Books: Lives of the Poets ; Jonathan Bate Finds Beauty and Truth but Ruth Padel (below) Only a Drowsy Numbness in Two Novels about Poetic Icons
Bate, Jonathan, The Independent (London, England)
The Invention of Dr Cake
Faber & Faber
pounds 12.99, 142pp
pounds 11.99 (plus pounds 1.99 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122
BIOGRAPHERS ARE notorious for falling in love with their subject. Novels such as Possession and The Hours turn on the obsessive nature of literary research. Andrew Motion's new novella enters into this arena, which could perhaps be described as "parabiography." It proves to be the cleverest and most interesting thing he has written.
The book is the logical next step in a sequence of prose works that began with a wholly orthodox biography of John Keats and proceeded to Wainewright the Poisoner, which was half biography and half feigned autobiography of one of the most slippery and colourful characters in the Keats circle. Motion has now turned the wheel from half fiction to full: he invents another "minor Romantic", one William Tabor - physician and Keatsian poetaster - who himself invents the mysterious Dr Cake.
Cake is a worthy doctor living in rural obscurity in the early 19th century. He has a highly literary sensibility and, in the course of conversations with Tabor, comes to sound more and more like John Keats, speaking of Shakespeare as his "Presider" and of human life as a "large mansion of many apartments". His life is curiously parallel to that of Keats: born in 1795, studied medicine at Guy's Hospital under the auspices of the great surgeon Astley Cooper, travelled to Italy.
It is hardly giving away the plot to reveal that Tabor comes to believe that Cake really is Keats. Suppose the young poet recovered from his consumption and walked alive from that suffocating room under the Spanish Steps in Rome. Suppose that he felt he did not have the strength to go on being crucified by the critics or that his muse dried up with the loss of his beloved Fanny Brawne, or that he foresaw a decline into poetic mediocrity, or that his near-death experience made him decide to return to his medical vocation and save other lives instead of fannying around with effete poems on the subject of swooning bosoms and flitting birds. …