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The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke

The Chymical Wedding (original 1989; edition 2010)

by Lindsay Clarke

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417836,661 (3.52)13
Title:The Chymical Wedding
Authors:Lindsay Clarke
Info:Alma Books Ltd (2010), Paperback, 500 pages
Collections:Your library, Fiction

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The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke (1989)


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Really should have given up on this earlier. It's quite well written, and the story is competently told. The problem is that the author is altogether too credulous.

Practically, although it pretends otherwise, the plot relies upon hermeticism and other esoteric nonsense being credible. Which apart from anything else simply isn't interesting: if I want to read about over-indulged bollocks I'll read.L Ron Hubbard.

Secondly, the author clearly lives in a small "Little Britain" world, and isn't able to provide an external critical view of that. At one point a character in all earnestness goes off to a Parish Council meeting. Anyone who can write about that without acknowledging the faint ridiculousness of it all (ala Vicar of Dibley) is in a very different place to me. A bit of irony would have done this book wonders. ( )
  sometimeunderwater | Nov 8, 2018 |
I am not quite sure about this book: I wanted to like it, because Clarke can, and does, write well, but I am defeated by the predictability of the plot and the esotericism of the subject matter. It seems to me that this book contains all the elements that ought to have made a novel enjoyable, and yet, somehow, in arranging them, falls short of that aim.

The protagonist of Clarke's book, Alex Darken, is a post-War poet who exiles himself to a remote part of Norfolk, after he encounters writer's block and a dissolving marriage with a wife whose attentions are now elsewhere. At Norfolk, he meets Ralph Agnew, a descendant of Louisa Agnew. Ralph, in turn, introduces him to the old, debauched poet, Edward Nesbit, and his young, American girlfriend, Laura. Edward Nesbit is living a life of seclusion, and hasn't written anything for many years. He and Laura, however, are bent on uncovering the history behind Ralph's ancestor, Louisa Agnew, and they succeed in drawing Alex into the project. The story of their search is told, interwoven with the story of Louisa herself, the manuscript on hermeticism and alchemy that she is writing with her father, and her friendship with a local curate, Edwin Frere. The book does not end particularly well for any of these characters: I wouldn't call it an unhappy conclusion, but definitely a mixed one. Alex eventually writes again ,and they do uncover the story of Louisa's life and what happened to her manuscript: but I'd hesitate to say more and spoil the book.

I have mixed feelings about this book, because I was drawn in despite having absolutely no interest in alchemy or hermeticism. When I began it I was worried that I would end up reading what might amount to the equivalent of Dan Brown in its time. What kept me reading, however, was Clarke's truly elegant prose. He has a remarkable facility for phrase, but not much depth, to be honest, and in that he is not much unlike his protagonist poet, who faces the same criticism from the older (but not necessarily wiser) Edward Nesbit. I am not particularly sympathetic with themes that involve people dabbling in mysticism and ghosts (the latter features in this book) because I'm a thorough skeptic. I did, however, enjoy Clarke's clever way of drawing in classical allusions and references. I felt that his sly asides to Auden and Eliot, Catullus and so on, were little presents he was leaving, to thank you for bearing with the endless circular plot of love triangles, the neuroses of wealthy English people and their inexplicable tendency to hang about graveyards and play with tarot cards.

Clarke based his book on the life of Mary Anne Atwood, a thinker who dabbled in both, hermetecism and alchemy. Atwood wrote, published, married and thrived. Unlike Atwood, however, Clark's Louisa Agnew was cut short in her prime, at once succeeding and failing. She is probably the most interesting character in the book, wise and yet naive, thoughtful and yet carelessly selfish, learned and eloquent with texts but so often at a loss when faced with people. I'd have liked to see more of her, but instead am treated to endless portraits of The Young Gentleman Poet Struggling With His Art.

Clarke, however, is evidently building to a greater thesis in this book: a grand truth about the nature of humanity, and Art. I don't know if I agree with his philosophy or his conclusions: certainly, he seems to agree that they aren't particularly new or revelatory, but yet, I think the aim here was not what he revealed, but how he did it, through a meticulously researched fantasy about alchemy and the lives of ordinary people. His thesis, a sort of riff on the idea that to achieve natural harmony, we must be able to hold within us both our violence and our peace, is intriguing, but unnecessarily clouded with Alex Darken's dithering about the Green Man, a lot of wholly unnecessary sexual tension and jealousy, references to the emotional consequences of cuckolding and the inevitable ghostly presences of learned ancestors. I think these things actually detracted from what he wanted to say, although, to be fair, they might accurately reflect the general sloppiness of the approach to hermetics in the period he was writing about.

It was a decent enough read, but I suspect you'd enjoy it more if you were actually into alchemy, or hermetics, in general.
2 vote reva8 | Mar 16, 2015 |
Clarke can write, but I'm not at all sure I'd describe this book as well-written. He does a fair job of making his bitter and frustrated contemporary hero real yet sympathetic, but manages neither with his 19th-Century characters.

He occasionally writes and thinks extremely well, he sometimes writes laborious descriptive passages and falls back on intellectual crutches like "the bomb."

The set up for the novel is that there is, possibly, a key to a powerful truth--an alchemical power altogether more friendly to our nature and external nature than contemporary technology--in the archives of an old estate in Norfolk.

What the characters find is . . . true, but not terribly powerful. ( )
1 vote ehines | Aug 26, 2012 |
The Chymical Wedding covers a lot of ground; at the heart it is a meditation over two time periods about the nature of love, friendship and creation. Whether this creation is sexual generation, or poetry, or the uncovering of mysteries - Clarke shows us how this is both utterly mysterious and completely mundane at the same time - how the forces that can drive people to destruction can also lead them to lead quiet lives.This novel is a romance and a tragedy and, at many times a comedy; a book very much of its time with its preoccupation with nuclear destruction and also a time travelling narrative of complexity and sophistication. And, despite its length and meanderings, the narrative is tight and the drive to the conclusion very readable.
  otterley | Jun 5, 2011 |
'How to find our way back? How to realize a whole vision of life? Not some self-sealing intellectual construct; no shabby, patchwork compromise, but a regenerative, transcendent change. One that reconciles matter with spirit, heart with mind, the female in us and the male, the darkness and the light. That was the problem which engaged the spiritual intellect of the true alchemist. That was the Elixir, the Stone, the Gold . . . aurum non vulgi - no common gold. they are all symbols for what cannot be said - only experienced. As is', he added pointedly, 'the chymical wedding - the promise of which you saw celebrated in your dreams.'

In the Norfolk village of Munding in the middle of the 19th century, Sir Henry Agnew struggles to transform hermetic secrets into poetry, while Louisa Agnew, his daughter and alchemical soror mystica, decides to write a book that will act as an introduction to her father's work. In the 1980s a poet called Alex Darken comes to the village to lick his wounds after the collapse of his marriage, and becomes entangled with the elderly poet Edward Nesbit and his young lover Laura, who are investigating the Agnews' work and the mystery of Louisa's frater mystica.

I thought that this would be my type of book, since it features alchemy, green man and a church with a sheela-na-gig embedded in its wall. Unfortunately, both eras were peopled with obsessive drama queens, and by 120 pages from the end I had lost patience with their idiotic behaviour. As I was so far through I forced myself to finish it anyway, but it's my least favourite book of the year so far. ( )
2 vote isabelx | Apr 28, 2011 |
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Is not this, perhaps, the secret of every true and great mystery, that it is simple? Does it not love secrecy for that very reason? Proclaimed, it were but a word; kept silent it is being. And a miracle too, in the sense that being with all its paradoxes is miraculous.
C. Kerenyi, Introduction to a Science of Mythology
Reality favours symmetries and slight anachronisms.
Jorge Luis Borges, The South
For Maddy
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In that part of the world the sky is everywhere, and the entire landscape seems to lie in abasement under its exacting light.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0330309684, Paperback)

In Lindsay Clarke's second novel, which won a Whitbread Prize in 1989, alchemy infuses the language and imagery of a tale that unfolds as two separate stories. In the first sequence, a poet named Alex Darken falls into an abusive, yet obsessive triangle with an alcoholic elderly poet and a beautiful, troubled psychic. Together they pursue the alchemical and personal secrets of the spirited Louisa Agnew, the central character of the second story. Louisa is a woman devoted to a self-centered father whose fascination with the hermetic arts forces her to confront her own dark side and her feelings for a tormented minister. As the characters struggle for wholeness of spirit, they each uncover their hidden potential for passion and violence.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:07 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

In a dazzling weave of story and character, The Chymical Wedding tells two parallel and interconnected tales--one set in the late 1840's, one in the 1980's, both played out in the same English village.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 2 descriptions

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