In his 2001 collection of poems, Landscape with Chainsaw, James Lasdun staked his claim as a poet who finds the best words about the most difficult things: displacement, broken dreams, the fragile integrity of nature and the just-as-fragile nature of integrity. Since then, Lasdun has found an equally impressive place in the field of fiction. His latest novel demands no less acclaim than his poetry and is no less exquisite in its crafting.
Afternoon of a Faun is a sustained meditation on the #MeToo movement, shining uncompromising light into the darkest areas of our current malaise—this surreal era in which a person called to administer our nation’s highest justice can be publicly accused of having perpetrated unconscionable sexual offenses.
It is the maddening elusiveness of facts that motivates and saturates Lasdun’s novel. Marco Rosedale, a celebrated English journalist, finds himself accused by a former colleague of sexually assaulting her decades earlier. Julia Gault intends to publish an account of the incident in her memoir. Rosedale fights back with the help of his famous father, one of the most distinguished lawyers in the United Kingdom. As layer upon hidden layer of the story unfolds, the first-person narrator (who is Marco’s closest friend) discovers his feelings about Marco and Julia (whom he also knows personally) radiating into disturbing regions of his own accountability.
Without spoiling anything, I want to bear witness to this novel’s most unnerving aspect: the Heisenbergian principle that no one—not any of us—can stand by and observe a desperate situation without actually affecting and even abetting its outcome. In Stéphane Mallarmé’s haunting poem “Afternoon of a Faun” (the origin of Lasdun’s title) and Debussy’s great musical setting of it, an oversexed mythical creature cannot even remember whether or not he has ravished the nymphs. The elusiveness of facts turns out to be, tragically, the foundation of myth.