“A book should be an axe to chop open the frozen sea inside us,” declares one character in the course of J.M. Coetzee’s latest novel, Summertime. Were this line not written by a man who has already won the prize twice, it might be fair to suspect it of being shameless Booker bait. Likewise, the luminous prose of Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze is just the sort of writing the Booker likes to reward. No surprise, then, that both novels wound up on the shortlist – not least because, Booker boxes ticked aside, they are both of the very highest quality.
Foulds’s novel is the story of the High Beach Private Asylum in and around 1840. He presents Dr Matthew Allen’s sanitorium in Epping Forest as a literary nexus, into which both John Clare – an inmate – and Alfred Tennyson – a patient’s resident relative – are drawn. This pair are different from each other as both poets and men, but Foulds resists the temptation to throw this separation into high relief by contriving anything as unsubtle as an actual meeting. He instead settles for the passing quality of coincidence. It proves enough: Clare, almost forgotten by the literary establishment, and Tennyson, about to take off, move through the novel along distinct but comparable lines.
This trick is extended to the large cast of characters, major and minor, who populate the Asylum: Allen himself, a vain self-styled liberal whose attention is too easily drawn from project to project; his daughter, Hannah, who develops an unreciprocated romantic attachment to the misanthropic Tennyson; a band of gypsies at large within the forest who provide the novel with its few moments of true community; and assorted inmates, from self-denying Margaret, who suffers from religious mania, to George Laidlaw, who is convinced he is personally responsible for the National Debt. If the depiction of Clare’s madness remains the book’s great achievement – and this is a book which believes unequivocally (and perhaps unfashionably) that madness exists – then it is not because he economises when dealing with the rest of cast. Each character is given their own distinctive voice – indeed, it is part of the novel’s project that each consciousness is given an almost hermetic completeness. In particular, Hannah’s doomed courtship of Tennyson, and subsequent attempts at others (she has inherted her father’s flightiness) is executed with such precision and care that her voice manages to pull together what would otherwise threaten to be a disparate selection of barely related narratives.
The other unifying factor is Foulds’s language, about which Adam Roberts has already waxed lyrical. I’m more positive about the book than Adam I think because I also see unity elsewhere. Concerned with the formation of identity, this is very much a novel of construction – on one level, Allen becomes obsessed with the idea of manufacturing a machine which can carve wood to the standard of a human artisan, whilst on another Tennyson broods about the reception of his poetry by the London elite. In this way, the novel asks us to understand a person not just by how he sees himself – Clare’s madness is essentially seen as a solipsistic insistence on ideas without external corroboration – but also by how he is seen by others – Allen’s deep-seated need to prove himself, for example, proceeds not in small part from the pressures of his dead father and disapproving brother, devout Sandemanians both. The sense of community with which Foulds so tenderly (and yet visercally, in a scene of animal dismemberment) invests the gypsy scenes, is the best hope of a sane give-and-take between self and society. Of course, the Victorian completion of enclosure finally removed the gypsies’ right to the land.
Summertime, too, asks questions about identity, choosing as its focus John Coetzee, a recently deceased writer who is as isolated and solitary as Foulds might fear we all are in a post-enclosure age. John Coetzee is, of course, a fictionalised version of the author himself, and there is much amusement to be had here merely from enjoying the vast helpings of meta which are heaped upon the book: it follows Coetzee’s Youth and Boyhood, and those books are referenced here as the opening two volumes in an uncompleted trilogy; our interlocutor, a young and somewhat gauche English biographer, is drawing together John Coetzee’s notebook fragments and interviews with five important figures in John’s life of the early 1970s, attempting a sort of ersatz third volume. “It sounds a peculiar way of selecting biographical sources, if you don’t mind my saying so,” remarks one of the interviewees, and the reader is led to agree. This is no definitive biography, fictional or otherwise.
The point here, of course, is two-fold. Firstly, there is no such thing as definitive biography, or indeed a logical way of selecting “biographical sources”. Secondly, and more importantly, Coetzee contends that – whether famous or no, alive or dead – we cede much of our ability to construct our identity to those around us, and yet even a compilation of those responses cannot reach the truth. Coetzee’s language is, naturally, less showy than Foulds’s, but if so it is also, as if this needs saying, more controlled. Summertime is a clear, crisp and intricate novel – the work of an expert. If its central themes sounds rather obvious, it is true that perhaps the novel’s failures, such as they are, lies in a lack of ambition. Most notably, The Savage Detectives performs exactly Coetzee’s trick but better: though John Coetzee is constructed throughout the novel, the reader also feels he is always in plain sight; Bolaño performs the quite phenomenal sleight of hand of never allowing his poet protagonists to appear centre-stage, however much his interviewees circle them. The Savage Detectives is a tour de force which Summertime, for all its clarity of thought and language, cannot match.
Yet for all that similarity of purpose and presentation, it’s still unfair wholly to condemn Summertime for its failings in comparison with another, greater, text. As one would expect, Coetzee still packs into 260 pages enough aphorism and observation to nourish a lesser writer’s whole career. His novel is a beautifully structured anti-narrative, with resonances and echoes throughout which lift the material beyond itself. In particular, the manner in which he renders the personal political – extrapolating outwards John Coetzee’s personal failings (about which the interviewees are merciless) into the larger tapestry of South Africa’s political history without apparently straining or stretching – is very neat. Neat, in fact, might be the best description of the book. If this makes it sound polite or safe, that may in a sense be fair; but from its ironic title onwards it is also a deeply ambivalent, playful, and quietly contrary novel, which rewards deeper thought and closer reading. It is almost, therefore, a quintessential Booker winner.
‘Almost’, of course, because it has yet to win the prize. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall remains inexplicably the favourite to win. Though on further consideration I begin to see its advantages over what looks increasingly like the slight-if-clever The Little Stranger, subjectively I still found Mantel’s opus the least satisfying novel on the shortlist. Already sufficiently garlanded, Coetzee may be looked over this time, since this is not quite his best work; but in that case Foulds’s effort, though obviously an outlier, deserves consideration: a work of great poetic beauty which shares thematic muscle, as well as focus, with Summertime, it is also perhaps more spirited and daring. Wolf Hall, on the other hand, is probably more ambitious still – but its larger canvas still looks messier to my eye than Foulds’s bravura miniature.