- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

"Intercourse with books requires that you should marry them … What is a book when all's said and done, but someone's heart, someone's soul?" So says Christopher Bayliss, the young man in "The Lightning Cage" about half way through Alan Wall's novel.
Other titles by Mr. Wall include "School of Night," "Bless the Thief" and "Richard Dadd in Bedlam and Other Stories," and point to the spiritually and morally complex material with which he likes to wrestle, and make his reader grapple too.
In the new novel, Chris Bayliss, feckless and not untypical young man of our times, becomes caught up in the writing of a book himself and before he is done loses everything that he has. Chris' subject is Richard Pelham, an 18th-century poet who corresponded and was acquainted with Samuel Johnson and his circle.
Pelham's was an age of scientists fascinated with the human body and mind. Fellows of the Royal Society were busy, sometimes in the company of other scientists that included the visiting Benjamin Franklin. Others in or on the fringes of the story range from well-to-do amateurs like Lord Chilford with a house in London and a Palladian villa upriver on the Thames, to a professional, William Hewson, a pioneer of modern surgery. Hewson, who was married to the daughter of Franklin's landlady, has been associated with post-mortem dissection of bodies for research purposes, the corpses often provided by grave robbers.
Mr. Wall's fiction is organized to alternate Chris' variously besotting literary odyssey with that of his subject, who presents a lasting mystery to scholars in having disappeared without trace toward the end of his life.
A poor boy but prize-winning student, Pelham early distinguished himself with poetry of a pious nature in the Augustan style; his titles "Psalms and Solace," and "Silent Endearments" give an idea. Pelham then quit his world to plunge into that of Grub Street, home to down-at-heel writers and deemed worthy of its own entry by Johnson in his dictionary. There Pelham gave himself up to gin and debauchery, later becoming apparently mad, subject to seizures and what he believed to be visitations by saints both good and bad. He may have had a demon if such there be and a question to which the novel in its denouement comes down.
This was the age of the Enlightenment, but rapprochement between Church and Reason were still underway and many a trembling heart reached back to the medieval certitudes and terrors of centuries past.
The title of the work upon which Pelham struggled in his later years, "The Instruments of the Passion" referred to the life of Christ, but had its grisly parallels in some of the practices of the more adventurous physicians and students of melancholia in Pelham's time. One such was Thomas Parker, owner of the Chelsea Asylum where we meet Pelham prior to his release into the custody of Lord Chilford.
A question for Chris in his pursuit of Pelham is how much a life supposedly being lived in the 21st century can be completely drawn back into an earlier one, the 18th. It is the pantomime view of the scholar in his ivory tower, but the reality in Chris' case is not like that. His commitment to his project happens despite himself, and Pelham comes and finds him in the working of the latter's ill-fated life upon an impressionable mind.
Chris has grown up in an Edwardian villa on the edge of Tooting Common (this is in many regards a London story), child of a straightlaced chartered accountant and a housewife. With aspiration to become a priest and the particular blessing of his mother, the youth goes off to the English College in Rome. He spends three years there, but his visits to the so-called "cousins," prostitutes in other words, persuade him that he cannot make a vow of celibacy, and that is that. The mother is disappointed.
Back in England, Chris attends Leeds University, where he is invited to stay on and do graduate work.
The graduate student's common search for a research topic not done by someone else already leads him to Pelham, largely forgotten for 200 years.
But a faculty adviser whom Chris doesn't like is allowed to become a disincentive to getting on with the job.
He instead fritters away his time keeping fit and spending weekends clambering up and down the Yorkshire hills. The stalemate is broken by a telegram saying that his father is very ill, whereupon the elderly accountant dies, leaving every detail of his affairs in good order. Chris drifts back to London, where his mother is freshly disappointed at his growing tendency (it goes for girlfriends too) of getting into projects and never finishing anything.
A spell as a man of the world as yet stands between Chris and Pelham.
He lands a job with a firm engaged in fine arts printing, acquires an MG sportscar, and buys an apartment in Battersea close by the river (the novel additionally is a tale of the Thames). He becomes friendly with his boss, Andrew Cavendish-Porter, who takes him up.
A slick executive in the contemporary mold, Cavendish-Porter has Chris to dinners with his aristocratic, anorexic wife, and takes him on motoring trips to France and Italy to acquire new business (and by the by enjoy expense-account women).
He gets him appointed a director of the company. But the senior man is using Chris too and when he skips the firm, which he has been milking for his own entrepreneurial schemes, Chris is suspected of being an accomplice and forced to resign. In truth, rather than accomplice, his role has been naif, a trait that will come to the fore repeatedly.
Chris' one liberty with company resources had been to manipulate a job to produce brochures for the West London College and Art in such a way as to enable him to meet Alice Ashe, a young painter. She moves in with him, lets him take care of her hand and foot, then leaves himself during a Pembrokshire holiday the pair are taking in Chris' company-owned Austin Healey car. Naif again.
Obliged to return the car, Chris fortuitously is rammed in the back by another vehicle and incurs the neck whiplash injury which will linger on and disable him in life-changing fashion.
Almost a shut-in and alone in the house in Tooting after he puts his mother (Alzheimer's) in a nursing home, Chris finds himself answering the siren call of his former graduate school studies, to wit Pelham.
For this Chris needs books, expensive old ones, and as he says in the same breath about marrying books, "the sacrament is money." He begins selling off to an affable local dealer the contents of his parents' house.
As the place gets barer, his goings out and coming in become limited to buying food and visits to the London book dealers and their world of unexpected alliances and shady deals. The pattern of his life is being set.
Chris' search leads him to Stamford Tewk, prominent member of the Soho Poets in the 1940s and '50s, famous for his bibliography of 18th-century literature and now a reclusive keeper of a bookshop in Richmond.
Tewk also has been interested in Pelham in his time, and here commences the second part of the novel, with the pace of Chris' pursuit of his man and the dissipation of his worldly resources quickening.
Come what may, Chris now has little else to do but write his book. Visits to other ages and men, from Herodotus' speculation about Cleomenes to Franz Kafka' fantasies on punishment as being written on the body and Joris-Karl Huysmans' retreat into monastic life, season the historical and intellectual pot.
But it is the 18th century, brilliant and forbidding both, that haunts.

By Alan Wall
St. Martin's Press, $24.95, 302 pages

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