Of all the jewels lying dusty in the barrow of Western literature, few are quite so inexplicably neglected as Arthurian romance. I don’t mean that King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Merlin have been forgotten; I assume that children still watch Walt Disney’s 1963 The Sword and the Stone, that teen nerds still cackle at Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), and that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is still required by at least a smattering of English departments. But where, outside of a Medieval Studies program, is anyone reading Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval, le Conte du Graal, the anonymous Queste del Saint Graal, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, or even Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur? And what accounts for this indifference, when popular culture has gotten such reliable mileage from Arthur-influenced productions like The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and Game of Thrones?
Granted, these are by no means breezy reads; I will ruffle some dyspeptic medievalist’s feathers, no doubt, by pronouncing Parzival utterly unreadable. But most of these works are rewarding, both for the luxurious strangeness of the world they depict and for the insight they give into the spiritual intensity of their composers. A more recent take on the Arthurian legend, Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant, offers the same strangeness, and a deeply humane examination of loss, memory, and truth—which is spiritual in its own right.1 Though the book may renew interest in Arthurian literature, it is very much a stand-alone work, demanding little familiarity with its precedents. In a superficial sense, it is a fantasy novel, but it is, more to the point, an Ishiguro novel.
What that means will be readily apparent to Ishiguro’s devotees. For one thing, he always surprises, even when he is revisiting his well-established preoccupations. He is best known among American readers for a novel about the inner life of a comically conscientious and repressed butler: 1989’s Booker-winning The Remains of the Day. His 2005 novel Never Let Me Go is superficially a work of science fiction about clones who are raised so that their organs may be harvested. What The Buried Giant has in common with these books is that it repurposes an existing genre to serve Ishiguro’s thematic ends. His prose, precise and unadorned, leaves a clear enough path to his meaning—in this case, that memory is both precious and perilous.
The principals of the quest in The Buried Giant are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple departing their village in search of an adult son they only dimly remember. They believe that he is in a neighboring village, perhaps only a brief journey away, but it becomes increasingly apparent that they have no idea where he is; the reader is given to wonder whether he exists at all. “[I]n this community the past was rarely discussed,” the narrator notes. “[I]t had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past—even the recent one.” Here, the “recent” past is the time just before the book’s sixth-century setting, during which a precarious and almost unaccountable peace exists between Britons, like Axl and Beatrice, and Saxon settlers—that is, invaders.
This is, of course, a real historical moment, but the novel’s trappings are anything but realistic. Ogres (“not so bad provided one did not provoke them”), pixies, a monster standing guard over a subterranean crypt, and a dragon named Querig—points off for evoking the popular coffee machine—stalk these pages. The noxious Querig’s survival, it turns out, is causing the collective amnesia hanging heavy o’er the “bleak moorland.” On their journey, Axl and Beatrice meet a Saxon knight named Wistan, whose young charge Edwin seems to possess an uncanny connection to the dragon, and an elderly Briton ycleped Sir Gawain. Which of these pilgrims might bring about Querig’s demise?
The complicating factor in The Buried Giant is that there are distinct pros and cons to slaying the dragon. Beatrice and Axl seek the restoration of their memories not only so that they might find their son but also because a mysterious boatman—no prizes for guessing his true identity—will ferry them as a pair to the farther shore only if they can deliver compatible accounts of their happiest times together. Yet their everlasting happiness would come at a cost to their countrymen: amnesia is the only thing holding back the tidal wave of bloodshed that would assemble itself should the Britons and Saxons remember their brutal past with one another. In this way Ishiguro establishes a tension between the pursuit of truth and the alluring pleasures of lotus-eating forgetfulness.
The Buried Giant invites a serious complaint. Ishiguro’s characteristic flatness of tone, which worked to such moving effect in The Remains of the Day, serves the narrative portion of The Buried Giant well enough, archaizing it without stooping to a lot of “hear ye, hear ye” nonsense. Yet it renders the novel’s dialogue self-parodically stiff. The call and response of Axl and Beatrice’s interactions—Husband? Yes, Princess?—can become so tedious that the interactions of secondary characters are thrilling by comparison.
Another problem with The Buried Giant is that if one values truth—if one despises the concept of “narrative,” which suggests that there are larger and more valuable ends to be served than a reckoning with what actually happened—then the novel’s tension is vastly less provocative. If an accurate historical memory is the greatest good, then this tale becomes little more than a straightforward quest: kill the dragon and the prize is not a hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver but rather truth itself. Does this not diminish the novel’s potency, its complexity? Does this not make it a rather mechanical Ato Bfairy tale?
It doesn’t. The Buried Giant is an allegory with a weighty and pointed message. When we at last encounter Querig, the dragon is an etiolated and pitiful creature, more like some overgrown fruit bat than, say, the fearsome “wyrm” of Beowulf. This is Ishiguro’s chosen symbol of our cowardly impulse to do away with the past, or to avoid confrontation with unpleasant truths. Our actual past, our most uncomfortable and challenging truths, are probably more frightening than we know, but they are nevertheless the proper object of our collective quest.
There is something in the nature of a quest narrative, its clarity of motivation and desired endpoint, that must be liberating for a writer, the way it is liberating for a poet to work within the constraints of a given form. The structure is plain, but beyond that the opportunities for imagination, embroidery, and surprise are limitless.
So it is with David Flusfeder’s John the Pupil, which traces a trek in a time, if not quite so distant from our own as the sixth century, distant enough to be entirely alien.2 It is 1267. The Franciscan friar and polymath Roger Bacon has contrived an excuse for one of his students to convey highly sensitive materials to Pope Clement IV. On this difficult journey young John will have just two companions to help him negotiate a vertiginous array of novel and sometimes terrifying experiences. As the book’s epigraph from Ecclesiasticus39:5 has it, “He shall pass into strange countries: for he shall try good and evil among men.”
To impart his tale with verisimilitude, Flusfeder employs an amusing academic framing device that would do Borges proud. A “Note on the Text,” by the editor and translator of The Chronicle of John the Pupil, begins, “A few remarks should be made here about the history of this unique manuscript. I quote from Augustus Jessopp’s lecture ‘Village Life Six Hundred Years Ago,’ first delivered to a notoriously uninterested audience in the Public Reading Room of the village of Tittleshall in Norfolk.” It is within this lecture—which, along with Augustus Jessopp and “Tittleshall,” is, incredibly, real—that our editor purports to locate the first mention of John the Pupil’s fragmentary account.
The chronicle begins with a description of instruction under Master Roger: “And we read Qusta ibn Luqa on the Difference between Soul and Spirit and Averroes on geometry, and the antique authors of Rome: Seneca on the passions, Ovid on the transformations.” He “beats correction into [John’s] head.” Gradually the reader gathers that Bacon is a prisoner of the friary, suspected—correctly—of “novelties, which is an accusation hardly short of heresy.” And so John and his companions, Brother Bernard and Brother Andrew, are framed for a trivial infraction so that they might be sent by Bacon from Oxford to the papal court in Viterbo on a penitential mission. Their secret aim is the delivery of Bacon’s Opus Majus and some models of Bacon’s optical and military inventions.
Having read this far, one could be forgiven for expecting a stale narrative of “persecuted rationalists vs. medieval superstition,” in the His Dark Materials vein. But Flusfeder is up to nothing so blunt or predictable. His Bacon is no heretic: “He disapproves of anyone who . . . takes no pains to celebrate the glory of creation by gathering knowledge to gain a closer apprehension of God’s work.” And Brother John is devout. Many of his daily entries begin with a hagiography of whichever saint’s feast it is, after the fashion of another regrettably forgotten work, Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea. (These sections, in fact, showcase a command of “timeless” language far superior to what one finds in Ishiguro’s novel.) But he is beset by temptations and tested by what he sees in a wider world with which he is wholly unfamiliar.
John’s companions are lightly sketched. Massive Brother Bernard, forever knocking over and tossing aside the band’s enemies—soldiers, highwaymen, and schemers—recalls the squire Jöns from The Seventh Seal (1957). “Beautiful” Brother Andrew, ever “cheerful, pure” in the face of any hardship, is even more of a cipher. The three meet sexual temptation, are driven away by hostile villagers, and are accused of being thieves or demons. They get lost, suffer sickness, endure hunger: “We are not sure if today is a Friday or a Saturday, but we fast anyway, although we have no choice because we do not have any food.” There will be, along the way, a martyrdom as gruesome as anything in the annals of de Voragine.
Flusfeder’s prose is superb. His facility with a certain medieval tone, that archaic yet vibrant quality of a great work newly translated, suggests a writer who has steeped himself in his source materials. There isn’t a single anachronistic or otherwise false note in the book (and ferreting those out is half the fun of reading historical fiction). There is humor that is only accessible from a modern vantage point, but it lands, because who hasn’t encountered a gem of unintentional comedy in an old work?
They had thrown stones at us, and we had suffered bruises and cuts and it was a miracle of God’s grace that we escaped heavier injury. . . . Brother Bernard said that it was because they thought we were monks, like the Cistercians who preach chastity and practise incontinent concupiscence, but those were not the actual words he spoke: the epithets he used were borrowed from the tavern rather than church and he would not answer where he had found the words.
A very subtle humor pervades John the Pupil, which points up the absurdity of its strange, violent, benighted, but numinously energized world. It is capped off by endnotes both comic (“It is unclear whether the omitted words here are due to a break in the manuscript or to the modesty of John”) and illuminating. They warn the reader against viewing the past through the lens of modernity and illustrate the diabolical difficulty of communication—between past and present, superstition and modernity, us and them—that is itself allegorized by the long journey between Oxford and Viterbo. John the Pupil is a slim and unassuming book, but it is also one gravid with wisdom.
Here we must take leave of our medieval brethren and sally forth hundreds of years into our own era, where the Pulitzer Prize finalist Adam Rapp has set his new novel Know Your Beholder.3 The book owes an enormous debt to John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces (1980) and its Boethius-loving protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly. It boasts its own Arthurian “Chapel Perilous” in the form of the attic bedroom where its antihero, the lovesick and agoraphobic and grotesquely bearded landlord Francis Falbo will either cure his existential despair or go stark raving mad. But Falbo’s quest is entirely in his own mind. The Holy Grail at the end of his Last Crusade is a relatively mundane one: getting over his ex-wife.
Know Your Beholder is one of the riskiest books of this season, not because its premise is unusual but because it is so painfully clichéd. A young man—a privileged straight white man, in the parlance of our times—is depressed because a woman has abandoned him for refusing to grow up. He reacts by becoming housebound and letting himself go to seed. He grows, or rather doesn’t shave, a beard, which may smell “gamey, like wet squirrel or coon.” There is a “light blue terrycloth bathrobe that has become a low-grade monastic cloak,” a detail cribbed from The Big Lebowski (1998).
There are further reasons to wonder whether Know Your Beholder will be terrible. Its privileged straight white man was until recently in a band. That band was called The Third Policeman, after the Flann O’Brien novel beloved by the kind of person who has only read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994) and “parts” (±30 pages) of Infinite Jest (1996). There is a character named Bob Blubaugh, which would be a funny name if it wasn’t stolen from Bob Loblaw of the TV show Arrested Development. But these infelicities occur in the book’s early pages, and they are signs not of a stunted imagination but of a novel slowly finding its footing.
It seems that the quest of a privileged straight white man to solve his trivial problem is every bit as much a rule-bound form as the Chant Royal or Icelandic saga. One of those rules is that the man in question will not have to work. Rob Gordon of High Fidelity (2000) owns a record store; Ben Stone of Knocked Up (2007) lives off a personal injury settlement; and Francis Falbo “earns” his living renting out rooms in the massive Pollard, Illinois, home that his father has entrusted to his stewardship. (His mother is dead, granting him another, more plausible excuse for self-pity and stasis.) Falbo’s literary antecedents are cinematic; Know Your Beholder will doubtless take its place on the big screen, too.
So why in the holy hell does Know Your Beholder work so well? Falbo ought to be unlikable, a whiner, and he is a whiner most of the time. But he also grows by learning to engross himself in the problems of others, namely, his tenants. There is the couple whose missing daughter has become the subject of a national media circus of the sort ginned up by Nancy Grace; the seemingly happy-go-lucky widower who harbors a deep yearning for genuine friendship and creative expression; the young art student who draws Falbo out of his comfort zone with, of all things, nude modeling; the screwed-up former bandmate who activates Falbo’s nurturing instincts before exhausting them.
And, as with the quest narratives previously discussed, Know Your Beholder takes up its well-trodden path only to do some rather daring bushwhacking on the way. The creativity of its conflicts and vignettes is undeniable. Rapp experiments with suspense, as when the hitherto enervated Falbo rashly decides to stage a break-in after engaging in some ill-advised amateur sleuthing. The way that Falbo dispatches his detested former bandmate is insane, but also hilarious. And Know Your Beholder as a whole has something huge going for it: Rapp’s book is a feast, a smorgasbord, a rijsttafel of language. From its first page, with “storybook snow as soft as sifted cake mix,” it is Pyrex-clear that Rapp knows how to describe ordinary things in jarring and unforgettable ways.
The success of Know Your Beholder lies, finally, in its insistence that a broken heart is a suitable subject for a work of literature regardless of whose heart it is. Even an ostensible loser like Francis Falbo, licking his wounds and hiding from the world, has a soul capable of connection with another person and of suffering at the severing of that tie.
Rapp pulls his punches when he takes the cinematic route of giving Falbo’s ex-wife a cartoon character of a new spouse, easy for us to join him in hating: “A man five years my junior whose chiseled, perfect jawline is deftly offset by one of those undeniably aquiline, Mediterranean noses. A corporate alpha-male who dresses like an adult and shaves every morning . . . who can no doubt execute twenty military-regulation pull-ups while carrying on a lighthearted conversation about the pleasures afforded by his new, ergonomically-contoured office chair.” But Rapp gets something very right when that ex-wife, visiting Falbo on a tragic errand, is pressed to say whether she misses what they had together.
“Do you guys have this?” I said.
“It’s different,” she said. “We have our own ‘This.’ ”
“The New This,” I said.
“Yeah, the New This,” she said.
“Good album name,” I said.
It is at this moment that Falbo is most definitively shut out by his wife’s new arrangement. But it is also this moment that most completely humanizes him and makes the reader root for his return to human society and sanity. That return won’t come easily, but it’s no spoiler to say that Falbo gets there in the end.
Francis Falbo is confined to house arrest by a self-diagnosed and possibly spurious case of agoraphobia. The young Fyodor Dostoevsky was roused from bed in the middle of the night, charged with membership in a socialist secret society, and ultimately sentenced to a term of hard labor at an altogether different type of house—in Siberia. Dostoevsky’s remarkable account of his imprisonment, Notes from a Dead House (1862; also translated as The House of the Dead), has just been released in a new edition by the celebrated translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.4 They have previously translated Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Demons. Notes from a Dead House is both a credit to their reputations and a priceless addition to the literature of the penal experience.
Dostoevsky’s account is no simple memoir, though he was aided in its composition by notes he took while a prisoner and passed along for safe keeping to an employee of the prison hospital. He uses the same framing device Flusfeder did in John the Pupil, introductory notes from a fictional “editor.” Because he didn’t believe that his book would pass censorship with a political criminal for its protagonist, Dostoevsky subsumed his own personality into the fictional murderer Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov. A detail he did not change, as it was all too significant: Goryanchikov is, as Dostoevsky was, a nobleman, meaning that he is detested—alternately harassed and ignored—by the other inmates.
Dostoevsky is obsessed with what he calls the “inequality of punishment.” Suppose two men are given the same sentence for murder, but—in his example—one has knifed a man “just like that, for nothing, for an onion,” while the other “killed defending the honor of his bride, his sister, his daughter.” Sentencing in modern times takes such things into account, but it cannot control for the psychological toughness of the man to be punished. A master of psychological portraiture, Dostoevsky makes plain how one man—wicked but resolute—may easily, thoughtlessly endure a sentence that shatters a softer man.
Notes from a Dead House contains compelling observations about the meaning of labor itself. Dostoevsky finds little inhumanity in the work the prisoners are forced to perform, because it gives them a sense of purpose, bolsters their sense that they retain some value as human beings. “The worker sometimes even gets carried away by it,” he writes, “wants to do it better, more quickly, more skillfully. But if he were forced, for instance, to pour water from one tub into another and from the other into the first . . . [he] would hang himself after a few days.” He details the many other occupations, skills, and hobbies the inmates cultivate to stave off boredom and madness.
Confinement itself is spoken of as punishment throughout Notes from a Dead House, not surprisingly, and Dostoevsky’s words against solitary confinement should be taken up by modern prison reformers. It “achieves only a false, deceptive, external purpose. It sucks the living juice from a man, enervates his soul . . . and then presents this morally dried-up, half-crazed mummy as an example of correction and repentance.” But there is plenty of more savage punishment on offer here: fetters; branding; beatings with rods, knouts, and birches. Dostoevsky tells of prisoners who, awaiting punishment, court worse punishment with new crimes, just to provoke a new trial that will postpone the punishment already in the offing.
There are happy, even comic moments in this grim account. Dostoevsky describes how vodka, of paramount importance (just after money) to the inmates, is smuggled into the prison population; a Christmas tableau demonstrates its merry effects: “I cannot explain how it happened, but right after the major’s departure, an extraordinary number of people turned out to be drunk though five minutes earlier they had all been almost perfectly sober. Many glowing and shining faces appeared; balalaikas appeared.” He records prisoners’ theatricals and songs, and even their sustaining relationships with the prison’s animals. (He admits that dogs were occasionally killed and skinned to make boot linings.)
As a record of imprisonment and punishment in a time and place quite different from our own, Notes from a Dead House is consistently edifying and fascinating. It is still more valuable as a testament to the power of the human will, the way it can marshal patience and imagination and hope against the most nightmarish assaults on human dignity. “From the very first day of my life in prison,” Dostoevsky writes, “I began to dream of freedom. . . . Every convict feels that he is not at home, but as if on a visit. He looks at twenty years as if they were two. . . . ‘We’ve still got a life to live!’ he thinks and stubbornly drives away all doubts.”
Most of our struggles, our quests, do not occur at a level so fundamental to ourselves. But in life the possibility of despair is ever present, and Dostoevsky’s good news is that, by and large, we do not know our own strength.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 9, on page 64
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