Let’s get metaphysical! Is Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne actually biography at all? I would suggest it’s a different order, in that it seeks to answer the two key questions of metaphysical philosophy: what is there? what is it like? In this case, how did John Donne exist? What was that existence like?
This superlative account breaks the conventions of writing about the past, blowing the cover on the type of grandiose biography that’s reliant on exhaustive research but lacks feeling and panache. Rundell, of course, has panache in spades and rather like her subject the ability to shape-shift with ease. She marshalls the narrative in less than 300 pages, for which relief, much thanks – it gives the reader a chance to relish (and finish) it for once. How many crisp-paged biographies have you got lying abandoned by your bed? I admit, in my case, a fair few.
Super-Infinite reads like a duel between two brilliant minds, exploring concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time and space. It’s not just a retrospective account of someone who lived 400 years ago, and Rundell achieves this by allowing herself to be physically present in the narrative. Her responses, her voice, her feelings, her cool, amused humour. Everything we were told not do in English class. And she makes it work. Her vitality pours into the pages. She summons Donne back from the dead and interacts with him. It would go too far to say this has a sexual aspect, but certainly it is dynamic, energetic, occasionally argumentative, sometimes with the sharpness of a lover’s tongue, and above all alive. We feel we are in Donne’s presence and what a compelling, charming and attractive man he turns out to be.
En garde, touché! While we marvel at Rundell’s fencing skills, she pierces the heart with a careful imagination. Aside from the work itself – poems, letters, meditations, religious tracts – there’s not a huge amount of primary source material. Rundell’s deep, critical and loving insight illuminates the difficult conditions of Donne’s life: early imprisonment, the death of an adored older brother, a passionate love match which became a hasty marriage, years of poverty, the death of children (some cherished, some not), severe depression, his certain death-wish and the difficulties he must have encountered in the labyrinthian complexity of navigating the royal courts and his own religious faith.
The use of language is important, too – hers, other people’s and her metatextual stance. “Language makes demands. It is an excavator skill; each word needs to have its surface dusted, to see if below there is gold or snakes,” is as much a description of her own writing practice as it is a demand of the reader.
Thanks to Rundell’s critical reading, the complex puns and triple meanings of the poems become clearer to us. For example, “But of this med’cine, love, which cures all sorrow/ With more”, is surely a private gift to Anne More, his wife.
She dissects with forensic care the best and worst of his work, taking no prisoners on either side. And as she contextualises the response of later critics, she despatches poor benighted Thomas Parnell, born some hundred years after Donne, from the poetic canon with a lethal cut: “a man unafraid to rhyme love with dove.”
The book ends with a typically Rundellian (is that an adjective? it is now) conclusion. Without giving too much away, she draws on her own interest in natural history to make a deft and surprising conclusion. As we close one door another one opens. If you enjoy this one, look out for The Golden Mole: And Other Living Treasure, published by Faber in October and described as a fascinating bestiary of the world’s most endangered animals. Just a hint.
Meanwhile ALL POWER, and I use capital letters advisedly, to the awesome and SUPER-INFINITE Katherine Rundell.