Review: Geraldine Brooks. People of the Book. Viking, 2007.
There ought to be a prize, the Pulitzer Prize for Prolepticism. This Pulitzer would be awarded to the fiction writer who does the best job of dealing with historical factoids in a creative way.The jury for the prize will not consist of nitpicking librarians and those graduate-school dropouts in English Lit. who end up running independent bookstores in Kalamazoo. The Jury, in fact, acknowledges that nothing can be known for sure about the past, and least of all about the stuff that really counts: like how the Romans tied their shoes, or whether Irish scribes actually held the pen with two fingers instead of three when no one was looking. Those are the facts that fiction writers sweat over, because there’s no greater downer for the sensual reader than losing the sense of being there: Melinda gasped as his coarse hands groped at the thingamajig clasping her whatsis...
The Jury, instead, will be composed of scholars with a solid background in incredibly narrow areas of historical research but endowed with, you know, a sense of proportion. Scholars modest enough to know that historical scholarship isn’t really about getting it right, but about how gracefully you get it. To encourage future participation, here are a few would-be-past winners of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Prolepticism:
Shakespeare in Love, mostly for the closeups of Joseph Fiennes faking Shakespeare’s handwriting. Sure, the shaft was too long, and I’m surprised that Fiennes claimed afterward he had ink stains for a solid month after the shoot, because it didn’t look as if he’d been using gallotannic ink, but damn, it was fun to watch because it was obviously fun to attempt it—a lot more fun than most professional calligraphers would have managed. Plus, the part where Shakespeare sticks his quill in a ripe tomato drove the purists sick with worry. (Did the Elizabethans use tomatoes to store their pens after use? Lighten up.)
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. Not for the scriptorium scene, which falls into those old boring generalizations about “gold gleaf gleaming here and there in the darkness,” but for Eco’s continuous use of direct quotes from medieval texts. If the hero seems to be thinking with the mind of a medieval monk it’s because he does.
Timeline, by Michael Crichton. There should be a separate category for fiction writers who fall back on that excellent device of describing contemporary scholars dealing with questions of historical authenticity instead of tackling historical authenticity head-on. Too bad Crichton ended up imagining that, because he was describing scholars who don’t know everything, he happened to know more than the scholars themselves. Fiction writers often fall into this foolish habit of thinking they know more than their characters. Madame Bovary, c’est pas moi. Other foolish writers think this means if they stick to writing from inside one character only they’ll avoid the multiplication of their own ignorance.
On every single count, People of the Book fails. The author, Geraldine Brooks, has chosen to channel a manuscript conservator who, being a manuscript conservator, channels the original creators and owners of the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the best known, most studied Jewish luxury manuscripts of the Middle Ages, most likely produced in Eastern Spain circa 1350. Well, if it’s one of the most-studied Jewish manuscripts there’s got to be some juicy questions to tackle. Which is to say there are plenty of juicy whodunnity items to play with if you’re a fiction writer with a touch of curiosity—or even a manuscript conservator.
Ms. Brooks is not interested. The clues she sprinkles throughout her flighty tome aren’t of the kind that makes you rush out to check the fifteenth-century Portuguese recension of Rabbi Abraham ben Judah ibn Hayvin’s Guide for making blue colors. In Brooks’ book all medieval blues are “intense as a midsummer sky, obtained from grinding precious lapis lazuli,” which would be balderdash even if it were true since only the cheaper versions of lapis look like a “midsummer sky,” and that’s independent of the question whether the illuminations of the Sarajevo Haggadah contain lapis to begin with. Then there is the parchment, which our heroine identifies as “the skin of a now-extinct breed of thick-haired Spanish mountain sheep,” which out-herods Herod, since even conservators, who are notoriously incapable of telling if the skin comes from a mule or a sheep or a deer, aren’t arrogant enough to make that kind of call.
There’s yet another category in the Prestigious Pulitzer for Prolepticism, it’s the Prestigious Rebecca Award, named for the bodicerippee in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. The Rebecca Award is awarded to a contemporary Jewish woman author who tries to channel what it meant to be a Jewish female in the Middle Ages, and it’s highly competitive because the suburbs of America and the settlements of Palestine are crowded with Jewish women trying to find some kind of connection between themselves and what they imagine Judaism to have been. One of the best among these authors is Faye Kellerman: the field may be crowded but the bar isn’t high. This is clearly the award that Brooks aims for, and once again the author grabs for the ring and falls off her horse. For instance, the illuminations of the Haggadah are unaccountably placed in Seville in 1480. Why? Because the Spanish Inquisition began in 1481. Brooks is partial to the old Zionist narrative of the Jewish Diaspora that argues the Jews were never free of pogroms, inquisitions and juicy bodice-ripping. Even so, she should be capable of finding a bit of nuanced oppression in fourteenth century Catalonia without feeling constrained to fly in the face of widely accepted facts about the manuscript. The “real” Pulitzer, of course, is a prestigious journalism award for those most able to twist repertorial facts into whatever pretzel goes down easiest with the editors of the New York Times—including the editors of the New York Times Book Review, whose avowed purpose is to review books that might appeal to wealthy suburban women. And that’s all right with me because it's all fiction anyhow, but I wish they wouldn’t drag the really important stuff down with it—like the type of azurite blue used in fourteenth-century Catalonia.
- Murph the Serf.