Book Reviews
Exquisite Corpse: Robert Irwin
16th Mar 2010Posted in: Book Reviews Comments Off on Exquisite Corpse: Robert Irwin
Exquisite Corpse: Robert Irwin

Exquisite Corpse, purportedly the anti-memoire of a young Surrealist painter in the London of the late nineteen-thirties and forties, is really a Surrealist painting in words. Casper, the narrator, is writing it for Caroline, a beautiful young woman he met whilst being led blindfolded around a Soho masquerading as Hampstead; a sort of sacrificial goat to entice The Marvellous. He hopes that Caroline, who subsequently vanished, will read the published book and contact him.

Casper moves with and apart from his Bohemian circle, the Serapion Brotherhood, through a city in a continuous state of metamorphosis, his natural curiosity leading him to investigate and experiment with every potential experience that comes his way. Sex, mesmerism, hypnagogic imagery, waxworks, opium, Mass Observation and more. The names of famous artists, philosophers and writers fall from his lips with easy familiarity, and notorious and prominent figures appear and disappear like mirages. René
Magritte, Paul Nash, AndrĂ© Breton, Paul and Nusch Eluard, Salvador and Gala Dali, Aleister Crowley and too many more to name pass like living ghosts through the pages as Casper haunts Bloomsbury, Soho, and the Charing Cross Road, visits Paris and Munich, worries about Caroline and his scattering friends and copes or doesn’t cope with changes, both in his own life and the wider world.

Robert Irwin has somehow performed the magic trick of making Casper endearing and vulnerable, in spite of his wide-ranging knowledge, his seemingly skewed wisdom and his willingness to embrace the darker experiences that come his way, although of course it’s really the author who is almost frighteningly clever, and nothing can be relied upon to be what it seems. Happily that need not deter the reader – Robert Irwin has balanced every element in this brilliant novel with exquisite precision. Not only that but it’s beautifully written, exactly as long as it needs to be and no longer. Exquisite Corpse is going to join the small and select band of novels I’ll never part with – having just finished it I’m feeling an irresistible urge to start again at page one, so the next review may be a while coming. Pure genius.

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