(reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 11, 2004)
"Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring:
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new alchemy."-- from A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day by John Donne
Jasper Jackson is a young calligrapher in London, commissioned to transcribe and illuminate the love poetry of John Donne (1572 - 1631) for an American media baron. Brought up by his grandmother, who worked at the Bodleian Library, Jasper, from a young age, developed a rare talent for precise, accurate, and beautiful calligraphy, only rarely falling victim to Titivillus, the patron demon of calligraphers. "If you are going to make a living out of calligraphy," Jasper tells us, with far more irony than he can imagine, "you'll have to make a deal with the Devil," since even the smallest error will result in having to redo an entire page.
An enthusiastic seeker of pleasure and an energetic and inconstant lover, Jasper is far more spontaneous in his real life than he is in his professional life, and as he begins work on the Donne love poems, Jasper soon finds himself living the poems he is transcribing. Famously unfaithful, Donne himself was a "serial philanderer" whose poems reflect his changing attitudes toward love and sex as he ages, from his early observations on the need for variety in lovers and his desire to have "no strings," to a later, more mature discovery of the new world which opens when one finds "true love," and the emotional devastation which results when that love is lost.
Jasper invites us into his life from the opening paragraphs, creating interest and suspense by telling us in an intimately casual way that "I do not believe that I was behaving all that badly when these withering atrocities first began.[and] I did not deserve the punishment.Rather, it was William who was acting like a fool." The reader soon learns that these "atrocities" had occurred while Jasper, his friend William, and their lovers were touring the Tate Gallery of Modern Art. He had fallen behind Lucy, his lover, so that he could get a better look at an attractive young woman he believed had winked at him. "Millions of men would pay to be winked at by girls like her," he says, then concludes, "I have a responsibility to act." All he needs is fifteen minutes, if only his friend William will help him.
The farce which results is something one would expect from Monty Python, with a gallery-clearing fire alarm providing the opportunity for a quick exchange of e-mail addresses. Some days later, a second, even more slapstick burlesque occurs as Jasper tries to prevent Lucy from entering his apartment and discovering his "Tate Modern flirtation" in his bedroom. But even these two relationships are not enough for Jasper. He soon gets distracted by the seductive sunbather in the garden below his studio window and sets out to get to know her, too. The humor throughout is broad, bold, and masculine, and the scenes are easy to visualize, though female readers may cringe at Jasper's casual duplicity and the gullibility of the women he pursues and lures into his bed.
Eventually, however, Jasper surprises himself by finding a woman with whom he wants to spend quiet times, and as Donne's poems, which introduce the ensuing chapters, tell us, Jasper begins to betray the signs of true love, though he may neither know nor acknowledge it. As is always the case with farce, even with farce as literary and well developed as this, the course of love does not run smooth, and in a variety of brilliant and often hilarious scenes, the reader observes the complications which may affect both the future of love and the future of Jasper.
Though Donne's poetry at the beginning of each chapter is sometimes difficult, the author's ability to illustrate the themes through the story of Jasper's dysfunctional life makes their meanings clear, even for those who may not want to spend the time figuring out the language of the poems. Jasper's own casually vulgar speech and his willingness to share his inner life with the reader are an effective counterbalance to the formality of Donne's poetry, though both the poems and the episodes in Jasper's life reflect the same themes. Because it is impossible to predict what Jasper will do next, the author is able to create and sustain suspense throughout the novel, leading to an exciting story of relationships, with the end result always in doubt.
Docx's descriptions add immeasurably to the pleasure of the action, and his wry commentary on people and places is irresistible. "Situated in a fashionably dismal Soho back alley, [William's club] is silted up.with the detritus of humanity-fabulously talentless men and women who ooze and slime through the half-light in a ceaseless search for the dwindling plankton of each other's personalities." The wine brought by a rival to a dinner party is "a muddy Pino Grigio from the reed-riddled fields of some reclaimed Italian marsh." His love life as a student at "sexually confused and neurotic" Cambridge University consisted of "successes amid the crunching icebergs and the raging Arctic winds.[while many less fortunate students fell], snow-blind and lust-numbed, into the ice tombs of the Nuptial Crevasse."
In view of the cleverness with which Docx reveals Jasper's relationships, the ending of the novel is somewhat disappointing-not because the plot turns out differently from what the reader wants or expects but because it seems so contrived. Major coincidences, outrageously unrealistic, feel imposed upon what has been, until the ending, a well-developed study of love and sex, emotional growth, and personal understanding across the centuries from Donne to the present. The subtlety with which Donne's poetry has provided the intellectual underpinnings of the novel vanishes in a wild, plot-driven grand finale, which, while undoubtedly effective if the novel were to become a film, feels artificial within the context of this study of Jasper's emotional "growth." Still, the novel is great fun to read-full of humor, sharply observed social commentary, and the vagaries of love and sex through the ages, a stunning debut for a very talented new author.
- Amazon readers rating: from 23 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official site for Edward Docx
- Boston.com review of The Calligrapher
- ReviewOfBooks.com collection of reviews for The Calligrapher
- Self Help nominated for the Booker Prize
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About the Author:
Edward Docx was born in 1972 and grew up in Cheshire and London. After school, he went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he read English Literature, ran the Bob Dylan Society and was Junior Common Room President.
Ed worked for five years on the national newspapers in the UK, first as a staff journalist and then contributing as a freelance writer across most of the main titles. At present, he is working on his third novel pretty much full time.
Docx's second novel Self Help was was longlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. Docx won the 2007 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for the novel, which was published as Pravda in the United States.
Ed continues to live in London with prolonged visits to Rome whenever he can get away with it.