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Clare Morgan: A Book for All and None

This is not the first book to feature Nietzsche‘s love for Lou Salomé and probably won’t be the last. I have not read the Yalom book but I can certainly say that Morgan’s treatment of the affair and many other things is an excellent read. It tells the story of a contemporary love affair between two Oxford dons. One of them, Raymond Greatorex, is an expert on Nietzsche and is looking very closely at Nietzsche’s relationship with Salomé, not least because it is related to Nietzsche’s mental problems. The other is Beatrice Kopus who is studying Virginia Woolf and, in particular, her visit to Manorbier in Pembrokeshire, in 1908 and the possible genesis of To the Lighthouse.

Greatorex seems to be a confirmed bachelor – there is no evidence of any previous relationship – and rather lazy. It is some considerable time since he has published and his teaching duties are not onerous. The college is so concerned that some pressure is put on him to publish. His late parents (we do not know how late) left him their house (he seems to be an only child) but he seems to have neglected and done little about the house or contents. However, spurred on by the gentler reminder from the college and also because he receives a document from a German colleague who has now retired, which might or might not be written by Salomé and which seems to throw some light on her relationship with Nietzsche, he does make some effort to investigate the issue. Kopus had been a rising star at her college, with her expertise on Woolf. She had faded away somewhat, not least because she had married the industrialist, Walter Cronk. However, she is now back – Greatorex bumps into her in the college – and she is again studying Woolf. The conventional wisdom is that the lighthouse in To the Lighthouse is based on Godrevy Lighthouse in Cornwall, near where she had her holidays with her family when she was a child. However, Kopus has a theory that the lighthouse might be found in Pembroke and accordingly investigates.

Walter Cronk (I could not help thinking of Walter Cronkite and his avuncular appearance while reading this book, even though Cronk is not particularly avuncular) is also a key figure in this book. He is the CEO of CronkAm, a global construction company, which is currently building a school in Iraq. The previous one had been destroyed by the Americans when they had sent in missiles to the adjacent building, allegedly housing terrorists. It seemed that the terrorists might have got out in time. The schoolchildren did not. Indeed, one of the first problems CronkAm faces is dealing with the bodies. The project manager cynically assures Cronk that everybody will end up with the appropriate number of limbs, the implication being that they may not all be from the same body. However, CronkAm starts having other sorts of problems, from construction delays, problems with the labour force, and problems with the parent representatives, who favour a sexually segregated school, pointing out that this has been the norm in many British schools (and still is in one Oxford College). Cronk consoles himself not with his wife but with his mistress, Julie, a fabric designer, who is a very bland character.

Meanwhile, Greatorex and Kopus are drawing closer together. She spends time at his late parents’ house in Wales, not least because it is a good base for her investigations of Woolf in Wales. Morgan is quite reticent about their relationship. There are few if any moments of passion, either physical or verbal. They just seem to gradually drift together, helped by the house in Wales, the companionship of the lonely and the fact that their work is starting to overlap. It seems that Lou Salomé might well have met Virginia Woolf, though, obviously, when she was much older. We follow the Greatorex-Kopus relationship, which is not all plain sailing, CronkAm’s fate, which has its problems, and the Salomé-Nietzsche and Woolf in Wales stories, all of which come to some sort of conclusion. Morgan tells her story very well, without trying to make any forced comparisons between the Greatorex-Kopus affair (or, indeed, the Cronk-Julie affair) and the Salomé-Nietzsche affair or Woolf’s life but, ultimately, the characters, both the real ones and the historical ones, end up relying more on themselves than on others, with varying consequences, some positive, some less so.

Publishing history

First published in 2011 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson