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The Water Theatre

par Lindsay Clarke

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364551,352 (3.61)6
As war-reporter Martin Crowther arrives in Umbria, still raw from a recent assignment in Africa, and from a failing love affair back home, a storm hits and the sky opens. He comes to the small village of Fontanalba, on a mission to track down two friends from a lifetime ago.

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4 sur 4
Lindsay Clarke's best known novel is the Chemical Wedding, which brings together the worldly and the mystical (and much more) - this book treads a similar path and certainly reaches back to writers such as Iris Murdoch, Robertson Davies, and perhaps particularly in this book, John Fowles. Anyone who likes pure social realism probably shouldn't try this one (though there is some narrative about growing up working class and clever not long after the war, it serves as the basis for psychodrama rather than socialism). But alongside this we have the betrayal of liberal hope for post independence Africa and then a range of perceived and actual personal and sexual betrayals between the working class made good Martin Crowther and the glamorous Brigshaw family he runs up against (as such characters tend to do in such novels). I'm nnot sure that I felt the central love story to be quite strong or resonant enough to carry the multiple narratives of the book, and for me the final mysticism was a bit too camp, lacking the astringency that Fowles' callow narrator brings to the Magus (which was certainly always in my mind throughout the book). But I'm pleased that serious books, that take the spiritual world as seriously as the political world, can still be written and published.
  otterley | Apr 12, 2015 |
Confession: I picked up this book thinking it was by a different author, and because I'd enjoyed that author's work. Call it an effect of suddenly being ill-read for more than a year. But once I realized my error, I kept reading - partly in interest, partly in defiance. Truth be told, this isn't a book that I would have picked up otherwise, but it's had a very cathartic effect on me, and so I cannot discount it.

This story - part romance, party mystic religious adventure - follows Martin, a war journalist who in his youth had Pip-like existence, constantly led on by his Estella (the highborn Marina) whose brother Adam was his schoolmate. Their mother seduced him, their father befriended him and opened doors for him that would have been otherwise impossibly closed, and yet a rift some thirty years deep has separated these former friends and lovers when the novel begins.

Had the story remained in England or even simply maintained the necessary visit to the fictional African nation of Equatoria, it might have been a simple enough story of lost love. But things take a turn.

Marina and Adam's father Hal, with whom Martin has maintained a friendship since the beginning, is dying. He begs Martin to mend the familial tear and bring his children home from abroad before he dies. Martin immediately sets out for their last known residence in Umbria. Martin's journey from there is mostly mystical. There's a reliance in the narrative on a tumultuous general sense of loss which is addressed with an ancient religious fabrication that is rooted in equal parts geographic fact, recognizable Roman mythology, and wishful invention.

Clarke's novel (which, I understand, closely mirrors one of his earlier works) deals a lot in extremes - burning and freezing, blindingly bright and pitch black. Blindness itself is an overarching theme that explains every single plot point from Martin abandoning his poetry, to Hal's unwavering support for the new regime in Equatoria, to Adam's stumble in the mountains. Everything can be attributed to either an ignorant or stubborn blindness, and it is not until the characters are surrounded by literal darkness that they actually begin to see the truth and the light and the error of their ways.

I'll leave you with this:

I was reading this book in Bryant Park about a two weeks ago. It was a very hot - you might say blindingly hot - day and, as much as I was enjoying the sun I was afraid I'd have to duck in somewhere soon in order to not burn to a crisp. More than 2/3 of the way through the novel, I still didn't know what to make of it, and I was feeling a little bored.

A young woman whom I'd seen walk up to some other sunbathers approached me. Her skin was very dark and her dress was very white. Some of her teeth had been sharpened to points (which can be a little off-putting) and you could see the faded track marks in her dark arms. Being in a relatively good (though bored) mood, I didn't mind digging around in my purse for the quarter she asked for. While I did, she asked about the book. This book. She asked what it was about and I admitted that I wasn't really quite sure. I was a bit lost. She asked if she could read the back of it and I obliged.

I watched almost fascinated as her eyes scanned the words. I had made an assumption in my mind that reading would be a difficulty for her - the little socio-political racist in my head who understands the problem of illiteracy in this country spoke to me and I believed her. But when this woman - this girl, really - handed the book back to me she said that she could see the problem I was's a book that wants to be about two lovers finding their way back to one another after a long time apart, but the way the writer sets it up to move back and forth in time must be confusing. When I agreed with her she added that she liked the idea of it, but she didn't know if it was worth waiting all of those pages for the writer to say why they didn't work out in the first place.

After now getting to the end of the book, I can't say I necessarily agree. The themes of loss and redemption are very thoughtfully explored and I really appreciated the culmination of the mysticism in Martin's visit to the subterranean cavern. And while the reconciliation that happens is satisfactory enough, I wanted more. I wanted the explosive energy that the story had kind of built up to, but we never really get it. We're never fully sated.

I gave the girl a dollar. ( )
  laurscartelli | Jul 19, 2014 |
Iris Murdoch has often been named as one of the last great novelists writing in the tradition of the Nineteenth Century. Nowadays, few novelists can set up a story with a wide scope and present an authentic personal philosophy. Readers interested in that type of writing may enjoy reading The water theatre by Lindsay Clarke.

At University, working class Martin Crowther strikes up a friendship with middle-upper class Adam Brigshaw. Adam is soon bored with Martin, but Martin becomes a friend of the family, developing intense relationships with all family members. This friendship lasts, and is tested over the roughly forty years the story develops, from the late 1950s till the beginning of the new century.
Martin is captivated by Hal Brigshaw, the father, who becomes his mentor, and shapes both his political life and career as a journalist. At the house of the Brigshaws, he meets Emmanuel, a political activist, who, upon his return to British Equatorial Africa becomes the countries champion of its independence, and first President. The Brigshaws move there. Hal Brigshaw, being appointed advisor to the President, is swept up by power and status of his position, while stays on as a bored expat, and Adam marries a young woman from Emmanuel’s hometown. It is in Equatorial Africa (now South Sudan) where Martin begins his career as a journalist, and the family ties to the country will bring him back there many times.
The Brigshaw family are a peculiar lot of two strong, and clashing personalities, namely, Hal and Marina, and two weak personalities, Adam and their mother, Grace. Antagonizing forces split the family, and Martin is caught up in the cruel play between the family members, Adam’s disinterested and eventually hostile friendship, Marina’s coyness in youth and anger later on, Hal’s left-wing politics, and the lewd 60s sexual moral of Grace. Martin bounces between loyalty and betrayal to various family members. His total preoccupation with the family prevents him from sustaining a relation with his wife. However, despite all, even after forty years Martin remains loyal to each member of the Brigshaw family, and pledges to bring the family back together at Hal dying request. It is this quest which puts him and his loyalties to the test.

The water theatre is about the need for people to discover and realize themselves. A lifetime may not be enough, but for help and some luck. The novel, while contemporary, breathes some sentiment of the 1960s and 70s in the background, although its theme is eternal. This theme is explored in different modes in different characters, whether by overcoming anger (Marina and Adam), ambition and lust for power (Hal and Emmanuel), or adoration (Martin). The road to self-realization is littered with pitfalls and traps, such as adultery, betrayal, ambition, fame, etc. Many if not most people are blind to what keeps them from self-realization, a blindness made physical in the character of Marina. Ultimately, deep loneliness, discovered in oneself, or imposed, in the form of the experience in "the water theatre", force the truth about oneself.

The water theatre is a profound and sincere story. Characters and plot are intriguing, interesting, and create an original backdrop for the story to develop. The intricate engagements between the characters over the years are entirely convincing. An enticing read. ( )
4 voter edwinbcn | Oct 6, 2012 |
Beautifully written but the plot, while promising to begin with, takes a sudden dive towards the end. Ultimately disappointing. ( )
  PaolaF | Oct 7, 2011 |
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As war-reporter Martin Crowther arrives in Umbria, still raw from a recent assignment in Africa, and from a failing love affair back home, a storm hits and the sky opens. He comes to the small village of Fontanalba, on a mission to track down two friends from a lifetime ago.

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823.914 — Literature English English fiction Modern Period 20th Century 1945-1999

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