Friday 6 December 2019

An exploration of the euphoria and misery of being married to a poet

The Poets' Wives, David Park, Bloomsbury, €14.99

Felicity Jones in The Invisible Woman
Felicity Jones in The Invisible Woman
The Poets' Wives
William Blake

J P O'Malley

THE subject of writers' wives has become a hot topic lately. Last year saw the publication of both Call Me Zelda and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. While Claire Tomalin's 1990 book, The Invisible Woman – which retraces the passionate affair between Charles Dickens and his lover, Nelly Ternan – has recently been made into a film, directed by Ralph Fiennes.

The Poet's Wives, David Park's ninth novel, takes a similar interest in this theme. It would be more accurate, however, to describe the book as three short novellas in a single volume.

The first story begins in 1781, in Battersea, South London, where Catherine Boucher meets her future husband, the poet William Blake. Park permeates the text with an array of Old Testament images. Most of Catherine and William's conversations concern references to angels and demons, poisonous snakes, puritanical innocence, and the damning fires of hell. This obsession with theology was something Blake worked into all of his brilliant paintings and poems during his exceptional artistic career.

Through Catherine, who is the novel's chief narrator, we are able to conceptualise what it must have been like to live with a man who was constantly on the brink of madness. We know from Peter Ackroyd's 1995 biography of the great Romantic poet – on which Park seems to have based much of his story – that Blake envisioned the world as a perpetual pilgrimage towards eternity. He had little time for reality, focusing instead on the utopian future at all times.

Park brilliantly captures Catherine Blake's constant battle with this disturbing notion, which her husband was always trying to convince her of during their 45 years of marriage.

This religious fanaticism is certainly a subject worth exploring, but the short nature of the narrative prevents Park from properly unearthing the themes that he merely touches upon, before the story comes to a drastic early finish.

If utopian ideals brought joy, euphoria, and a sense of infinite possibility to the Blakes, conversely, they brought endless misery to the life of Nadezhda Mandelstam, the wife of the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam. He died on the way to a Siberian prison camp, for poetry he wrote during Joseph Stalin's Great Terror, which cut across the Soviet Union in the 1930s like a vicious plague, when the paranoid dictator liquidated all traces of opposition to his rule.

Poets were seen during this period as particularly dangerous individuals because they could potentially turn the masses against the so-called collective, utilitarian ideas of Stalinism. Through the inner thoughts of Nadezhda, Park attempts to recreate the paranoid universe of communist Russia and, to portray how the power of words can transcend bloodthirsty and totalitarian regimes.

He succeeds on both counts, producing a story that is a marvellous fictional alternative to Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope: a memoir that recalls how one individual can, through sheer resilience, overcome the evil forces of oppressive, murderous policies.

If passing precious words onto posterity is Nadezhda Mandelstam's main reason for living after her husband has perished, this idea presents an enormous sense of hypocrisy for the final woman we meet in this book – Lydia. She is waiting to scatter the ashes of her husband, Don, a talented yet cantankerous Irish poet, who has just died from a heart attack, aged 67.

While Catherine and Nadezhda display a belief in their husbands' art form, through the constant support and love they show them, Lydia sees a fatal flaw in the lives of artists who can create beauty on the page, and yet fail to believe that relationships can ever match up to those artistic aesthetics.

The world of Irish social realism, with its gentle subtleties, winks and nods, and endless amounts of small talk, is one that Park is evidently most comfortable in as a writer. But this doesn't necessarily make it the strongest story of the book.

I couldn't help thinking that he might have been better concentrating solely on the Nadezhda narrative entirely.

Hitherto, the 61-year-old Down writer has failed to capture a massive international audience in ways that many of his contemporaries have. But The Poet's Wives, which sees Park breaking away from the geopolitical constraints of his native Northern Ireland, shows us an artist who is really coming into his prime. Dare I say it: could this get a Booker nomination?

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