lunes, 20 de agosto de 2012

The School of Night by Alan Wall

At first sight, The School of Night by Alan Wall seems to be a novel about English social class. The childhoods of Sean and Daniel are spent in Yorkshire, Bradford to be precise, though the town remains recognisable but strangely anonymous throughout.  Social class differences can be keenly felt against a backdrop of contrasted industrial revolution profit and graft of the type presented by this city whose fortunes were spun in wool.

Sean, whose mother died young and whose father is usually inside – and that does not mean in the house, has been brought up fairly conventionally by his grandparents. His only eventual inheritance is his grandfather’s snooker cue. Dan, on the other hand, is from a professional family with a large car and a detached house. Daniel’s mother has the same vowels as everyone else, but she is also beautiful and made up to be different. She adopts a few airs and graces to keep the world at bay. The two lads, however, forge a pragmatic friendship. Both are academically gifted. They might just get to Oxford.

Sean does just that. He reads history and literature and develops what becomes a lifelong interest bordering on obsession with an Elizabethan group centred on Sir Walter Raleigh. Their name, The School of Night, gives the book its title and also figures in a rather opaque and otherwise perhaps inconsequential line in a Shakespeare play. Further research leads Sean to a quest into the authorship of Shakespeare’s work. He cannot accept that a man whose daughter remained illiterate could have authored such work. Sean seems to forget the example of his own origins, or perhaps he might be rejecting them? Of this we are never sure.

Daniel, on the other hand, does not make it to Oxford. He doesn’t get the grades and decides to stay on at school for an extra year to improve his scores. The friends are thus separated. Dan never makes it to university. He abandons school, enters the family business in perishables, takes up with the girl that Sean left behind, marries her, has children and builds businesses, successfully.

Sean drifts into a steady if undemanding job as a researcher in the BBC while Dan builds his mansions. Sean takes up with Dominique and soft gates open into the promise of a new life only to close again for familiar reasons. He continues to meander through the intellectual challenges presented by his study of The School of Night and the identity of William Shakespeare while his own life itself meanders from one day to the next. Dan, meanwhile, makes more money, pots of it, and intervenes occasionally. We know early on, by the way, that Dan has died, leaving Sean an immense sense of loss.

As the characters’ lives unfold, the reader begins to expect some form of resolution of the book’s multiple and apparently disparate themes. The School of Night, Sir Walter Raleigh, Kit Marlowe, William Shakespeare, literature, history, sexual awakening, education, social class, friendship, loyalty, Bradford, they all mingle without ever really forcing a mix. Surely there will be some significant event that creates a synthesis powerful enough to round off this admixture of elements into a single, plot-forming whole. But Alan Wall is far too good a writer to stoop to such banality. These are characters who retain their interests because they are interested in them, not because they can be made to serve some cheap literary trick.

When Sean is made redundant by the BBC, Dan reappears in his life with an offer he cannot refuse. New, previously only imagined realities unfold and an occasional, sometimes disturbing truth surfaces. But Sean realises it is better not to ask questions. It is amazing what we will do to help a friend, even if the friend might not deserve the attention, let alone the required and inevitably assumed devotion.

The School of Night is about deception and eventual resolution via discovery. We interpret any situation only with knowledge currently available and inevitably there remains much that remains unknown, even about ourselves, let alone our closest friends and acquaintances, let alone shady figures from history. The School of Night seems to be a novel about doubt and our insatiable desire to resolve it, always with at best only partial success.

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