Clare Morgan, A Book for All and None – TLS
“From what stars have we both descended to meet here?” Frederick Nietzsche wonders on first laying eyes on Louise von Salomé in St Peter’s Basilica in 1882. It’s a question that hovers over many of the meetings in Clare Morgan’s novel, a work grand enough in its ambition to house not only a trio of modern characters but also characterisations of Nietzsche, von Salomé, their mutual friend, Paul Rée; and, occupying a room not quite of her own, Virginia Woolf. Explaining herself in the Acknowledgements, Morgan writes of her “fascination” for Nietzsche and Woolf, and how her novel emerged “out of the… interstices of the documented lives of two extraordinary individuals”, lives with which, she admits, she has taken “enormous liberties”.
A more veiled explanation might be found in the book’s opening, with a letter to “My dear Schklovsky”, a man about whom who we are told only that he once annotated an early set of the works of Nietzsche. This is a nod perhaps to the Russian formalist critic, Viktor Shklovksy, who was influenced by Nietzsche, particularly in his theory of parody, and whose ideas are often used by scholars to explain modernism’s defamiliarising texts. (Morgan is director of the Master of Studies in creative writing at Oxford.)
Taking her cue from Shklovsky, Morgan advances the idea that out of parody and adjacency one might “cause an adjustment” in history, making people “see differently”. In the case of Woolf, the adjustment sought is to the view that she was weak and death-driven; for Nietzsche, the revision is more ambiguous, though there are discussions of the Nazi’s appropriation of his legacy and several portraits of vulgar, latter-day supermen. By contrast, Morgan’s Nietzsche and Woolf are powerful creators, aflame with life. And like her heroine, Beatrice Kopus, an Oxford scholar working on the relationship between the two, she exults in identification with them: “Her Woolf and her Nietzsche…have come alive again. Her very own self and all that she is has breathed life into them.”
The reference to Shklovsky can also be read as a tap on the reader’s shoulder, a reminder that readers have no privileged position and, like the characters, must struggle for meaning with the fragments at their disposal (among these are a scrap of a Woolf letter and a missing part of von Salomé’s diary).
Yet with all this, what Morgan’s multi-form novel demonstrates is the resilience of English fiction, its ability to assimilate any “strange shape” Woolf or others may have found out on the horizon, and carry on much as before. Despite its knowingness, (the montage, quotation and Nietzsche-like jostling of “the present and the bygone upon earth”, the references to paperiness) this remains a work that sits comfortably in the English canon, fascinated by biography and history rather than textuality.
The different stories layered into the novel’s seven sections concern Nietzsche’s trip to Lake Orta in 1882 and his incarceration in a Jena mental asylum seven years later; three visits by Woolf to Wales, the first in 1908 when she was gestating The Voyage Out; and a love affair between Beatrice and another Nietzsche scholar, Raymond Greatorex. To top it off, there is Beatrice’s husband, Walter Cronk, a businessman (one of those debased Nietzscheans) building interrogation centres and transient camps in the Middle East.
Of course, there is wilfulness in assembling a cast as eccentric as this and making connections between them that go far beyond the bounds of plausibility (a family secret reaching down from Nietzsche and Woolf into the lives of the contemporary characters). Morgan seems determined to show just what, in her first novel, she can carry off. And for the most part she masters her disparate materials impressively, particularly in those passages vitalised by Nietzsche and Woolf – supporting Beatrice’s contention that, rather than traditional scholarship, fiction’s imaginative engagement might now be the best way to approach such “idols”.
She and Raymond, like many academics, exist vicariously in the residue of their idols’ lives. The air is thick with many kinds of dust, above all in Raymond’s family home which stands in for the house of British fiction: its sensibilities, sensitivities and snobberies. Morgan is conscious she’s writing about a culture that is falling away – “this is the end of the line” one character says – and the idea surfaces that what the British need is an injection of something with a greater will to power.
The Kuwaiti episodes, however, involving Cronk, set among the sequestered rich, in glass and desert landscapes, rely too much on surface atmosphere. We are jolted from intelligent immersion in Bloomsbury to a late-Ballard pastiche. The tale of callous money-makers, abuse of Arab workers and terrorist reprisals is raced through, as if Morgan has constructed it only as a stage set – the compromised business world as a foil to the subtleties and integrity of art.
At the finish, unlike van Salomé who chooses one of her suitors, and unlike the heroine of The Voyage Out who succumbs doubly to the fate of the traditional woman character (marriage and death), Beatrice walks away from her men and from motherhood. Refusing to be the bearer of culture, she chooses creativity over procreation, and is rewarded with a spectacular discovery. Alone of her contemporaries she has become the ubermensch, the knowing person who can see beyond the moment. But her victory dance is modest, not permitted to outshine Morgan’s, whose novel unfolds like a work of paper-sharp origami to reveal its incredible secret.
This review appeared in the TLS as ‘Strangely Shaped Idols’ on 3.6.2011.