by Andrew Crumey
Review of Wonders Will Never Cease, by Robert Irwin. Literary Review, November 2016.
Historical fiction is founded on paradox: past generations were so different and yet in some ways so similar to our own. In Robert Irwin's extraordinary tale a larger paradox looms. Amply researched yet unceasingly insistent on its own fictionality, this novel is like an intricate medieval tapestry or multi-coloured stained-glass window, promising neither truth nor falsehood, only wonder.
It begins with the death and miraculous resurrection of Anthony Woodville at the Battle of Towton in 1461, and ends with his beheading in 1483. This is no spoiler, since Woodville is an actual historical figure, though the supernatural event at Towton signals the factual ambivalence of all that follows. The real-life Woodville was himself somewhat slippery: having been on the losing Lancastrian side at Towton he went over to the Yorkist cause and became brother-in-law of Edward IV, before perishing in the bloody ascendancy of Richard III. The power politics of the Wars of the Roses therefore serves as underlying fabric for Irwin's tapestry, the tracery of his window. The novel's energy, however, resides not so much in the weaving of suspense or the architecture of plot as in the sheer accumulation of rich detail.
Alongside writing fiction, Irwin is distinguished as a scholar of Arabic literature, and while his seven novels have been markedly varied in style and tone, they have often borne a flavour of the Thousand and One Nights. Magic and fantasy, dreams and visions, stories within stories: Irwin layers these elements around Woodville's life with a touch whose lightness belies his erudition. Woodville, a man risen from the dead, becomes both the inventor and the stuff of stories: reality and myth are blurred. These metafictional games suggest postmodernity; cheekily hidden anachronisms include quotations from Samuel Johnson and Goethe. Yet they also pay homage to an obvious stylistic antecedent: the medieval chronicle. In the course of his peregrinations Anthony visits the monastery of Crowland, home of one of the most important if not entirely reliable historical records of the period. The Abbott tells Anthony that for Biblical chronology to be consistent one must assume certain centuries of the Dark Ages to have been non-existent; will their own be similarly erased? The reality of King Arthur, on the other hand, is taken for granted; Anthony has dealings with Thomas Malory, whose Le Morte d'Arthur is eventually printed by another friend, William Caxton. Naturally there is jousting: Anthony's foe is the Bastard of Burgundy, a name that could have come from Blackadder but is as factually accurate as Anthony's other main claim to historical fame, as translator of one of Caxton's earliest publications.
Anthony's journey from warrior knight to man of letters is a process of growing puzzlement, both at his own strange condition and at the hallucinatory nature of the world he inhabits. He longs to travel in search of wonders such as the vegetable lamb of Tartary or the headless men of Africa, but politics constantly intervenes. The greatest wonders, he slowly realises, are on his own doorstep.
One is provided by George Ripley, the court alchemist, who requests a healthy redheaded man and a barrel of sesame oil. The search for a suitable candidate inspires terrible rumours and sends redheads into hiding: one is spotted with a few tell-tale ginger tufts, having shaved his head to protect himself, and after forty days in the barrel he becomes a fleshless zombie with the gift of prophecy. Another of Ripley's wonders is a goose cooked alive, still flapping as its roasted meat is consumed. The diners guiltily recognise their feast to be an act of savagery for which they will be cursed: Anthony's second death is foretold.
Ripley really existed; his name is included in the list of historical characters that Irwin helpfully provides. So too did Scoggin, the hapless jester who adds further colour, though of an ironically faded kind. His jokes are authentically corny ("At what time of year does a goose bear most feathers?... When she has a gander on her back!"), but even in the court of King Edward they are out of date, and the has-been comic slips further down the bill each time we see him.
Most colourful of all is the vocabulary. There are coursing lymerers and trudging sumpters, sweet frumenty, gleaming vambraces and the mysterious hoplochrisma. Of special and somewhat surprising significance as the novel moves towards its phantasmagorical conclusion are a draug and a bratchet. The one thing lacking a fifteenth-century name is midlife crisis, which is perhaps the true essence of Anthony's condition. Aware of the ultimate emptiness of existence he finds himself increasingly waylaid by people who recognise him as a character of fiction but are themselves fictions, while his dreams of far-off lands are shattered by a traveller who tells him of barren deserts, squalid townships, sheer boredom. In the end there are only stories; the few that are remembered and the majority that disappear. Where does a candle's flame go when it is snuffed out, Anthony wonders before kneeling at the block. Yet after closing this book its spell still lingers. Irwin has brilliantly refashioned medieval history as a myth for our own time.