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Book review: Felix Culpa By Jeremy Gavron

Stoddard Martin approves of a novelistic experiment

    The pursuit of the Noble Savage — the wild child who seems to embody freedom — is an evergreen theme in romantic literature.

    Not surprising. The rhapsodic writer is perennially aware of that shadowy other, which in his bourgeois garret he is not.

    Will Self contends that imaginative authors are threatened by the advent of creative-writing schools. Group think and immediate critique are inimical to the long, needful inwardness in which phantoms grow into characters and situations to make fiction.

    Jeremy Gavron teaches a master of fine arts (MFA) course in creative writing at a college in the United States. He has won the Encore Award and a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony, where his latest book began life. It relies on an extraordinary stylistic trick — doubtless impressive to colleagues and students alike. The Self question: does such artifice substitute for deep writerly inspiration?

    Single sentences, often just words or phrases, become discrete paragraphs. Most are lifted from texts of great writers — Conrad, Chandler, Oz, Grossman, Cormac McCarthy.

    The plot resembles a thriller: a prison visitor morphs into a detective following the track of a lad who was drawn into crime and sent to prison only to vanish on release. Theme: we cannot know ourselves fully unless we vicariously live the struggles of those less privileged, on the wind.

    Gavron’s singular approach nudges his narrative towards the universal. Specifics are inconstant — are we in Latin America, the Middle East, Europe? Is the tale a parable about refugees and what their experience can teach us, or should that word be modified to include all fugitives?

    In either case, survival is the aim: how to regain animal cunning and endure the elements; how to evade hostile mankind and civilisation’s miseries to beat death.

    The last is not possible. Felix’s end becomes Gavron’s narrator’s obsession: its where, when and how. In a cave in high mountains where the boy apparently perished comes a new perception. Neither the wild child nor his pursuer should veer from the world of men for too long. Without mutual aid — the kindness of strangers — one cannot endure.

    This poetic book may be self-consciously wrought but it is hardly false. Origins in writers’ enclaves notwithstanding, it rates high on the imaginative scale. A rite of passage conceived not just in mind but in heart, it recalls D H Lawrence’s dictum after Walt Whitman: “The soul is a wayfarer along the open road”. Gavron did not use that quote, but he could have.


    Felix Culpa By Jeremy Gavron, Scribe, £12.99

    Stoddard Martin is a critic, writer and publisher