The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke. Jonathan Cape, London 1989. Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1989. $19.95. 536 pps.
The intent of the ancient art of alchemy was the transmutation of base metal–lead–into purest gold. An aberration of the gullible mediaeval mind, you say? A quaintly arcane footnote to that ultimately superstitious chapter of history, the Middle Ages? The Chymical Wedding bids one reconsider.
The alchemists maintained that even after ‘the Fall,’ a spark of the divine principle remained in humans; with diligent care and spiritual understanding that base metal–material man–could once again become spiritually whole and golden. So powerful and transforming is Clarke’s novel that readers will find themselves venturing into the caverns of self-knowledge to rediscover that golden self.
And although Clarke refer to this work as a romance, which it is, The Chymical Wedding transcends the conventions of the genre. It is at once historical fiction, a philosophical dialectic, a searing commentary on our nuclear age, and a novel of suspense, all of which the author spins out like the best mystery writer in the business.
Fleeing the morass of his crumbled marriage, poet Alex Darken seeks refuge and solace on the quiet depths of rural Norfolk, England. There, he meets the acerbic, aging poet–Edward Nesbit, the inspiration of his youth–and the poet’s young American companion, Laura. Intrigued by Laura, enraged and entranced by Nesbit, Darken is drawn from his cocoon of solitude. He joins the couple in their research on the lives and lost secrets of a Victorian alchemist-poet, Sir Henry Agnew, and his daughter, Louisa Ann.
Paralleling this narrative, Clarke weaves a second in which he related the daily lives of Louisa Ann and her father–the very subject of Nesbit’s investigation. Both father and daughter are engaged in writing about the Hermetic art of transmutation as a universal panacea.
Like reflex images, the two tales of The Chymical Wedding mirror each other. Each narrative features a triangle of characters, the contemporary trio mirroring the historical in near perfect symmetry.
Nesbit tells Darken, “Of course, you’re feeling dazed. Why should you not? You’ve been struck by lightning after all. It takes time to recognise that it’s a privilege to be singled out by the gods that way.”
And while the author pursues the innovative and novel, he does not overlook the refinements of what can only be called ‘beautiful style.’ Clarke restores the English and literary to English literature. His prose is so luminous, so lush with imagery, that he often seems more poet than novelist. His sentences have a cadence laden with assonance and alliteration. There is a music to them which begs to be read aloud, to savour phrases as they echo in the ear.
“For a time that young woman had been at her window watching the clouds ferry the October light across the sky as though they were carriers of urgent news. Except for the rise and fall of her breath she was still…Her dress was of grey silk, its sheen answering to the tilt of the evening light, across the lake, so that she was now little more than a marble’s shadow among shadows.
“For three days, since the month had changed, an easterly had fretted among the trees and would not back, but now she sensed a veering in the air, a softness where things had been gritty and bitter before…The wind gusted to rain beyond the casement. It was as though the night were throwing small stones at the glass.”
Not since The Name of the Rose has a novel wedded theme and style with such a morally charged punch. The Chymical Wedding received Britain’s prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year award for 1989.
May Clarke’s lightning strike a second time.
[This review was first published in The Christian Science Monitor in 1989.]