All's well that ends well
THE CLOUD OF DUST by Charlie Boxer Cape, £10, pp. 153 This, Charlie Boxer's first book, is a refreshingly old-fashioned and unfashion- able novella about love. Both in style the author's fondness for the exclamation for example — and sentiment, it looks back to 18th-century Romanticism, a debt acknowledged when the narrator, also called Charlie, compares his own story to that of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. Like the latter this is an epistolary novel, a one-sided correspondence addressed to the narrator's mother and to a friend, Paul. It is also autobiographical; as a footnote to Charlie's sentimental educa- tion is his sadness at his father's (Mark Boxer's) abandonment of his mother for a famous and glamorous girlfriend (the newscaster Anna Ford).
Charlie arrives at Edinburgh University a `faltering, dejected boy'. He walks the streets, finding richness in solitude and consolation in the form of glimpses of hill and ocean, which inspire transports of Wordsworthian delight (snatches of beauti- fully written description are one of this book's pleasures). The Cloud of Dust is in part about the experience of being young, of being a student and the accompanying process of disillusionment. Charlie is after knowledge in the widest sense — 'the sharp, raw edges of the world' — but, intel- lectually, he is disappointed by John le Cane-reading tutors, who misunderstand him, and fellow students, who are 'insensi- tive, snobbish oafs' (Edinburgh student society appears 'the most rigidly stratified since pre-revolutionary France'). And then he is struck by the redeeming, enlarging power of love.
The love object is ebullient, open- hearted, exotic Kate, a girl who gathers people to her, whose drinking partners are Burns-quoting tramps, who represents experience to Charlie's innocence. They become firm friends. The moment love crystallises for Charlie — a day spent with Kate at her home in Sussex — is joyously described. He walks through the summer morning to meet her — 'that long-dead morning gilded my coming love' — and together they dance madly to 'old Dixieland records' and wander the woods at night. But this is a chaste and only par- tially requited love, because in the back- ground lurks Kate's boyfriend.
For Charlie this is, inevitably, torment- ing, but exquisitely so, in that pain allows him to feel more acutely, acts as a conduit to the world about him and entwines itself, inextricably, with love. 'We are more secre- tive about our taste for cradling hurt within ourselves than about anything else,' he observes pertinently, on the masochism of the lover. Love, here, is defined as 'finding in one thing the fullness of everything we have left out of ourselves'. It is selfless and morally illuminating — Charlie recognises in Kate 'someone whose instincts are deeply connected to their conscience' and her conscience becomes his. And so he finds a kind of happiness in lying next to his love with just their heads and feet touching. Until, that is, denial becomes unbearable.
This is a novel that is both wholly serious — indeed the quality of seriousness, in the sense of rigour of thought rather than absence of laughter, is of the greatest importance to the narrator — and wholly captivating. It approaches love without a hint of cynicism. It is modest, passionate and touching. And, unlike many love sto- ries, this one has a happy ending — the object of the narrator's adoration is the woman with whom the author now lives, the mother of his two sons.