Sonnet five of Canzoniere, by the 14th century Renaissance poet Petrarch, is built around the acronym, Lau-re-ta. It refers to Laura, a woman who may or may not have existed but on whom Petrarch lavished four decades of unrequited love and 366 poems. It also refers to the myth of Apollo and Daphne in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Apollo pursues Daphne but cannot have her. The fleeing nymph is transformed into a laurel tree, providing him with leaves to crown himself the god of poetry. Unrequited love is turned into poetic creation. Laura, the unattainable woman, is also a crown of words.

The characters in Caroline’s Bikini, Kirsty Gunn’s new novel, or “arrangement of a novel”, set out on a similar project: to “make something” out of the “nothing” that is unrequited love. This is to be a tale in the grand tradition of Petrarch and Dante, the reader is told, although it inhabits a sadly diminished modern world. Edward Gordonston, a middle-aged banker who moves back to London after decades in the United States, falls in love with Caroline Beresford, his landlady.

Courtly love

All the requirements of courtly love are met. Caroline glimmers briefly at her doorway, just as Laura did in a churchyard one April morning seven centuries ago. Edward falls in love with her at once. “And - BANG” is the 21st century rendition of that very Petrarchian moment. Like Laura and Dante’s Beatrice, she is married and does not seem to return his love. Courtly love is truly sublimated in poetry once the beloved dies. Caroline...well it does not really matter what happens to Caroline or even who she is. She is an absence, to be longed for, a “sense of lack” that gives rise to words.

This story is really about Edward loving Caroline. Or rather, the novel itself is Edward’s love for Caroline, realised by putting words down on paper rather than in the fullness of love returned. Or rather, it is the story of trying to bring that story into being, of Edward and his “amanuensis”, Emily Stuart, trying to find form, shape and words for his great love. Or so it is suggested in this intensely self-aware novel, which summons up a range of literary traditions as it unfolds. Even Emily’s role as amanuensis is compared to Milton’s daughter’s, who took down verses of Paradise Lost at their father’s bedside.

Like Petrarch’s poems, this novel turns its gaze inwards to examine the workings of a grand passion and its effects on the lover, caught forever between dejection and rapture. Gunn’s prose mimics the habits of unrequited love, the way it circles around a single event, the phrases and details that stick and become artefacts in a museum of longing, the repetition of one thought or name.

The only real movement in the plot is the two friends drifting from one pub to another as the seasons change, downing copious amounts of gin, and Emily falling wordlessly in love with Edward as she helps him chronicle his noble torment. If the radiant Caroline is Laura, Emily could be Dante’s Beatrice, guiding Edward through the darkest circles of hell. This is not an original thought. It is suggested in the book itself.

Credit: DURA via YouTube
Credit: DURA via YouTube

In modern times

Indeed, there is little you can say about this clever novel that Gunn does not say herself, first in the voice of Emily, who plays narrator, and then in the voice of a meticulous, if slightly pompous, editor.

Almost every criticism is preempted. Worried Caroline’s character is not fully revealed? But Gunn has made it very clear that it is not that kind of novel; to hell with “realism”. Hungry for more novelistic detail in the main story? “But Reader, there is so much more besides” – there are lots of references to “careful readers” and “close readers” and readers in general – only look in the section cheekily entitled “Further Reading”. It has notes on style, form, diction, literary traditions, besides biographical details of the characters in the story and social histories. Not surprisingly, there is an entire section on reflexivity. Caroline’s Bikini could have been entitled “Caroline’s Bikini, an Annotated Edition, with an Introduction by Kirsty Gunn” or “Caroline’s Bikini: A Deconstructed Novel”.

Gunn, the professor of writing practice, is cracking a scholarly inside joke here. Caroline’s Bikini depends on a certain literary knowingness, not unlike critic David Lodge’s forays into fiction, where readers are expected to giggle at a feminist scholar of the industrial novel having an affair with a factory manager in an industrial town in 1970s England, all the while noting how it is a pastiche of 19th century industrial novels. Or even AS Byatt’s Possession, whose subtitle, “A Romance”, is positively dripping with allusions. Unlike Lodge and Byatt, whose characters usually inhabit the closed world of the university, Gunn carefully stays away from the world of academia, although it hovers on the fringes – Emily is born in a family of professors. But it is a literary tradition that “Further Reading” could have referred to, the late-20th century academic novel.

Edward and Emily inhabit the closed world of the London pub instead, drinking every kind of gin, from Bombay Sapphire to artisanal varieties served with herbed tonic. Gunn draws a contrast between “New London” or “International London”, with its consumerism and its intolerance of dogs, and “Old London”, the quieter world that lies underneath. So there are wistful passages on “old drawing rooms with good furniture” and winter idylls in pubs, all crackling fires and corduroys and dogs. That is the London to which Emily and Edward really seem to belong. Even Edward’s Americanisms wear off and his old British self emerges again after a few months in London. It is not clear what plot point or literary archetype this determined Englishness is meant to serve.

With all the inside jokes and the complex scaffolding, it sometimes seems as though the “sense of lack” will remain just that, unable to give rise to transformative art. But Gunn has a strange ability to switch registers, from analytical to lyrical and back again. This is not just a clever novel. It wavers between poetry and gin, the heroic and the anti-heroic, the heartfelt and the ironic, much like unrequited love in these modern times.

Caroline’s Bikini, Kirsty Gunn, Faber & Faber