Geoff Page reviews The Poets’ Stairwell by Alan Gould
by Alan Gould
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
First, a disclosure. I have known the poets Kevin Hart and Alan Gould, the “real life” protagonists of this autobiographical novel, for more than forty years. While this must inevitably intensify the pleasure I take in the work, it should not necessarily undermine my judgement that The Poets’ Stairwell is a first-rate creation which can travel well in any company. It is also something of a coup for its relatively small Melbourne publisher.
Among the work’s numerous merits is that it operates as several sorts of novel at the same time. It wears the term “picaresque” in its subtitle and there is no doubt that it comprises a journey with humorous episodes — a “road movie”, if you will. It is also, however, a novel of ideas, comparable to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain in which each of the major characters cleverly embodies a way of thought popular in the nineteenth century. Given that it presents a comprehensive and searching portrayal of two very different temperaments, The Poets’ Stairwell can also be called a psychological novel. Gould’s talent is that he can keep these three potentially diverging ambitions in the air simultaneously without mishap.
At one level, the narrative of The Poets’ Stairwell is quite simple. Two young Australian poets, Claude Boon and Henry Luck (both of them London-born, as it happens) are on their backpacking “Grand Tour” of Europe in 1976. Henry, a few years Claude’s junior, is prodigiously well-read and sometimes unbearably sure of himself — intellectually at least, if not socially. Claude, or Boon, as he prefers to be called, is the novel’s narrator and perhaps something of its Sancho Panza (though Henry Luck is a little more worldly than Don Quixote).
Together, they make a low-budget tour of Europe which includes London, Ireland, Paris, Venice, Florence, Assisi, Rome, Istanbul, Athens, Vienna, Prague and Rotterdam in roughly that order. Henry is a good deal less adventurous about accommodation than Boon but, with a few crises, they manage to travel companionably throughout. While Boon, more than a little under the influence of Nietzsche, is becoming increasingly aware of his historical muse, Luck is, in effect, converting to Roman Catholicism.
As with all picaresque tales, a cast of diverting (and somewhat emblematic) characters is encountered. These include Luck’s long-distance London girlfriend, Rhee, and her friend, Eva, a talented dancer and fervent Marxist. Another character, Beamish, the anarchist, represents a more reckless and self-destructive alternative to the relatively sedate lives the poets envisage for their later selves. A few of these characters re-appear, somewhat coincidentally, at various points in the poets’ wanderings. Others pop up for one or two chapters only.
Paradoxically, Luck, the younger poet, seems to be the more mature intellectually and perhaps even morally, having a clear (if overly precise) idea of what he wants and what he doesn’t want from life. Boon is much more open to new experiences. Luck is inclined to close himself off from them, sometimes with disdain. He does, however, display some vulnerabilities and it is a sign of Boon’s developing maturity that he is able compassionately to take these into account.
Though there is much talk of “finding one’s muse” the adventures and aesthetic discussions along the way are of wider relevance than the novel’s subtitle may at first suggest. A sense of vocation, as opposed to a money-spinning “day-job”, is by no means a rare thing these days — though the vocation may take some years to emerge clearly (with perhaps one or two false starts along the way).
A recurrent thematic concern in this context is embodied in the Latin proverb “poeta nascitur non fit” (“a poet is born, not made”). Enough of Boon’s and Luck’s earlier lives is given to support the “made” half of the maxim while the temperaments displayed on their travels reveal a good deal about the “born” side. Clearly, as Gould makes plain, there are different muses and different sorts of poets. It is a sign of both young men’s growth that they come progressively to realise this about the other — even if that progress is not always evenly made.
Such realizations give rise to many of the more affecting moments in the novel. One is Boon’s early decision (suggested to him by a drunken, if aristocratic, Irishman) not to leave the somewhat annoying and inhibited Henry in the lurch and go off on his own. Another, much later in the novel, is where Luck, without even trying or fully realising what he is doing, contrives to set a female American plumber, Martha, on the way to a new life and career in philosophy and academia.
Boon’s account of her departure for the U.S. is also an example of the novel’s sharply focussed yet relaxed style:
‘This has been the best day of my life,’ she managed. ‘I’ll write you,’ and showed in her notebook where she had taken down Henry’s Brisbane address. Then the door closed with a pfffft, and she was gone.
‘She seemed moved,’ Henry looked puzzled.
‘She was moved’
‘I’ve no idea what I did,’ he looked genuinely helpless. ‘ I just rattled off what any book could tell her. Why was she so moved?’
By the book’s denouement, Gould fictionally varies what is publicly known of “Henry”’s (or Hart’s) subsequent career but the twists, at the psychological level, may be insightful even so. The rather anti-climactic update on the Boon-Luck friendship provided in the book’s last paragraph is sadly convincing. Boon writes to Rhee, who has stayed in London and remained in contact with Henry long past the end of their relationship, saying merely: “If you see him, wish him well.”
Henry and Boon’s “Grand Tour” has served its necessary and important developmental purpose. There is no need for a postscript updating us on the poets’ fortunes after they emerge from the “stairwell”. The novel is sharply focussed on key events in their parallel and interacting lives as young men. Anything more would be material for other, very different novels — one of which Gould has, in effect, already attempted in The Seaglass Spiral.
GEOFF PAGE is a Canberra-based poet and critic. He is editor of The Best Australian Poets, 2015.