel, you read them from start to finish. You want to find out how stories end and how the author develops his characters, exploring the situations they find themselves in.

Raine’s book isn’t like this at all. Indeed, it isn’t a novel, no matter what author and publisher choose to call it. There is no real narrative interest and the characters are no more than names. It’s a book you may dip into, finding on some pages interesting observations, on others interesting information about real people – mostly writers and painters – quotations from notebooks, memoirs, anecdotes, reminiscences of private conversations, and speculations about them. But you could shuffle the pages and read them in any order – as you can’t with a true novel – and the book would be just as interesting or uninteresting, just as good or just as bad.

The subject is however consistent, from the first to the last page. It is sex, and more particularly the sexual organs. The first page is actually dreadful: “After two minutes that felt like six minutes, Rysiek’s electric toothbrush – a present from an English friend – had its brief but unmistakable orgasm. Normally, he never cleaned his teeth after lunch, but today he was going to see his dentist. Rysiek Harlan. You will be hearing more about him.”

This is affected, mannered writing, and also rather silly. When a character is introduced and named in the first paragraph of a novel, you expect – don’t you? – that “you will be hearing more about him”. So, why tell us? Not to mention the fact that toothbrushes, whether electric or not, don’t have orgasms. If this is an example of “poetic licence”, you can keep it.

The book is full of what I suppose is wordplay about “coming” and “going” in a sexual context, about circumcision and the pudenda, about masturbation and fellation , about farts and the various forms of sexual congress, all named – boldly? proudly? It grows wearisome, very quickly.

“Don’t write naughty words on walls if you can’t spell,” sang Tom Lehrer. Raine can spell. That much must be admitted. Nevertheless some of the writing is very bad. Example: “He watched Rysiek’s brown lips move deliberately in his carefully trimmed beard, as if his mouth knew how handsome it was.” You might be pleased for a moment to have written that sentence. Then you would read it again, and strike it out. Raine left it in.

This is a very self-indulgent book. Raine likes to throw out sentences that sound impressive. Example: “Henry James and penile amputation as an extension of life.” The follow-up in the next paragraph goes: “There is a risk here for the writer that is impossible to underwrite. Two risks, actually, depending on whether we are imagining or transcribing experience. In both instances, the writer can only consult himself” [Consult only himself or only consult himself, not do anything else?]. “What would I do in this situation? What did I do in this situation?” This may sound all right, but it is nonsense. The writer can do other things. He can, for instance, observe other people, and imagine what they might do, or remember what they did do.

This scrapbook way of making a book is also lazy. “There was a small item in Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair about Hollywood dinner parties and how boring they were – because all everyone talked about was who’d had plastic surgery and who had big cocks. Supermarket outlets were outraged and Tina had to tour selected Wal-Marts to calm the buyers.” So what? In any case, can a supermarket outlet be enraged, and how could she have toured unselected ones? Poets ought to be more careful in their use of language

Raine writes – complacently? – “It follows that good writing is bound to give offence – by saying inconveniently unconventional things, by disagreeing. And therefore will often seem disagreeable.”

This too is nonsense. Good writing is not “bound to give offence”. More often it delights. Who is offended by the “Ode to a Nightingale”, David Copperfield or The Cherry Orchard? Bad writing on the other hand will indeed often seem “disagreeable”, and this book is an example of that truth.

This article originally appeared in The Scotsman on 18/02/12

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