Ever heard of Edward Docx, youngish author of the recently published novel The Calligrapher? No? Well fear not, you shall. At a time when London’s literary establishment is supposedly in a state of flux – with the old guard of Rushdie, Amis, McEwan, et al being shunted out, and newcomers like Zadie Smith being ushered in – the Fates must surely have a file on Mr Docx.
This is because The Calligrapher is a fine novel. It tells the story of Jasper Jackson, professional calligrapher, habitual seducer of women and unreconstructed aesthete. Jasper is the sort of hero to which readers of contemporary English fiction will have become accustomed. At first blush, he calls to mind Charles Highway, the protagonist in Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers. Intelligent, articulate, well-educated and oozing cultivation, Jasper proceeds through life with withering contempt for the modern and the popular.
But despite his highbrow recreations – Sundays at the Tate Modern, droll back-and-forthers with smart Oxbridge friends – Jasper’s emotional state remains barely post-adolescent. His romantic life has been a procession of one-night stands, half-hearted flings and semi-passionate liaisons. They have been, in Jasper’s own words, “young, old, dark, fair, married or lesbian…crumpets, strumpets, chicks and tarts; damsels, dames, babes and dolls.” Jasper has experienced every emotional and sexual event on the spectrum, barring the granddaddy of them all: love. All that changes when Jasper meets Madeleine Belmont; travel writer, vixen and flaxen-haired nemesis.
Madeleine is beautiful, self-assured and intelligent; an ensemble of qualities guaranteed to leave any man poleaxed and spluttering from the start. She is also, we sense, a little bit evil. Even better. Jasper and Madeleine’s relationship moves into hyper-drive in the space of a chapter or so, such is the force of their attraction. Before long, Madeleine has shoplifted Jasper’s heart and it is clear that tragedy lies just across the horizon. We suspect that Jasper is about to be taught a lesson he has many times taught others: that love is a poison as often as it is a panacea.
Reinforcing this sense of gathering doom is the poetry of John Donne, which Jasper is in the process of transcribing for a rich, and mysteriously unnamed, American client. As Jasper adjusts to the strictures of monogamous love – with the jealousies, frustrations and vulnerabilities it brings – Donne, the randy old bugger, is there to help him through it. Or, at any rate, to remind him that none of this is exactly uncharted territory.
If this sounds trite, well, it is. Indeed, were it not for the writing, and the edifying presence of Donne, The Calligrapher might be pretty pedestrian stuff. A sort of Nick Hornby-sent-to-Oxford-and-taught-his-wines exercise in men’s fiction, perhaps. But Docx is an exceptionally colourful writer and his lyrical flights carry the novel. His prose dazzles and strains with a combination of elegance, wit and punch. He is capable of evoking great beauty. “London lay spread beneath us, sprawling, mauling, falling away in all directions: the cobalt dome of the west, the river, the Eye, the never-ending slough of the south, and the towering east, glinting with avarice in the summer light.”
Indeed, like Amis, Docx is one of these writers who seem to find his own talents such a distraction that he occasionally forgets that good novels must also tell a story. As a result, The Calligrapher’s plot transits at a faltering and uncertain pace. Another of the book’s problems lies in the way Docx, who is also a newspaper columnist, insists on using Jasper as a sock-puppet for his own views. Via this device we are treated to Mr Docx’s opinions on everything from the death of God, to how to make the perfect cup of tea.
In the hands of a lesser talent, the intrusion of such conceit would be a very serious matter indeed, but under the stewardship of Mr Docx it is bearable. Just. Ego, after all, is a condition all men labour under. Just ask Donne.
An abridged version of this review appeared in the July issue of Good Reading Magazine