Medieval philosopher-savant Roger Bacon. Engraving by R Cooper, print by Agidius Sadelam. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496