When Andrew Motion’s novella came out a few years ago I was sufficiently impressed with the reviews to get hold of a copy, but it then sat around unread and unregarded for ages. I’m sorry now that I took so long to get to the book.
Anyone who knows my taste in literature will know that I appreciate intellectual puzzles and books that make the reader do much of the work, and this is a prime example. It begins with Motion himself speaking, and thereby blurring the lines between fiction and biography. He talks about how he came across the subject of his previous book, Wainewright the Poisoner, as someone who appeared in the background of something else he had been researching; and in the background of his researches into Wainewright he started coming across another interesting character, the medical reformer and occasional romantic poet Dr Tabor. Starting to consider a book about Tabor, he then came across an even more shadowy figure in the background of Tabor’s story, the little-known Dr Cake. But practically all that could be discovered about Dr Cake was in some writings by Tabor.
And thus the novella begins, starting with Tabor’s obituary for Cake (the what catches the interest is the fact that the nameplate on Cake’s coffin is blank); following that up with Tabor’s notes on his first meeting with Cake (these are in a neat hand and have obviously been revised with an eye for eventual publication, but to the reader there seems to be nothing about Cake that might make such publication worthwhile); and concluding with Tabor’s note of their second and final meeting (these notes are scribbled, unrevised, clearly by now Tabor has given up the notion of publication).
It is only in this last section, over half way through the novel, that the reader begins to sense why Cake is of interest. To this point you have been wondering what this whole thing is about, what’s with the title, who invented Cake and what is meant by invention, and why are we meant to be interested in an obscure rural physician who is, throughout the novel, dying of tuberculosis? But suddenly, through very clever indirection (and I can’t remember another work that so skilfully used show not tell on such an issue), we begin to guess who Cake might be. Cake is (or could be) John Keats, who didn’t die in Rome but recovered sufficiently to return to London, resume his medical career but give up on the poetry that had not, during his lifetime, earned him much in the way of acclaim.
But this is never confirmed, instead the idea is floated in a debate between Cake and Tabor about the difficulty of such a reinvention, the pain of how much that had to be sacrificed. And this is concluded when Motion again speaks to conclude the book to discuss the biographical (and literary) implications if Cake were indeed Keats. Tabor published a late volume of poetry that is very different in style to his earlier efforts and reads like a companion to Keats’s Hyperion. Was this Tabor’s work or something rescued from Cake’s papers? And if it were indeed by Keats how would it affect our literary appreciation of the poet. Startlingly, if perhaps inevitably given the vehicle he has chosen to convey these ideas, Motion concludes that it wouldn’t change a thing. But nothing is certain, one of the chief joys of this short book is that no question is definitively answered, we don’t even know whether Motion or Tabor or indeed ourselves believes that Cake might really be Keats.
First published at LiveJournal, 27 April 2008.