OWhen Katherine Rundell was growing up in Zimbabwe, her parents pinned a poem by John Donne near the bathroom sink for their four children to read while they brushed their teeth. “I mean Go and Catch a Shooting Star rather than To His Mistress Going to Bed,” laughs Rundell, sitting in a London hotel. “It was age appropriate.” So began a love affair with Donne that took off in her late teens and led her to study her poetry for a doctorate – and now to win the Baillie Gifford Prize for Super-Infinite, her biography of the poet and her second adult book (she is the author of five children’s books). At 35, she is the youngest recipient of the prestigious non-fiction award.
That the life of a 400-year-old metaphysical poet has to beat shortlisted books on issues such as the migrant crisis and British colonialism is testament to Super-Infinite’s eloquence and passion. “It is both a biography of Donne and an act of evangelism,” Rundell tells the reader at the start. “I wanted to write something that would draw people to his poetry. My big hope was that I could put people in a position where they would more easily be able to deploy what he does, because he’s notoriously difficult. And its difficulty has its own power and joy. He offers us a way of life. It offers us an idea of what we could do with our mind. It offers a model of burning originality. And I love him for it.”
Rundell speaks in the rich tones of a classic actor and has a scholar’s command of his subject matter. But there’s nothing dusty or abstract about his Donne. With his arched eyebrows and dashing outfits, he is according to Rundell “the greatest writer of desire in the English language” – a kind of Renaissance Mick Jagger, who wrote about sex, she tells us, in a way that no one has, before or since. And the most used word in his poetry is “love”. What’s not to like?
Donne’s unchivalrous allusions – he compares the sweat of a rival’s mistress to “menstrual boils” – have not won over modern readers (researcher James Shapiro noted that Donne’s classes were canceled due to student objections). “How do you like someone who very clearly engages in misogynistic traditions and brings them to life in particular?” Rundel asks. While she feels it would be “wildly anachronistic” to prosecute Donne as a misogynist, she doesn’t think we should overlook the fact that “for every poem that salutes and adores the female body, there are poems that denigrate and even degrade the idea of the feminine”.
It’s the sometimes unattractive, even downright bizarre vanities (sex as a flea bite, lovers as a mathematical compass) that make her writing about desire so compelling, she argues, both at 16e century (when lovers were doves or roses) and today. “I think a lot of the views we have of sex and sexuality today are deeply depressing. You touch them and they sound like money. I think his may offer you a way around that.
In its lively tales of betrayal and Renaissance court intrigue, Super-Infinite recalls Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, and in the sympathetic domestic details of Donne’s marriage (poor Anne had 12 pregnancies in 16 years ) has a strong affinity with Maggie O’s Farrell’s award-winning Hamnet. Rundell is a big fan of Mantel, who shared her love for Donne. “Mantel said he could do both love and fear,” Rundell says. “She had something like Donne, in that immense generosity and recognition of the darkness that we could do, the joy that we could be.”
There’s also something of the proselytizing zeal of a posh self-help manual in its insistence on the life-saving benefits of reading your favorite poet. “Following John Donne’s life advice would be a disastrous strategy. He made decisions in the moment that would ruin his life, such as his marriage to Anne More. But what he can tell us rings true now, quite urgently, about the need to see the fact of death clearly. The need to celebrate and embrace body and mind together.
Donne’s biggest motto, according to Rundell, is: “Be careful.” And it is this Donnish incitement to wonder that permeates Rundell’s latest book, The Golden Mole. Published after Super-Infinity, this collection of short essays celebrates endangered creatures, from crows to pangolins. In one chapter, she urges us to scream in fear at the thought of seahorses from the moment we wake up and put on our pants until the moment we fall asleep. “I realize that, in practical terms, it would be extremely inconvenient,” she says. “But I think the kind of willful effort it takes to stay amazed by amazement has a kind of politics. It requires a kind of permanent curiosity throughout life.
Rundell’s childhood in Zimbabwe – running barefoot in nature and dodging imaginary crocodiles in rivers – makes her look like a brave heroine of children’s books. His father, who now works in Mali for the UN, was a civil servant, his mother a French teacher at university. They lived in Harare until Rundell was 14. Then the family moved to Belgium, which was a culture shock. Until then, Rundell spent much of his time outdoors. “It was a stroke of luck, an immense privilege to grow up in the presence of living beings and the wilderness of the world.”
But there was also a tragedy. When she was 10, her adoptive sister died. Throughout his illness, books became Rundell’s refuge, but they also gave him the motivation to become a writer. “I think his loss made me feel that life is precious and difficult. But it’s very beautiful and very, very painful to be alive. I think most people realize that – I may have learned it younger than some. And it is this message, for lack of anything better, that she wanted to convey in her own children’s books. As one of the explorers in her novel says: “You are right to be afraid. Be brave anyway.”
After graduating from St Catherine’s College, Oxford, Rundell took the notoriously difficult All Souls exam (her dissertation topic was ‘novelty’ – she fell in love with writing about Jacques Derrida and Christmas cookies) and succeeded, becoming the youngest woman ever. Before taking her scholarship, she had a month to kill: the day after her 21st birthday, with a hangover, she began what would become her first novel. “I had this month to sit down and write avidly.” The result, after a year of rewriting, was The Girl Savage, which was immediately picked up by Faber.
For many years as a fellow, Rundell followed a routine very similar to that of Iris Murdoch, writing fiction in the mornings and philosophy in the afternoons, while holding a teaching post. Rundell would wake up at four o’clock to work on his fiction – “those are wonderful hours because nobody calls you. No one is going to email you or text you” – so she would spend the day teaching, before maybe going out for a drink in the evening.
And it’s not just academically that Rundell is a top student: her hobby is rooftop walking. Google and you’ll find a photo of Rundell elegantly posed on the crenellated roof of All Souls. “It’s a lot less glamorous than it looks. It’s just a desire to see the world from above, what spreads out in front of you. She trained on a tightrope in her study and learned the trapeze to write Rooftoppers, which is about children living on the rooftops of Paris. When she visits her family in Zimbabwe, she takes flying lessons.
She presents the Baillie Gifford Award to charity: to Blue Ventures, an ocean-based conservation organization, and also to a refugee charity. The reason? “No man is an island,” she says, quoting the most famous of all Donne lines. Her boyfriend – film producer Charles Collier, whom she credits in the acknowledgments as the reason “love poetry makes sense to me” – has, however, promised to get her a bottle of champagne.
If she had to recommend just one poem by Donne for someone to start with, which would it be? “Love’s Growth,” she replies without wasting time, then recites the opening stanza: “I hardly believe my love is so pure…” The final “plus,” she adds, is a piece of theater on the name of his wife. “So it’s one of those poems that is beautiful for all of us, but different for her.”
Super-Infinite by Katherine Rundell (Faber & Faber, £16.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.