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Issue 270
January/February 2012
A New Moral Compass

Reviews

Alchemical Heart
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Alchemical Heart

Linda Proud says it takes a good man to write a good book. A Fabrication of Gold by John Moat. The Write Factor, 2011. ISBN: 9780956873507

John Moat is perhaps better known to readers of Resurgence as that wry observer of the passing world, Didymus. Behind the pseudonym lies an artist and writer, born in India but long domiciled in Devon, who founded the Arvon Foundation in 1968 with John Fairfax. By his own admission, he lies outside the mainstream, and what a relief that is, for his voice is fresh, original and, most important of all, honest.

Many writers can beguile us with their clever, even inspired use of language, but the test of a book is what it leaves us with. Is it just the vague notion that we have been entertained for a few hours? Such novels are merely pastimes. Good for commuting with. The best books, however, arise from a kind of disembowelling of the imagination: where the author is determined and courageous enough to demand the truth of his inner self and then to set it down. Such books have real substance and leave us better than they found us. This is one of them.

I understand that John ‘dashed it off’ and that he was surprised when Lorna Howarth, former editor of Resurgence, chose it to be the first publication for her fledgling publishing house The Write Factor. He thought of it as a trifle, something he threw out betwixt and between. But when did the Muse ever spend years rewriting or editing? An energetic spurt of creativity that needs little reworking is an authentic sign of her influence.

Like so many of John’s works, A Fabrication of Gold is alchemical at heart. It is divided into eight books of 144 (very short) chapters. For those familiar with alchemy there is a whole rich seam of concealed symbolism and meaning, although the book is perfectly enjoyable without any background knowledge (or prior reading of C.G. Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy).

A dream work, following dream logic, as the story becomes increasingly bizarre you just go with it. It portrays the fuddled reality of a man who, in the middle of his life, believes his conservatory business is folding and that his wife is having an affair. It begins with a shadowy figure he calls ‘Caruso’ commissioning a conservatory covered in gold leaf, but what should be the end of his troubles only exacerbates them: where can he find someone who does gold leaf? Well, Dennis will know, Dennis the leatherworker who has just moved into the village and who has a passion for daughter Annabel; Dennis, who he is convinced is replacing him in his wife’s affections. The gold leaf man turns out to be an alchemist called Cornelius, who soon becomes as shadowy as Caruso.

Our (nameless) hero goes to a wise woman for help. She is called SM, which – as a note at the beginning helpfully tells us – stands for Soror Mystica. Not that the other SM is entirely absent as he returns to her cottage again and again for her wild logic and even wilder behaviour. Together they uncover and do away with the figures of terror from his past, notably the vicious father and cruel Ayah.

SM does not shrink from violence. The scene of skinning a sheep is absolutely not for the faint-hearted.

“What’s the opposite to consuming?” he asks her while she is in the middle of her butchery.

“Like, it’s another way of looking at a thing. You just look at it, whatever it is, creatively and you’ve made it. That way you’re working on yourself. You’re making gold.”

The prose style ranges from chatty to pure poetry. Wit and wisdom are the twin threads of this novel. It is a searingly honest journey into the psyche, with alchemy as the key to self-understanding. The pace never lets up. It’s surreal and yet somehow you’re able to follow it.

The protagonist is Everyman. He is you and he is me. No, it is more than that: this is the narrative of a man talking to himself, but I, the reader, am that self. That’s how intimate it is.

Leon Battista Alberti once said – presumably quoting an even more ancient author – that it takes a good man to be a good painter. That is certainly true of writers and writing. John Moat is a good man, and this fictional autobiography is a very good book.

A Fabrication of Gold is available from www.thewritefactor.co.uk

Linda Proud is the author of The Botticelli Trilogy, set in Neoplatonic Florence. Her latest novel is A Gift for the Magus.

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