Grace McCleen’s second novel, The Professor of Poetry, is quite a different beast from her acclaimed début, The Land of Decoration: whilst the earlier book was a slightly surreal and very tense exploration of extreme belief systems, childhood fear and bullying, and a very dysfunctional parent-child relationship, its follow-up is an academic love story that follows a middle-aged university lecturer, Elizabeth Stone, recently pronounced free from a brain tumour she had thought fatal, as she travels to Oxford, ostensibly to undertake research for a new thesis, but actually, if subconsciously, to rekindle a friendship, and possibly a relationship, with her old teacher, the scruffy, chain-smoking, swearing Northern lecturer, Edward Hunt. Thematically and stylistically, then, there’s little similarity between the two books: while The Land of Decoration was a quirky and charming oddity, The Professor of Poetry is a lyrical meditation on love, desire, and poetics. Where they do dovetail is in a mutual interest in repression and family trauma. Like the earlier book, The Professor of Poetry roots its heroine’s problems in a missing maternal figure, and her desire and redemption in an incomprehensible (to her) older male. However, while The Land of Decoration was compelling and resonant in its unusual plot and remarkable lead character, The Professor of Poetry suffers from a surfeit of anti-feminist cliché and untenable plot and characterisation devices. Let’s dig deeper, but be warned: plenty of spoilers wait you.
First up, let’s check out Elizabeth Stone herself—one of the two potentially titular professors of poetry in the novel. She’s not very likeable or sympathetic, but that’s fine; in fact, it’s often a bonus. More problematically, she’s a classic case of the virginal-but-really-rather-sexy-if-you-just-dig-deep-enough librarian/geek/spinster that we’ve all seen in a million bad rom-coms. She’s as articulate and introspective as a Banville hero, and just as self-deceptive, and that’s fine (if rather too wordy), but the reader has seen it before: the physically awkward woman who prefers her books and disdains all sex, finding it horrible compelling as an aural voyeur but determined, after one very icky encounter as an undergrad never to indulge in it herself (though she does masturbate quite a lot, which seems kid of inconsistent to me, but hey.). Presto, though, when she finally expresses her feelings to Edward, some thirty-odd years late, she’s more than happy to get down to business, with no tension, no pain and no panic—just ‘euphoria’, as he ‘began to stroke her body into life or into death and she awoke in flames’. All this, too, as she’s just confronted the fact that her cancer has returned; she’s taken a bunch of pain-killers, she’s under huge psychological strain, but she’s admitted the lifelong secret of her love, and so, bingo!, the love-making is wonderful. A repressed, mannered, damaged and dying fifty-two year old virgin finds immediate emotional and physical fulfilment because her guy says he still wants to bang her after all this time? I don’t buy it. Likewise, I don’t buy Edward’s attraction to Elizabeth: she was a one-of-a-kind genius student, sure, but she was unpleasant, unattractive (as far as the reader can tell) and this all (their sort-of flirting and a couple of non-dates) went down over thirty years ago; is it that likely that he wouldn’t have moved on at all? Second main issue with Elizabeth: her lifelong refusal to acknowledge her attraction to and affection for Edward, couching it all in an academic desire to impress him intellectually (he’s ‘the reader’ she writes for) is pretty hard to believe, even given that people can be incredibly self-deceptive and unaware. She’s immensely intelligent and analytic and admits she thinks about him a lot. Given that it’s obvious to the reader from the first page that she loves him, her own three-hundred page journey to that realisation doesn’t help our suspension of disbelief. Imagine On Chesil Beach was three times its actual length: this is a very, very slight plot that’s artificially lengthened mainly by Elizabeth’s mediations on poetics (better read Byatt instead), her dreams of her childhood (very dream-like dreams, and pretty repetitive at that), and her memories of her undergraduate career (she tries to impress Edward; he tries to seduce her). At heart, it’s Elizabeth Bennet’s dilemma – will she realise she actually cares about him? – but without Austen’s humour or critical incision.
A quick look at Edward, then: he’s not much of a male lead. There’s a Byronic/Heathcliff unkempt attractiveness (he doesn’t take good care of his shoelaces) about him, sure, but he’s got very little sense of shame in attempting to seduce his student, and then he drags a dying woman into bed. That pretty much deflates the ultimate romantic crescendo for me. The all-knowing patriarch, Edward’s not exactly catering to her needs, but then, Elizabeth isn’t exactly fighting the feminist fight: she notes, ‘There is something humorous about the ferocity of his embrace, his oblivion to its recipient.’ When she confesses her virginity (because of course it’s shameful) he’s downright condescending, but this isn’t presented as a negative: ”Besides, I guessed as much.’ She almost looked at him but remembered just in time not to. ‘How?’ she said, and her voice was no more than a whisper. He said, ‘Call it intuition.” Next thing, rather than getting irate about his assumptions, she’s ‘dying of love’. As her tutor, he comments that she’d look better if she smiled.
Another of Elizabeth’s defining features is her abhorrence of music, which she associates with her unstable mother, the women who abandoned her so that she was raised by an asexual vicar and his wife; on a date with Edward as an undergraduate, she accompanies him to a concert and is violently ill, later ending their relationship before it really got started. Her new research is into poetry and sound – indicating a move towards recovery – and at the end, when they’re finally in bed together, she is able to listen to music drifting in through his window without feeling ill. What’s the message of this novel? The love of a good (except he’s not very good, is he?) man will cure all ills?
Finally, although the general tone of the book is, like I said, quite lyrical, and at times very academic, so that it’s clear McCleen has more than one register at her command, there are moments where her language lets her down: ‘He took off her jogging bottoms, and her feet fell, plop, plop, against the bed’ was one that, leading into the epiphanic sex scene, didn’t do much to seduce the reader.
Any Cop?: I wouldn’t recommend it. Rumour has it, though, that McCleen wrote several novels in a short time period, including this one and The Land of Decoration, so I think it’s probably a fair guess to say that she was trying different things. There’s a good chance, then, that her next novel will take off in a third and wholly unexpected direction and, like the first book, be well worth a read, so I’m not going to discount her as a young writer worth watching, even if this was a disappointment.