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The Same Life Twice by Frank Kuppner – review


David Wheatley finds the big questions are a bulwark against boredom

Creation and its paradoxes have long troubled the philosophical mind. Why should there be something rather than nothing, Leibniz wondered, while Beckett's Jacques Moran has a question for the almighty: "What was God doing with himself before the creation?" In The Same Life Twice Frank Kuppner has written, not for the first time, a comic and cosmic meditation on all the big questions. "No, there'll never be /another me! – whatever the Universe /might proceed to do next," he begins. But this being Kuppner, such trust in the universe's duty of care to our needs proves short-lived. Flatulence is a recurring theme in his work, and seldom is he happier than when launching a rip-roaring fart in the general direction of our anthropocentric self-delusion.

Yeats judged that "Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry," but out of the quarrel with itself poetry makes Frank Kuppner books. The first two parts of The Same Life Twice are arranged in a verso and recto standoff, and often engage each other in an unseemly slanging match across the page. Adam and Eve and Dante and Beatrice feature prominently among the dramatis personae. A commentator, too, chips in prolifically between square brackets. The fact that we appear to be in heaven does nothing to ameliorate the bad mood. Of the three parts of Dante's Commedia, the Paradiso has always been the least translated, a neglect that may owe as much to theological as to literary reasons. "Might not the beatific vision become a source of boredom, in the long run?" another Beckett character, Molloy, muses to himself, and if Kuppner's Adam and Eve and Dante and Beatrice have anything in common, under their endless squabbles, it is their epic sense of boredom ("just what exactly are we doing here, Beatrice?").

Perhaps paradise, like hell, is a form of punishment for the crime of being born. "Who's the great sinner?", Irish Victorian poet James Henry asked, before answering: "He, who gave the power / And will to sin, and knew both would be used." Like Henry, Kuppner directs his share of anger at divine sadism, but his cosmology inclines as much to the whimsical as the diabolic. Existence is "greatly over-rated" and what pleasure there is to be had comes mainly from jokes at the expense of the whole fiasco. Few writers exploit the humorous possibilities of obscenity as well as Kuppner. We read of "a very strange letter from the authorities / advising me to 'go and take a running f*** to myself'," and Dante and Beatrice quarrel like surly teens over the "huge part" of his life the poet claims to have spent thinking about her.

Like the late Peter Reading, Kuppner writes wittily and well on literary pretension and folly. "'I found your absolutely staggering book / absolutely staggering, to be quite honest'", a flatterer assures Dante, but the uncertainty of literary value is merely one among a multitude of unknowns. Who is Kuppner's narrator, really? As Robert Crawford has noted, his narrative techniques "involve both secrecy and self-protection". Some manner of doomed love affair appears to be lurking under the surface of the paradise narrative; it is all the more effective for never coming properly into focus. The real joke in Kuppner, Leontia Flynn has argued, "is at the expense of purity of texts". The existence of God, the universe and the author are all gravely in doubt, to the point where we may do best to emulate another flatterer and stick to a more manageable level: "I have now read your latest book. / And I must say there was one comma in it /that I did so very particularly admire."

In general, Kuppner's work operates at a far remove from the more tuneful poetry Pound would recognise as "melopoeia", though in previous books he has shown himself a dab hand at imitation Chinese lyrics. If Kuppner is among the most prose-like of poets, this is not to call him prosaic. He is prose-like in the sense that a Browning monologue is, while Hopkins's vision of Browning "bouncing up from a table, his mouth full of bread and cheese, saying he means to stand no more blasted nonsense" could hardly be bettered as a description of the crackpot savants who people Kuppner's work, holding forth on theology with their pullovers on back-to-front.

The lengthy discussions of non-existence in The Same Life Twice reminded me of the Greek sophist Gorgias of Lentini, whose theories went as follows: nothing exists; if anything does exist, we know nothing about it; if we did know something about it, it could not be communicated; and if it could be communicated, it could not be understood. While the sceptical substance may be the same, the style of sprawling self-repetition preferred by Kuppner might appear damagingly at odds with the minimalism of the pre-Socratics. Eternity does last a long time, though, and The Same Life Twice accumulates more than enough philosophical pleasures along the way to compensate. As bulwarks against boredom go, in this life or the next, one could do a lot worse than Frank Kuppner.

• David Wheatley's A Nest on the Waves is published by the Gallery Press.

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