Novel in verse tells story of man’s folly

Constantine Phipps
Constantine Phipps
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Author Constantine Phipps set himself quite a challenge with his latest novel – writing it in verse. Yvette Huddleston spoke to him.

It’s a brave person who sets out to write a novel entirely in verse form, but Constantine Phipps was equal to the challenge he set himself.

His third book, What You Want – The Pursuit of Happiness, is quite an amazing literary feat which he executes with aplomb.

The novel tells the story of Patrick who is estranged from his wife Louise – due to his own infidelity – but still in love with her. After taking their young son on a trip to Themeparkland, Patrick asks Louise, one last time, if she will consider a reconciliation.

When she refuses, he is plunged into despair and tries to assuage it with a bottle of whisky and some sleeping pills. The strange dream that follows takes Patrick on a journey through his own psyche and through the joys and pitfalls of humanity’s relentless pursuit of happiness.

Opening with the line ‘When I was about halfway through life (always a cheery moment) I lost my wife to another man...’ the book deliberately echoes Dante’s great work The Divine Comedy – not only in its depiction of a man who has ‘lost the true path’ but also with the presence of a guide who leads him through various past misdemeanours and instructs him in what it means to be human. Each ‘chapter’ is given a thematic heading – such as Unhappiness, Beauty, Marriage, Fidelity, Sex, Money and so on and provides a picture of humankind in all its glory and depravity.

Creating a work of this kind takes time. “It took probably the best part of a decade,” says Phipps. “When you write something in verse you give up a lot of freedom to say things as they might come to you but it does give the writing a certain power.

“Several people have said to me that it is quite hypnotic when you get going and that is what I wanted to achieve.”

He says that one of his main aims was for the writing to be easily understood. “I was a bit worried that the rhyming couplets might not be subtle enough but I felt it was quite versatile. I was always thinking about what it would sound like read out loud.”

He was inspired by Dante in his writing but also by two other authors in particular. “I absolutely love Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I love the easy conversational style – that was a model for me,” he says. “Another person who writes in that way is Voltaire and both are often criticised for not being poetic enough.”

The constraints of writing in such a prescriptive form don’t appear to have been problematic in terms of how Phipps shaped the storyline.

“The plot developed as I went along,” he says. “At the beginning I was concentraing on the thematic side and the people he meets, although I knew I was always going to link it to his own story.”

Phipps, who was born in Yorkshire, also happens to be the 5th Marquess of Normanby and has been involved in property management for several years. He divides his time between a home in London and the family’s estate Mulgrave Castle near Whitby. He has always been interested in writing – he published two well-received novels in the 1990s Careful with the Sharks and Among the Thin Ghosts – and says it is something he would like to do again.

He admits, however, that there might be a bit of a gap since his latest book has been such an undertaking. “It’s quite a relief to have it off my hands,” he laughs. “But I found it completely enthralling to work on and I would love to write again.”

He has been delighted with the response to the book so far and feels that verse has had a bit of a bad press. “I feel that rhyme is a little bit frowned up on in a way,” he says. “It is considered to be slightly scurrilous.” He is certainly doing his bit to restore its reputation.

• What You Want – The Pursuit of Happiness is published by Quercus Books on May 1, priced £20.