Now and then: Grace McCleen – ‘The Professor of Poetry’ and ‘The Land of Decoration’

Not an awful lot of noise is made about Grace McCleen. Well, if it was, I didn’t hear it and stumbled across her largely by accident while browsing in the library. But I really do think she is quite, quite brilliant. I read The Land of Decoration in October 2013 and wrote about it in my pre-blog days. More recently, I read her second novel The Professor of Poetry. Her third book, The Offering, is due for publication next year and I will certainly be reading it. Reading up on McCleen herelf, I found this article and it makes for an interesting if uncomfortable insight. I hadn’t realised how much of herself McCleen may have put into her books, how the writing of all three overlapped and just how torturous the writing process is for her.

I thought it might be interesting to put my older review of The Land of Decoration alongside my thoughts on The Professor of Poetry. And if you haven’t read any McCleen, I do strongly recommend that you do.

17118724The Land of Decoration

In the vein of books like Emma Donoghue’s The Room and Sarah Winman’s When God was a Rabbit, The Land of Decoration is narrated by a child – ten year old Judith. Judith has no mother, a father seeking solace by spreading the word of God and a room in which she is building a model of the ‘promised land’, her very own Land of Decoration. In Judith’s hands, rubbish and ephemera are transformed. Pipe cleaners become people. A mirror metamorphoses into a glimmering sea. Judith’s miniature world is her escape; from the bullies at school, the emotional distance of her father and her own loneliness.

One melancholy Sunday, in an attempt to avoid going to school the following day, Judith makes it snow in her Land of Decoration. She awakes on Monday morning to find the world outside her front door is covered in a blanket of white. And then God starts to talk to her…

This is a heart-breaking little book (and I don’t mean little in a pejorative sense at all). The story is somehow small and big all at once. The details of Judith’s life and her miniature world are small but the consequences of her actions are large. Judith’s troubles with the school bullies might seem trivial but they mask a bigger pain. I certainly had no problem finding things in Judith’s life that resonated with my own. McCleen captures Judith’s voice so well and her innocence is a fantastic tool for the larger themes of the story. There’s a freedom in her naivety, which allows McCleen to ask big questions without guile or design.

The book has many interesting things to say about faith and belief. I’m not a religious person but that didn’t stop me from finding the questions Judith poses deeply thought-provoking. Unwittingly, she captures the conflict we all share. We want there to be a controlling force to create reason and order from seeming chaos, but we want the power to control that force ourselves so we can create our own shapes in the world we inhabit. Judith (and her father) remind us that we don’t stop feeling out of control when we become adults; in many ways that feeling intensifies.

Interposing traditional narrative chapters with Judith’s pensive, introverted monologues, McCleen’s compelling style allows you to pause at regular intervals for insight into Judith’s life and thoughts. Judith is clearly an intelligent and unusual ten year old, but she still thinks like a child, in that broad, tangential way that allows for startling insight from peculiar connections.

Most of all, she’s completely loveable, which makes it hard to finish the book and walk away. I found she stuck in my thoughts after I finished reading and writing about her brings it back.

17794128The Professor of Poetry

Professor Elizabeth Stone is a cerebral individual who has devoted her life to the poetry of Milton and is celebrated for her work “The Dissident Corpus: John Milton and the Poetics of Difference”. But Professor Stone is also a woman who has lost herself and is being treated for a brain tumour.

When her cancer goes into remission, she finds she can no longer ignore persistent thoughts about T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets and the germ of an idea on the poetics of sound that makes her heart race with excitement.

In McCleen’s narrative, we move back and forth between Professor Stone’s return to Oxford and the story of the troubled Elizabeth’s early experiences there. I loved how McCleen played with the names of her character; in the present day, she is always Professor Stone, in her university days she is Elizabeth. It really helped to underline the separation between Elizabeth’s potential and the person she has become.

The present day professor is curiously bloodless for one whose driving passion is poetry:

Professor Stone had had more than one occasion in a career spanning thirty years to note that the key to writing well could be summed up in one word, namely: ‘detachment’…the paradox being that while poems were full of tempests and swelling breasts, fits of passion and fevered brows, they demanded the utmost clear-headedness when responding. Poets liked to fool you…it was imperative not to become involved”

Elizabeth, by contrast, floated through her interview week at Oxford unable to eat or sleep because her eyes were veiled and her mouth stoppered up with endless words. She guaranteed her place at the university before setting foot in the colleges by submitting the kind of essays that her tutor described as:

“…written by someone with a very thin skin – someone who felt the words rather than read them.”

When Professor Stone returns to Oxford in pursuit of papers to support her growing new thesis, she knows she will likely encounter that tutor who shaped her life in ways as yet unacknowledged and who introduced her to Eliot’s Four Quartets. But we also know that she’s going to find Elizabeth.

This is a book for anyone who loves words; not just for their meaning, but for their rhythms, cadences and melodies. After finishing it, I wanted to revisit my poetry collection and to read it aloud. I have to say that McCleen paints a slightly terrifying picture of the world of the academic as Professor Stone constantly teeters on the edge of that bleak abyss where the answers are just out of reach and there aren’t yet words to capture them. But as the story develops, it becomes clearer that there is much more to her history than a masterclass of repressed emotion. Slowly, she becomes less concerned with finding the words to complete her thesis and more with finding a way to come to terms with what happened between Elizabeth and her tutor 33 years earlier.

“Was it true, she wondered, that some experiences could not be verbalised…if one relied solely on words one might miss the experience because the experience could be extremely delicate, no more than a pulse…”

If you know and love Oxford, you’ll also love McCleen’s portrait of the city. And the ending is beautiful and utterly devastating.

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