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Caradoc Evans: The Caves of Alienation

We learn early on in this novel that Michael Caradock, the subject of this novel, is dead and, apparently, has been murdered. Evans’ approach to telling Caradock’s story is to give us glimpses of various writings by or about him. We get excerpts from his novels (whose main theme, at least in the early part of the book, is his obsession with sex with an older woman) but also comments from those that knew him, either as their contributions to a biography of him or to a radio programme about him, excerpts from the biography and various critical works about him, the script of a TV programme about him and various other assorted commentaries. We soon learn that Caradock was a loner, very arrogant, disliked by many, an out-an-out intellectual who despised those who were not and a moderately successful author, whose success, as with other artists, was helped by his untimely and unexpected death.

His parents had been killed in a car crash when he was very young and he had been adopted by an aunt and uncle. He did not know that he had been adopted till just before we went to university. One critic suggested that his obsession with older women was an attempt to recapture the loss of his mother, though others disagreed. There was an older woman in his life – Helen Westlake. She was a classics teacher at the school he went to in a village in Wales, where he grew up (and which he apparently hated). She gave him extra Latin lessons. When he went up to Oxford, though he was reading English, he took an interest in the classics and asked Helen to teach him Greek in the long (i.e. summer) vacation. It was with Helen that he had his first sexual experience. At Oxford, he did well, having a book of stories and essays published while still an undergraduate. He was offered a fellowship at Oxford but, after accepting, decided to leave to do National Service, apparently to please his uncle/foster-father, a former military man. He actually served in the Navy and used his experience as the basis for a novel. As he was well off, having been left a lot of money by his grandmother and then by his uncle/foster-father, he was able to devote himself to writing, which he did.

We learn a lot about his novels, as we get numerous excerpts from them. Frankly, they do not seem very good, though the critics have mixed views of them. One of the main critics indicates the three main themes of them, which, naturally, reflect the character of Caradock himself. These themes, to sum up the critics, are man’s struggle with a hostile world/God and trying to make sense of the world; satire of human foibles and a lyrical view (closely linked with his Welshness). Clearly, the point of them is to show what sort of character he is, with many of the heroes having at least some of his traits – loner, innocence but often coupled with arrogance, intellectual and, of course, a lover of older women. After Helen Westlake, Caradock had several affairs, generally with older women (often married) but he never married. The final one led, indirectly, to his downfall. However, he did remain a loner, retreating to Wales after living in London and always living alone.

This novel may well have put off potential readers, with its over-intellectual approach. There are numerous classical references as well as discussions of philosophers such as Aristotle, Spinoza and, in particular, Nietzsche. I found myself having to look up English words, such as ortolic and acrolithic, not exactly everyday words (though I felt slightly smug when I found two mistakes in his one line of Spanish). Of course, the point was that Caradock was a supreme intellectual but I wonder whether his novels would find much of a public, with titles such as Promethead and Laocoön, with the latter (at least for the parts we were given) being almost unreadable. Despite all that, it is a credible attempt to give the portrait of a writer and how much his work is very much part of his character.

Publishing history

First published 1977 by Hutchinson