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This review contains spoilers.
Reading In the Wolf’s Mouth, Adam Foulds’s latest novel set in WWII-era Sicily and North Africa, brought to mind an old interview with E.L. Doctorow. Speaking to the New York Times in 1985, he said:
Henry James has a parable about what writing is… He posits a situation where a young woman who has led a sheltered life walks past an army barracks, and she hears a fragment of soldiers’ conversation coming through a window. And she can, if she’s a novelist, then go home and write a true novel about life in the army. You see the idea? The immense, penetrative power of the imagination and the intuition.
Foulds of course had more to go on than simply a fragment of soldiers’ conversation: as he described in his talk at the London Review Bookshop last week, the novel is sieved through the exhaustive study of oral histories and letters – though it does not parade its “sourcedness”. However, like James’s young woman, Foulds has extracted the kernel of army life: the diversity of soldiers that could make a unit’s personnel sound like a “saloon bar joke” (“an Englishman, a Welshman and a Jew”); new recruits’ desire to hide themselves inside the mechanised grey of drills and procedures, in the hope that they won’t become individual targets; and, especially, the communal love that develops between men, a masculine bond expressible only in the military. On finding that his friend, George, has not died in battle, Italian-American soldier Ray “grabbed the sides of [his] head, the dry prickles of his hair, and kissed him, pressed his mouth to George’s and held it there” – a kiss that his frail comrade reciprocates.
However, this is not the only way that Doctorow’s comments are apt. Foulds is an elusive novelist: he is not a spokesman for a constituency, nor has he created a Wapshot or a Yoknapatawpha in which to anchor his stories. Like Doctorow, or Barry Unsworth, his novels are scattered in geography and time: The Quickening Maze (2009) in Epping Forest circa 1840; his verse novella, The Broken Word (2008), in Kenya during the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion; his debut, The Truth About These Strange Times (2007), in present-day London during the World Memory Championships. What unites these disparate works is the quality of which Doctorow speaks: the immense, penetrative power of Foulds’s imagination.
Foulds is aware of this multifariousness, and has in fact described himself as “an E.L. Doctorow type” in that his work is always subservient to the individual book. This variety was a subject of considerable discussion at the LRB event: Foulds’s interlocutor, Andrew Motion, described how each of the novelist’s books had “a world of its own”, “continuous in its discontinuity”. Part of the fun, indeed, was to filter these discrete works for preoccupying themes. Some of these were more pronounced than others: one of Motion’s points was that Foulds’s characters seek to speak to each other despite their own perceived barriers: disability in his debut, mental illness in The Quickening Maze and nationality in In the Wolf’s Mouth. Or, as Motion puts it somewhat unwieldily, “the complications of communicating from your own place and voice with people who have their own places and voices”.
More marked is the latest novel’s fixation with dual themes that also underpin The Broken Word: violence and trauma. Both The Broken Word’s initially passive teenager Tom and In the Wolf’s Mouth’s idealistic protagonists Will and Ray experience a loss of innocence through violence; both books use animal imagery to underscore the ferocity of bloodshed. In the Wolf’s Mouth’s graphic depictions of shot-off jawbones and eviscerated flesh recall The Broken Word’s passage about mutilated men returning from conflict “heavily edited./Between them: nine fingers, two ears, three eyes, no testicles”.
Of particular concern to Foulds is the point at which violence becomes unsayable – when the usual apparatus of expression breaks down. This comes to the fore in a bravura battle scene about a third of the way into the book, which Foulds says is best described as a “rupture”. In the course of three extraordinary pages, the prose disintegrates into staccato stabs of text, strewn across the page like shrapnel. This passage – the most memorable in In the Wolf’s Mouth, alongside the novel’s opening description of the shooting and dismemberment of a partridge – is one of the two read out during the talk, although Foulds skips through it as it makes more sense on the page. It begins:
Floating now weightless without sound
Fear so great it had washed him empty
Up through his bones his foot beats
told him he was
The evening is at its most enriching when Foulds discusses his literary reference points. The scope of his reading is wide: Adam Phillips’s “Bombs Away”, which describes the theory of trauma as being “outside history”; Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam, which analyses The Iliad in terms of military psychology; Reiner Stach’s biography of Franz Kafka, which contained a description of a threadbare Yiddish theatre troupe holding each other’s wigs in place. “I can think of no sweeter image of human collaboration, of ‘only connect’.” One of his chief inspirations for the textual “rupture” is the penultimate chapter of Henry Roth’s masterpiece of Jewish American literature, Call It Sleep, in which the child protagonist steps on a live rail and the text explodes in a high modernist fashion – an episode that is often compared to Ulysses’ Nighttown section.
Though Foulds treats questions of humans’ capacity for violence – he describes the Holocaust education of his Jewish upbringing, which instilled the idea that bestial cruelty is just below the surface of normal human behaviour – it would be wrong, Motion suggests, to overlook the quiet optimism of works such as The Broken Word and In the Wolf’s Mouth. These works are concerned not just with violence but with reconstruction. It’s true: both end with their morally mangled men returned from battle and with a hint of redemption. Tom falls for “a definite woman” called Eleanor; Ray is in hiding with the help of a Sicilian Princess in whom he “[sees] something. Maybe he was wrong, but it looked like love”.
Andrew Motion, introducing the author, described his time teaching at the University of East Anglia, which briefly overlapped with Foulds’s as a student. Though Motion was nominally his teacher, he says that he had “never met someone who he had taught less”, as his talent then was already so fully formed. Yes, Adam Foulds’s subject matter may be disparate – like a literary Michael Winterbottom – but this is to his advantage, and ours as readers. His gifts of imaginative reconstruction and deep sympathy for the human experience mean that he can endlessly surprise, without any temporal or geographical straitjacket; it is invigorating to imagine where he might take us next.
Adam Foulds’s In The Wolf’s Mouth is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99).