WH Auden wrote that a poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language. As the statement is also true of novelists it stands to reason that novels about poets – Pat Barker's Regeneration, for example, or Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower – should have an even greater concentration on lyricism and linguistic beauty. It's certainly the case with Polly Clark, a poet turned novelist, who in her first fiction has re-created a short period of Auden's life most remarkably and movingly.
Larchfield begins with the young Auden arriving by train in a small Scottish town to take up a teaching post at a boys' school and finding himself entranced by a beautiful youth waiting at the station.
The novel moves back and forth between Auden’s pedagogical life in 1930 and the experiences of a young wife and mother, Dora, relocating to the same town some 80 years later. Dora is a poet, too, with one collection to her name, but has abandoned literary London to be with her husband, Kit. He is older and, although affectionate, is content to leave her alone for vast portions of the day with only their newborn daughter, Bea, for company, while he pursues his career. Only when Dora discovers that Auden used to live nearby do her artistic ambitions reassert themselves and she considers writing a new biography, an idea her husband is lukewarm about at best.
Failing to belong
Clark draws plenty of subtle, meaningful links between alternating chapters that help connect the story through its time lapse. In the Auden section a boy is frightened at being left alone in a dormitory on his first day at boarding school; a few pages later Dora is horrified at the prospect of sharing a hospital ward with other expectant mothers.
A fellow teacher dismisses the poet’s attempt at friendship, saying, “I never wanted you here. You’re not our sort,” while Dora and Kit are harassed by their neighbours, one of whom cries, “I don’t understand why you’ve come here! You don’t belong.” A piece of steak used for a perverse reason in one chapter reappears much later, this time with a more sinister purpose.
Spotting the links and considering their significance becomes part of the joy of the novel – and recalls some of the pleasures of poetry, where meaning is often obscured and which must be carefully mined for full impact.
Belonging, of failing to belong, is one of the central concerns of Larchfield. Auden, gay and introverted, is a self-conscious and impotent presence on the rugby fields of his school. Only when he takes a trip to Berlin to visit his friend Christopher Isherwood, , the novelist, can he be himself as he trawls the rent-boy bars of the prewar city where, in a distressing scene, the Brownshirts are already displaying their intolerance and ferocity.
Similarly, Dora is completely isolated in her new home, mostly because Terrence and Mo, her supposedly Christian neighbours, despise her from the start and proceed not only to make her life miserable but also to turn the entire town, if not all of Scotland, against her.
As her feelings of loneliness grow Dora begins to lose her grasp on reality, and, in a moment as delightful as Dorothy’s black-and-white world turning to glorious Technicolor as she enters the Land of Oz, the two sides of the story come together as Auden, or Wystan as she calls him, befriends Dora in a magical and transcendent generational leap.
The conceit might sound absurd, but it works beautifully, and the moments the two share offer an intellectual and companionable heart to the story, the once-confused Auden offering wisdom and solace to the increasingly unstable Dora.
There is so much to admire in
, not least Clark’s insightful understanding of isolation and how rapidly it can disturb the psyche of the vulnerable. She draws the relationships between Dora, Terrence and Mo with such precision – are they really bullying her or is she over-reacting? – that it becomes truly unsettling and even frightening.
And although I am no expert on Auden, Clark’s portrait of the poet feels utterly authentic, a trait that all characters in novels should share, regardless of whether or not they are based on historical figures.
I suspect that few debuts in 2017 will match the elegance of Larchfield. This is a beautiful novel: passionate, lyrical and surprising. Auden himself declared that, although some books are undeservedly forgotten, none is undeservedly remembered. I will remember Larchfield for a long time.
John Boyne's new novel is The Heart's Invisible Furies (Doubleday)