Stretto by David Wheatley - review by James Purdon

James Purdon

Songs in the Key of Life



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The boom in prose writing by contemporary poets has been one of the most surprising and welcome recent developments in literature. There’s nothing new about poets venturing out of verse, of course, whether as writers of prose poems or as moonlighting novelists. But there does seem to be something distinctive in this body of recent work, which makes a virtue of its generic hybridity and plays freely, if self-consciously, with the conventions of fiction, criticism and memoir. Notable examples include the fiction of Ben Lerner (whose success as a novelist could be credited with kick-starting the trend), as well as prose works by Sam Riviere, Oli Hazzard, Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Rosa Campbell.

Into this company comes David Wheatley, whose beguiling Stretto announces itself, in the cover copy, as a novel. This proves something of a flag of convenience, however. ‘Notes’ is the term that keeps cropping up in the body of the text, and that seems both more accurate and more suggestive, not least because the ambiguity keeps in view Stretto’s double themes of music and memory. Stretto, Wheatley explains, is a technique used in fugue composition, in which ‘the melody – the subject – is repeated in another voice … before the statement of the original subject has finished’. (Think, if musical theory is not your thing, of how ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ can be sung in a round.) In a fugue, stretto can produce a sense of acceleration or heightening intensity, as the music begins to tumble over itself, but it could also be thought of as a kind of layering, with each new iteration of a sequence of notes superimposed in counterpoint on the previous one.

The 101 sections of Stretto, each about a page and a half in length, aim to work some of the same intricate magic. There’s no plot to speak of; this is, rather, the record of a consciousness, one that proceeds by a kind of meditative free association. Each section

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