The Executor by Blake Morrison – a literary detective story?
It delves into big ideas but never fully interrogates them; it raises questions about art but offers, in the end, little insight
Blake Morrison: tells us that he has recognised a problem, offers a block of explanation, and then moves on
When the poet Robert Pope dies, his friend and literary executor Matt Holmes is given the task of sorting through his papers – stored in a rosewood desk in Rob’s house – to search for any unpublished poems and, if there are enough, to form them into a posthumous collection. As Rob’s widow, Jill, works in the back garden, Matt begins to discover a sequence of poems unlike Rob’s usual “private, occluded” work: these poems, it appears, are confessional, and threaten to transform not just Rob’s literary standing, but the lives of the people he has left behind.
What follows is billed as a “gripping literary detective story”, interweaving poetry and prose in a way which typically treats the poem as the source of a secret to be divined by Matt and (when he deigns to allow it) those around him. Over the course of the novel, we are asked to consider such questions as: What is the distance between life and art? Is confessional poetry always 100 per cent factually and biographically true? And, if misogyny is contained within a poem, does it even count?
The answer to that last question is, of course, yes. And yet The Executor attempts to blur the line, and to offer this as a question of art and aesthetics rather than ideology (though, as Matt’s wife Marie suggests, the two are inseparable). Morrison even invokes Catullus (perhaps an apt model for Pope): “the true poet should be chaste / but his poems need not be”. A misogynistic poem which relates having sex with an under-aged Thai girl is, then, presumably fine. But perhaps Rob is not as bad as he seems. After all, instead of watching BDSM porn, he prefers to look at statues on classicalbeauties.com, finding himself more aroused when there is “a silky gown hiding the mons Veneris”.
This is a strange book – the women in it are at once relatively sidelined, and yet are given what I take to be the most compelling arguments. The narrator is snobbish; he dismisses the claims of Rob’s widow because “she doesn’t even read poetry; he sets himself up as an authority and yet, when asked to consider how good Rob’s clearly terrible poems are, he claims “I’d have to read them again before I could judge”.
Morrison makes us feel purposefully uncomfortable, which would be admirable, if there wasn’t also the suspicion that this novel is a prolonged apology for the inalienable right to write offensive poems. If Rob indeed has (as the narrator’s proffered excuse goes) “A respectable lifestyle, a flirtatious Muse”, I understand neither the words “respectable” nor “flirtatious”.
At one point, however, a female character, Lexy, nails this critique of Rob’s work: “He crowds his women out. […] He serenades them in order to suppress them.” His poems are, as she maintains, “an expression of unreconstructed male sexuality”. It is this that seems to let Morrison off the hook. And yet, though Matt takes this point, the novel moves swiftly on, as though Lexy’s speech is offered as a form of PC balance rather than an expression of the core difficulty of the book.
This may seem to be a point of politics and ideology, but it is fundamental to considering The Executor as the “literary detective story” it is billed as. Along the way, Morrison invokes the help of a number of experts (a classicist, a solicitor, a nursing home manager) in order to pre-empt the reader’s doubts about the plausibility of the story, and these set-pieces feel patronising, or at least wear their research too heavily, as though Morrison is filling in the blanks of his text rather than working through these issues in the story. He tells us that he has recognised a problem, offers a block of explanation, and then moves on. The same pre-emptive use of political balance is enacted in the shoring up of the storyline.
The development of the mystery, too, is contrived: just as the key questions of the book are (ostensibly) whether life or art takes precedence, whether the “I” of a poem is the biographical “I” of the poet, and whether private works should be published without express permission, lo and behold a poem is discovered which contains such convenient lines as “The narrator isn’t me exactly / But he’s a version” and “The time has come to publish, nonetheless.”
Morrison’s prose is easy, stylish, and the story of The Executor does draw us in as we go; in fact, it is often elegant in the way it depicts marriage, secrecy, and the fragile relationships between friends and spouses, even if the characters do sometimes jump unexpectedly into new emotions. It delves into big ideas but never fully interrogates them; it raises questions about art but offers, in the end, little insight.