Let me start off by saying that I did enjoy Grace McCleen’s The Professor of Poetry. Published last year, it follows the story of Elizabeth Stone, an English professor trying to write her academic masterpiece while recovering from cancer. This project takes her back to Oxford or Cambridge (I liked that the book never actually specified which) where she did her undergraduate degree, back to where Edward Hunt, her old English professor, lives and works. Internally, it takes her, and us, back to her nineteen-year-old self at university, and back to her childhood.
I liked this simultaneous unfolding of three plots. Elizabeth is an engaging, well-created, three-dimensional character, and her past story helps shape her characterisation in the present. I like that we remember the past as she does. Beyond that, the plot is very convincing. It’s entirely believable that someone might get to a certain age and decide that maybe they’d made the wrong decisions in life, prioritised the wrong things. Elizabeth’s reassessment of her life following her illness is a plausible and interesting premise for a book.
It’s not that The Professor of Poetry is badly written. McCleen is clearly someone who knows how to write. And yet the novel to me feels somewhat overdone. First off there’s the mixture of past and present tense. I have no objections with authors making use of both tenses, but this surely ought to serve some function. In this novel the tense changes seem almost random. I find this quick switching from present to past both confusing and clumsy.
Besides that, the writing often feels overwhelming. Every sentence is so thoroughly thought out and crafted to perfection that it just doesn’t read naturally. It’s overly poetic. Admittedly, this is a novel about two poetry professors, so perhaps that’s the point. But I personally prefer novels that I can read without consulting a dictionary. I won’t deny that my vocabulary has a few gaping wholes in but (assuming nothing went appallingly wrong in my finals), I do have an English and History degree. In The Professor of Poetry we’re constantly greeted by an excess of language that I find takes away from the novel’s plot and characterisation.
In front of her a column of dust eddied in sunlight. It was dust, but as Professor Stone looked the particles glinted, pirouetted, were alchemised into some grander matter, not just dust but gold, and gold tinged with rainbows. To her left, beyond a glass wall, trees swayed, leaves whirled in blustery sunshine. They were trees, but as she looked the boughs became arms reaching towards the sun, fibres of some eternal matter imploring mediation... She was now standing in the column of sunlight, dust whirring madly about her: fabric, flesh, veins, nails and sunspots were all suddenly quite dazzling, touched into being by a luminescence she felt all around her.
He had locked her into a chamber filled with straw which it befall her to spin into gold – so she spun, at night mostly, and in the morning, when the sun lifted spider-legs over chilled quadrangles and others tumbled into lectures or Hall, crept into bed; so she learned to use words, to measure what was needed and trim the surplus, learned to arrange words pleasingly – and he was, on the whole, pleased, though the fabled gold had always eluded her.
This reads to me like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, a book I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with, in part because of its mixture of beautiful and simply over-the-top language. The writing in The Professor of Poetry is impressive, but to me it slows the whole pace of the novel down. It’s just too much. Surely not even poetry professors see the world like that. I feel hesitant about calling a novel I enjoyed ‘pretentious’, especially when I can see the potential significance of a novel about experts in poetry being stylistically poetic. But to me this book isn’t just poetic: it’s too poetic. Good writing is there to communicate the story and the characters, not to distract from them.
After all, what I’m most impressed by is the characterisation of Elizabeth Stone. She is entirely believable. Her emotional repression, her discomfort within her own skin, and her obsession with work – all these are carefully thought out and work well. And McCleen is clearly good at details. I particularly liked Elizabeth’s hatred for music. It seems bizarre that someone so enamoured with poetry could hate music, but it works brilliantly. It’s another detail adding to a fascinating character development. Certainly you feel like you get to know Elizabeth over the novel.
Which is probably why I was so disappointed by the ending.
The general tone of The Professor of Poetry seemed to me one of fraught disappointment, and for most of the novel this tone was sustained. The ending ruins it. Let’s separate the novel’s main plot into the career plotline and the romantic plotline. The career plotline ended well, but the climax of the other plotline was, to me, ill-fitted to the rest of the book. I was expecting, and hoping for, a more poignant ending, not the love story one we got. The novel is throughout much more than a love story, but the ending seems suddenly unaware of this. It’s not that I like novels to be miserable (although as a fan of Hardy I must admit to enjoying a bleak ending), but I do like endings to be realistic, or at least consistent. They ought to be realistic within the world of the novel that the author has so far created. The ending to me just doesn’t seem to fit with Elizabeth’s character.
Overall, it’s a fairly good novel. I’m not a fan of the writing style, but I recognise this is more of a personal thing. The central character is the novel’s finest achievement, but even McCleen’s excellent characterisation is to me somewhat overshadowed by a disappointing ending.
Greatest strength: Definitely the characterisation of Elizabeth. She was a well-rounded and developed protagonist who read (until the ending) like a very real person.
Greatest weakness: The ending: it could have been poignant and brilliant, but the potential was lost.
And a quote: She spent the next twenty minutes locked into the small bathroom down the corridor, attempting to compose herself. Fainting, neuropathy, headaches and narcolepsy, fits of anger could all be borne, but not weeping in a tutorial. Professor Stone made an appointment to see the doctor.
Next week: The Shock of the Fall, by Nathan Filer