Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

Now accepted to be one of the greatest poets of the 19th Century, John Clare led an unstable and fairly chaotic life. He died in a Northampton lunatic asylum, his second incarceration, and he suffered from delusions and bouts of alcoholism. His work was published in his time, but seems to have fallen out of fashion, hastening his descent into madness.

Foulds novel imagines Clare’s life in Mathew Allen’s private asylum at High Beach, Epping Forest. Allowed a certain amount of freedom, including that of leaving the hospital to go out into the forest, Clare still yearns for the old days of drinking with his literary chums in London:

John whistled enviously after him ‘Flash company been the ruin o’ me and the ruin o’ me quite’. An evening in London with the old, wild lads – that was what he needed. He felt his flesh strain towards the thought of beer, wanting drunkenness, wanting the world softened and flowing around him. To back in his green jacket, the country clown for his friends from The London Magazine with their bristling literary talk, their sharp, rehearsed epigrams scattered like cut stones through the thickness of talk.

It quickly becomes apparent that Clare is not himself as he becomes increasingly confused as to his own identity. He meets a band of gypsies in the forest and falls in with them for the night, returning a few weeks later to share a meal with them. His old nemesis, booze, makes its appearance:

A bottle of whisky was passed around to accompany the food. John took a swig, letting its fire wash loosely down into his chest. “Old John Barleycorn,” he said, saluting with the bottle. “Now there’s a fighting man. Seen him dust out many a strong fellow.” The other’s laughed. “Let’s be having you then,” he said, standing, raising his fists.

Convinced he’s now Jack Randall, bare-knuckle prize fighter, the five foot high Clare challenges the gypsies to a bout and is quickly knocked flat on his back. His return to the asylum the next morning, distinctly worse for wear, causes him to be incarcerated in a darkened room for the next two days. Sadly, by the time he’s let out, he’s under the firm impression that he is Lord Byron.

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