Variations on a theme

The Professor of Poetry, by Grace McCleen, Sceptre, RRP£17.99, 298 pages

After winning the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction in 2012 for her debut novel The Land of Decoration, the young Welsh-born writer Grace McCleen announced her retirement as a novelist, saying she wanted to concentrate on her career as a singer/songwriter.

It was an extraordinary move – but turned out not to be the end of her publishing story. McCleen had developed The Land of Decoration, which centres on a 10-year-old making models of imaginary worlds in her bedroom, from an idea in a longer work. That lengthy manuscript has in turn yielded two other novels: this one, The Professor of Poetry, and The Offering, which will come in 2015.

In The Professor of Poetry we meet Elizabeth Stone, 53, an academic working on her magnum opus: a paper based on her apprehension, following TS Eliot, that “the music of the verse convey[s] as much to a reader’s imagination as the words’ literal meaning”. Her studies are apparently her only passion and this new project is a radical departure, prompted by the surprising news that surgery to remove a malignant brain tumour has been successful: “time had been returned to her and it would be foolish to spurn the gift”.

With this second chance at life, she proposes to use Eliot’s Four Quartets as a prism through which to study other literary works, and unravel their higher meaning, beyond words. Her research must, Elizabeth surmises, take her to the alma mater where her old tutor, Professor Hunt, still teaches. The story skips back to the time when she arrives at college as an undergraduate and is taught by the music-loving Hunt, who singles her out as a star. The two intertwining narratives, past and present, are variations on a theme (and they feel very much like this in the musical sense, with passages repeated like patterns of notes). In both we realise how Elizabeth is paralysed by the intensity of her attraction to her tutor; all she can do is coldly demonstrate her affections by presenting brilliant work.

Hunt is the note that forces the novel to change key – from literary exploration into romantic quest. Elizabeth must also use the Quartets to re-evaluate her own feelings. The novel’s epigraph, from Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”, teases: “If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable.” Without considered reflection, Elizabeth is trapped in a past that has yet to evolve. Can she escape and look, in Eliot’s words, “towards the possibility of redemption”?

The Professor of Poetry is grand tragedy with an intimate focus. Elizabeth is trapped by a fear of failure, clouded in loneliness and regret. “How terrible never to make progress, to go on making the same mistakes all your life, never to move forward but only in circles,” she writes. Will she allow herself to love?

The claustrophobic intensity of unexpressed passion may cloy for some. But for those readers sympathetic to Anne’s regrets in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, or who find richness in the academic wrangling of AS Byatt’s literary sleuths and lovers in Possession, there is much here to adore.

McCleen’s manipulation of suspense is extraordinary – hope for Elizabeth’s enlightenment lurks in the shadows of her insecurities and emotional blind spots, and exploration of these dark places renders the novel sinewy with tension.

Though Elizabeth lives “a small life, a life spent in rooms, removed from the cut and thrust of human exchange”, her Prufrock-like world is painted with bewitching vitality. McCleen’s descriptions are applied with darting strokes – the city is a “blind tossing of poplars in darkness, glitter of lamps at dining tables, chink of heavy cutlery and hubbub of dinner-talk” – and the narrative sweeps with a sumptuous musicality.

Beneath the dual melodies of past and present is the pounding bassline of Elizabeth’s traumatic childhood, descriptions from which rise up and echo, word for word, in the main narrative. While, soaring above everything, like a descant, are her dreams; never quite touching day-to-day life, they nevertheless play with her unconscious preoccupations in shadowy form.

McCleen has crafted a tender synchronicity between music and prose here. Eliot’s theory that meaning can hide in a poem’s (or this case a novel’s) musical form, as well as in its verbal sense, is demonstrated exquisitely. Perhaps as a result, the author/musician’s website, alongside uploaded songs, confirms that she is working on another novel.

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