Adam Thorpe Critical Essays

Introduction

Adam Thorpe 1956-

French-born English novelist, poet, playwright, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Thorpe's career through 2003.

An accomplished poet and novelist, Thorpe debuted on the literary scene with his verse collection Mornings in the Baltic (1988), which was short-listed for the Whitbread Award. While his poetry utilizes accessible and formal language, Thorpe's fiction is decidedly dense and complex. His acclaimed first novel, Ulverton (1992), is a postmodern pastiche that relates the history of a fictional English town over three centuries. In subsequent novels, including Still (1995), Pieces of Light (1998), and Nineteen Twenty-One (2001), Thorpe continues his exploration of difficult thematic material and unconventional narrative forms examining the problematic aspects of artistic creation, historical memory, language, and civilization.

Biographical Information

Born in Paris, France, Thorpe spent a majority of his childhood travelling around the world with his family, residing in Lebanon, India, Cameroon, and England. His parents, Sheila Greenlees and Bernard Naylor Thorpe, met while his mother was working for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Paris and his father, a World War II veteran of the Royal Air Force, was Station Manager for Pan-Am Airlines in Brussels. Thorpe graduated from Marlborough, an English public school, and enrolled at Magdalen College, Oxford. At Magdalen, he studied with such noted scholars and poets as John Fuller, Emrys Jones, and Bernard O'Donoghue, earning his bachelor of arts with first class honors in English in 1979. Thorpe continued his education at the Desmond Jones School of Mime, studying mime and physical theatre. He co-founded the Equinox Travelling Theatre in 1979 and toured the Berkshire-Wiltshire area of England with the company from 1980 to 1986, writing adaptations of local folklore and performing with mime, puppets, and actors. The theatre troupe performed on local stages and schools, often conducting drama workshops for children. Thorpe and his co-performers were awarded the Time Out Mime Street Entertainer of the Year Award in 1984. While working with Equinox, Thorpe taught physical theatre at East London College from 1983 to 1987 and lectured in English at Polytechnic of Central London from 1987 to 1990. He married Joanna Wistreich, a teacher, in 1985, and moved to France to raise their three children. In 1985 Thorpe received the Eric Gregory Award, presented to promising young poets. Since the publication of Mornings in the Baltic, Thorpe has released two additional poetry collections, Meeting Montaigne (1990) and From the Neanderthal (1999). Thorpe contributes regularly to newspapers and magazines such as the Observer and Poetry Review. His first novel, Ulverton was nominated for the Booker Prize and won the Winifred Holtby Prize for best regional novel of 1992.

Major Works

Mornings in the Baltic is a collection of fifty-eight poems whose subjects range from personal experiences and observations to English history and rural industry. Employing a mixture of obscure literary allusion, reflection, and colloquialism, Thorpe's poems present evocative juxtapositions, wry insights, and self-parody. His second poetry collection, Meeting Montaigne, consists of disparate meditations on religious, historical, and quotidian themes, including metal detectors, fax machines, and domestic relations. The title poem describes a visit to the former library of the French essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. From the Neanderthal is similarly concerned with time and personal experience, as suggested by the title, which signals the collection's motif of ancestral linkages and extinction. The poems in this volume include lyrical meditations on English history, contemporary life, religion, and mortality set against the natural world and the human past. Contrary to his poetry, Thorpe's fiction is both experimental and dense, with a marked postmodern interest in ambiguity, language, memory, and the irrational. Designed as a reflection on the English experience from 1650 through 1988, the plot of Ulverton unfolds through the voices of simple, rural people, including shepherds, petty thieves, mothers, soldiers, and other historical archetypes. The novel follows three hundred thirty-eight years of local history in the fictional English town of Ulverton, presented in twelve linking sections, each occurring approximately thirty years after the previous one. The narrative structure of each section varies wildly, adopting such nontraditional prose forms as the transcript of a sermon, a farmer's calendar, a selection of letters, captions on a series of nineteenth-century photographic plates, memoirs, diaries, and even a screenplay for a documentary. Thorpe also modifies the dialect of each section to reflect the historical period and speaking voice of his characters, resulting in some passages that are barely literate. A wry humor infuses many of the sections, displaying Thorpe's preoccupation with colloquial language and community relations. Besides the progression of time, the twelve sections are linked not only through the physical space of Ulverton, but also through the familial lineage of the characters. For example, a strange disappearance from the first section is later resolved in the final section. Still, Thorpe's second novel, rejects many of the narrative forms used in Ulverton, most notably by abandoning straightforward chronology. Nearly six hundred pages long, the novel takes the form of a stream-of-consciousness rant from Rick Thornby, a failed English film director who now lectures to uninspired students in a college in Houston, Texas. Meanwhile, Thornby continues to work on his cinematic masterpiece, a film without images that lasts for twelve hours. The novel frequently plays on the multiple meanings of the word “still”—photographic images, tedium, noiseless, among others—to explore Thornby's psyche.

Pieces of Light returns to the town of Ulverton, this time contrasting the agrarian English countryside with the jungles of Africa. The book is structured as a mystery, though not in any conventional sense, since the true outcome of the plot remains ambiguous. As with a majority of Thorpe's fiction, the narrative techniques of the novel vary from section to section. The first part of the novel is presented as the memoir of Hugh Arkwright, who spends the first seven years of his life in Cameroon and views the lush African landscape as idyllic. His African friend, Quiri, teaches Hugh his language and cultural assumptions, which include stories of the distant past when human sacrifice was a part of tribal life. In the second part of the novel, much to Hugh's dismay, his mother takes him back to England to live with her brother and sister-in-law in Ulverton. Five years after his arrival in England, Hugh receives news that his mother has disappeared into the jungle, the mystery of which remains unresolved at the close of the novel. The third part is written as a series of diary entries by the now seventy-year-old Hugh. He stumbles upon an unopened trunk in his uncle's home and finds something that horrifies him. The fourth part picks up the story one year later, with Hugh in a mental institution, having gone mute since his unexplained discovery. On the advice of his therapist, Hugh corresponds with his mother to try to unravel the mystery of his nervous breakdown, but his attempts are unsuccessful. The final section of the novel consists of letters Hugh's mother wrote to her brother during her first two years in Cameroon. Pieces of Light ends with the reasons for Hugh's illness unresolved and the alarming possibility of his culpability in a murder. Nineteen Twenty-One is set in an isolated area of South Central England, the Chiltern Hills, during the 1920s. The protagonist, Joseph Munrow, is a would-be author who is unsuccessfully striving to write the definitive novel of the World War I era. Munrow's efforts to write ultimately succumb to his own ennui and the cultural emptiness of his time. Thorpe's first short story collection, Shifts (2000), explores how the workplace exerts a definite effect on one's way of life. The twelve stories examine a selection of laborers, all of whom practice a trade, such as a blacksmith, mechanic, and stonecutter. The stories use first-person narration and each character speaks in the technical jargon of their specialty. In 2003 Thorpe published No Telling, which follows the life of Gilles Gobain, a twelve-year-old boy living in Paris during the Student Riots of 1968. Gilles' family is filled with eccentric characters that have diametrically opposed political beliefs—his sister is a radical communist while his uncle is a right-wing conservative. Thorpe has also composed scripts for four radio plays for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Radio including Just Not Cricket (1988), The Fen Story (1991), Offa's Daughter (1993) and An Envied Place (2002), as well as a stage play, Couch Grass and Ribbon (1996).

Critical Reception

While Thorpe's poetry has been admired for its cultivated sensibility and lyrical poise, his novels have gained him both notoriety and esteem for their daring experimentalism. However, many critics have been divided regarding the success of Thorpe's use of atypical narrative forms. Some reviewers have favorably compared the language in Ulverton to James Joyce's Ulysses, while others have faulted the work as overly obtuse, digressive, and, in places, historically inaccurate. John Bilston has noted that, in Ulverton, “Thorpe manages to establish an agreeably oblique narrative interconnection between his dozen ‘chapters’, and this keeps the reader's attention, even through chunks of unwelcome prolixity.” Despite Ulverton's generally warm critical reception, Thorpe's second novel, Still has been widely considered his least successful work. Commentators have argued that the novel's chaotic prose makes deciphering Thorpe's thematic intentions impossibly difficult. Though Pieces of Light has been praised for its structure and allusive references, some critics have noted that the novel fails to deliver on the excellence of its opening sections, calling the denouement both confusing and disappointing. Pieces of Light has also been criticized for leaving important elements of plot and character unresolved, particularly because Thorpe structures the novel as a mystery. Both Nineteen Twenty-One and Thorpe's short fiction in Shifts have been critically well received, with reviewers commending Thorpe's ambition and virtuosity.