Medieval philosopher-savant Roger Bacon. Engraving by R Cooper, print by Agidius Sadelam. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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John the Pupil by David Flusfeder: a novel of quiet suggestion and unobtrusive cleverness

David Flusfeder’s novel John the Pupil follows three students of the medieval philosopher-savant Roger Bacon who make a secretive journey from England to the seat of the papacy at Viterbo.

John the Pupil 
David Flusfeder
Fourth Estate, 240pp, £14.99

“All historical novels are failures, or, at best, metaphors, dressing up the present day in anachronistic disguise.” So complains the fictional academic invented by David Flusfeder to frame and gloss the medieval pilgrimage at the heart of his seventh novel. Flusfeder is not the first historical story­teller to fret like this over his ethics and methods. Treating the remote past with narrative techniques that did not emerge until the 19th century is a problematic business and writers working in the genre bump up constantly against difficulties of lan­guage and form.

How they address them depends on what they are trying to do. In the Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel The Wake, set during the Norman conquest, Paul Kingsnorth bolts together bits of Old, Middle and modern English in order to describe “a folc harried beatan a world brocen apart”, suggesting a time and a world-view so distant that readers need a new language to understand them. Adam Thorpe’s superb 1992 debut, Ulverton, told its story through meticulously faked documents from the history of an English village; his Hodd (2009) similarly filtered its Robin Hood tale through a dodgy translation of a medieval-Latin original. Such novels attempt to challenge the bland imaginative transpositions of historical romance, suggesting in their forms the difficulty of getting a clear signal from the past.

Other writers employ the opposite method. Hilary Mantel’s lithe modern prose in her Tudor novels reanimates our understanding of a period that is so often smothered in ye-olde cliché, while the breezy modernity of Robert Harris’s style allows the reader to see his Cicero books through the prism of the war on terror or to approach An Officer and a Spy (2013), his thriller about the Dreyfus affair, with WikiLeaks and whistleblowers in mind.

David Flusfeder mixes a little of both approaches in John the Pupil, a novel that follows three students of the medieval philosopher-savant Roger Bacon who make a secretive journey from England to the seat of the papacy at Viterbo. In their baggage is a copy of Bacon’s Opus Majus, “a magnificence of learning and opinion and ingenious device, which tells of the world and how it is viewed and the arc of the rainbow and the movements of stars and of health and immortality and engines of war”.

Bacon, a Franciscan barred by a mistrustful order from promulgating his theories, is hoping for the pope’s patronage and protection. His apprentice John, the narrator of the tale, is a 19-year-old boy making his first trip out of the monastery, who has “never seen a soldier, or a lion, or a feast on a great man’s table, or a demon or an angel or a nun or a unicorn or a bride or a Jew”. His companions are Bernard, a grumpy drunkard with a talent for drawing, and Andrew, a beautiful youth “who may not resist sensation” and fails serially to do so with a string of willing local girls.

As the three young clerics cross France and Italy, encountering brigands, unscrupulous pilgrims, Albigensian heretics and, oddly, Dante’s pal Guido Cavalcanti on their way, John records the journey on strips of scavenged parchment. Some time between 1267 and the present – so runs the book’s conceit – these fragments have been gathered and arranged by a dubious antiquarian, then reshuffled and translated by a contemporary editor, whose afterword purports to fill in their lacunae but makes troubling modern interpretations of its own.

This sounds like quite a headful but anyone expecting Pale Fire-ish metatextual shenanigans may be bemused by the tart modesty of their execution and by the small space they occupy. Flusfeder’s publishers haven’t done him many favours by puffing the book as a cross between Umberto Eco and Quentin Tarantino, because his droll, elegant prose takes a much stealthier approach than either of those two show-off maestros. He is fascinated by the gaps in knowledge and narrative that interfere with our reception of the past but he is equally intrigued by the strange and god-ridden landscape of medieval thought, suggesting its piety, suffering and awe in a subtly disordered idiom that sets and meets several etymological challenges.

The result is a novel of quiet suggestion and unobtrusive cleverness that ends up leaving a flatteringly large amount to the reader’s imagination. One suspects there’s a cryptic authorial smile lurking behind John’s sad observation, late in the novel, that one of his companions on the road still doesn’t quite trust him. “He suspected me,” he says, “of art.” 

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit