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« Books I wish I'd not sold - Singing School: the Making of a Poet | Main | Independent Booksellers Week 2010 »

June 18, 2010

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Thanks for mentioning my review!

I have to add that as time passed (and I read it a second time) my affection and respect for the novel only increased. Can't wait for her next novel! I hope both find there way to a UK publisher . . .

Oops. Meant "their way". *sigh*

(Posted this by accident on an older comment feed. Here it is again, more current.)

My review of Mary Novik's wonderful novel (originally in The Globe and Mail, September 8 2007.)

CONCEIT
by Mary Novik
Doubleday Canada
416 pages

reviewed by Jim Bartley

This novel is so engaging, so plenteous, that I have an unstoppable urge to talk about myself first. Having also published a novel, I have the expected high opinion of it. Mary Novik’s has wrung my ermine stole of vanity to a hair shirt.

Bookish types speak of conceit as something more than personal vanity; it’s also a writerly thing, a device employed by novelists and poets that can exhibit the same kind of preening self-regard, or in the best cases play licence to brilliant excess, stretching metaphor into strands of gossamer.

Conceit among writers is eternal, but as a literary device it’s currently about as common as the quill pen. Quills (waiting in the well, poised in the hand) once encouraged the mental space for conceits to play in. Now computers never give the neural pathways a rest. Mary Novik has made an end-run around her technology. I pictured ink-stained fingers, candlelight, sheaves of manuscript.

is a mind-expanding creation of a distant world (17th century England) in often exhilarating detail: seen, heard, felt, smelt and tasted. No stale costume drama or heaving bodice-ripper, the book refuses to press familiar buttons. Novik’s imagination leaps from ecstatic to hellish. It snuffles around in recesses of the mind, rooting for things dark and delectable.

Poet John Donne was a compulsive conceit practitioner, perhaps most famously in his poem in which a man argues to his unattainable beloved that a flea is their Cupid, sucking and commingling their blood and thereby consummating their love. Is there anything left to lose, he asks, by enjoying the traditional fluid exchange? If this seems a puerile seductive ploy, it confirms that conceit is a precarious business, dividing literary camps, slipping easily into absurdity.

Novik walks the tightrope with audacity and assurance. Her late-summer London comes to us ablaze with the great fire of 1666, a flash-forward seen through the eyes of diarist Samuel Pepys. Donne has been dead 35 years. His daughter, Pegge, is set on rescuing her father’s marble effigy from St Paul’s. With two hired men and a horsecart, she enters the massive cathedral, its roof timbers already aflame. Working in “the harrowing light,” they pry the statue from its niche as molten roofing lead begins to cascade into the church. Hugging the stone walls, they watch the roof vaulting collapse and break through the stone floor. Pegge stares into the crypt, where her father’s corpse is now buried beneath blazing timbers.

Fade to childhood. Donne is Dean of St Pauls. Widowed five years and still bitter with grief, he browbeats his parishioners and five daughters with what essentially are death threats: mortality, contingent always on sin, underpins every moment. Bitten by a flea while carving the dinner joint, Donne is off once again on “the dangers of minuscule things. Pins and combs and pulled hairs could gangrene and kill... men could laugh themselves to death.”

At 11, Pegge has her sights set on “young idler” Izaak Walton. Izaak is mooning over Pegge’s older sister, recently betrothed to another. With seduction in the air, Novik takes us back into St Paul’s, 40 years’ pre-conflagration, intact if badly crumbling. This is the massive medieval church, not Wren’s genteel Baroque replacement. City streets and vaulted sanctuary are a lively continuum. As Donne preaches, tradesmen shortcutting from Cheapside to the wharfs “wheel sides of beef through the transepts.” In the churchyard, Blackfriars actors pace and declaim.

After her prescribed devotions, Pegge observes her sister flirting cruelly with the smitten Izaak. Later she tails him out to a desolate fishing spot by the river where she goads him with talk of “unrequited love.” When he throws rocks at her, her response is a threat to marry him. “I know more than you think, for I have read my father’s poem about his mistress.” Bolting from this pubescent siren, Izaak cracks his head on a tree branch and drops into the mud — a chance to dazedly submit to her care. Novik directs (and paces, and costumes, and lights) this scene with wonderful skill and wit. It’s full of raw desire framed in November grays and redolent decay — and hope of erotic redemption.

We shift to the ghostly view of Donne’s deceased wife, Ann, recalling her first encounters with John as her Spanish instructor. Their frequent sparring is born of infatuation. John pronounces Ann “ethereal”, belonging “out of time.” At one lesson she sees the word “conjugation” scrawled in the grime of the windowpane. She senses it has nothing to do with Spanish verbs. “Words spilled from his lips into the bedchamber of my ear. I fell in love with John Donne’s words, darting like swallows in and out of the frippery of this world, no more belonging to it than birds belonged inside a house.”

Quoting can’t express the fullness of this writing. Novik can take a symbol (say, a fish eye) and in a sentence or two make it awaken and integrate thematic nuances that have slept in the reader’s subconscious for chapters. Reading is like settling into a multi-course feast that shifts your ideas of food — of the wonders that art can conjure from the staples of life.

In one of the book’s inspired tweaks of history, John’s death is witnessed solely by the teenaged Pegge. The carnal, the mortal and the mystical dance in fascinating counterpoint in Novik’s death of Donne. Years later, as Pegge and her husband shelter Izaak Walton at their country estate after the loss of his house in the great fire, she blurts out her judgements of his two celebrated (historical) works, one on fly fishing, the other a life of Donne. she calls “lovely,” while Izaak’s first-person account of her father’s death is dismissed as a hagiographic sham. Izaak was not even present for the death. “You painted him with a white brush... made a plaster saint of him.”

Ultimately, Pegge’s heart belongs to daddy. How she expresses it, months after his death, amid the charred ruins of London, is Novik’s apotheosis of the macabre.
If this all seems a bit rarified, it’s my lapse. Buy the book. Find a free weekend and a quiet place. Do not Google. Step away from the remote. Enter London, 1666: the blaze of death and life. Recall what it means to know a world through the surface of a page: created in the words of a gifted stranger, made uniquely yours by your own storehouse of experience and the mystery of your subconscious. will cut a reviving swath through your tech-addled world.

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