Review: Gaveston By Stephanie Merritt Essay, Research Paper
Where’s that poker? GavestonStephanie Merritt386pp, FaberWhat is it that saves parody from collapsing into an instance of the thing it is attacking? The question seems apposite when considering Stephanie Merritt’s remarkable first novel. For it is possible to entertain the notion that Gaveston is a devilishly clever satire on the commonplaces of bad romantic writing.The author has made sure, after all, that her heroine’s voice is desperately in love with cliché. Crowds surge eagerly, men set their jaws defiantly, lips curl into grimaces, heads are tossed back. The very predictability of such stuff can bring its own rewards. The reader experiences a thrill of glee when an African-American professor opens his mouth to reveal that he talks – of course! – in a “vibrating baritone”.At other moments, the prose is elevated to a forceful surrealism by the imprecision of the narrator’s verbal constructions. When the heroine, a timid Oxford postgrad called Gaby, first sets eyes on her love-object, Piers Gaveston, she says “I almost choked on my cigarette”, which rather makes one wonder why she was eating a cigarette in the first place.Perhaps the most representative sentence of this extraordinary narrative voice is the following: “I felt it in the pit of my stomach, in the friction of my chest.” In attempting to rescue the utterly dead image of the first half of the sentence, the narrator posits something quite baffling in its second half. Is her underwear chafing?Such incidental questions furnish an intriguing counterpoint to the main plot. A Rupert Murdoch-style media magnate, Sir Edward Hamilton-Harvey, has given millions of pounds to Oxford to build a new, privatised Faculty of Cultural Studies. The incumbent humanities staff are worried, and rather put out when they learn that the new department’s professor will be Piers Gaveston, a gorgeous and arrogant friend of Sir Edward’s with a shadowy past in the Americas. Gaby falls in love with him – but what is his dark secret?Cue musings about the current state of education and the role of the arts. “Art? What does that mean?” asks one character. Another orates: “Tradition and elitism are the last taboos, the only really filthy words now. OK, so you know all that.” And Piers Gaveston’s sabre-sharp intellect is confirmed by the fact that he says things like: “Well – it’s obvious – mass culture is not autochthonous.” The model here is conceivably the campus novel, but the playfulness of a David Lodge has been replaced by ponderous conversations that amount to mere paragraph-swapping.Much fun is had with literary allusion. Gaby’s subject is Arthurian romance, and we are treated to numerous pages of her amusingly turgid lecture-notes understanding thereof. Gaveston helpfully tells Gaby that George (the obligatory kindly, avuncular professor of literature) reminds him of Merlin. Not to be outdone, George in turn tells Gaby that Gaveston is a bit like Milton’s Satan.The only literary reference that is left unexplained is the titular one. Since Gaveston is the king’s “favourite” in Marlowe’s Edward II , and since Piers Gaveston’s mentor Sir Edward is, well, called Edward, the relationship between the two is obvious to the reader from the novel’s first pages.The book’s deliciously irreducible mystery is how Gaby doesn’t notice it. She meekly tolerates an anal rape by Piers, and is deaf to the increasingly explicit hints about him dropped by her friends. After a climactic tabloid-fuelled revelation of the facts, she whines: “I didn’t see. I didn’t – it isn’t so hard to believe, is it?” To this question, the only possible reply is: yes. It is really very hard to believe indeed.By the end, in fact, it is rather difficult to see the point of a novel about an obtuse and naive woman with no great talent at telling her own story. Gaveston might be read straight, as an attempt at melding a literary approach to romantic tropes with a satire on the mores of higher education and the media. But its alienating plot and thorough stylistic deficiency would call down a harsh judgment on any such interpretation.