Monthly Archives: December 2013

Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Curse in the Colophon

UnknownSo many friends greeted my acquisition of this book with so much excitement that I thought a review was in order now I have finished reading it. For those that you don’t know, Edgar Goodspeed was a Theologian and New Testament scholar at my very own Divinity School at the University of Chicago, getting his degree from there in 1898 and teaching there between 1900 and 1937.   Goodspeed was responsible for building up the manuscript collection that now bears his name at the university, a collection of New Testament manuscripts and papyri. How could I resist a book by another novel-writing colleague?

Especially a book devoted to the hunt for medieval manuscripts, a hunt that bears striking similarities to his own real-life acquisitions. For while he was a New Testament scholars, the materia for the study of the Greek New Testament is manuscripts copied in the Middle Ages. In his story, the first-person hero and narrator of the tale is assisted by the as-intelligent-as-she-is-beautiful Letitia (“Tish”) in a hunt for a cache of manuscripts hidden, after the fall of Constantinople, revealed by a curse found in the colophon of a manuscript being studied at the University of Chicago. It is a a sea-borne quest in which the scholars are assisted by wealthy American patrons to reach the monastery of Selime where they find the treasure they seek behind a trapdoor in a tomb: Byzantine regalia, and relics, and, best of all, illustrated manuscripts.

Shades of Indiana Jones. Only, not really. For while Goodspeed knows he has to add a few dastardly ruffians and menacing Greeks to his tale, he isn’t as comfortable with tales of high adventure as he is writing about the mundane frustrations and excitements of ordinary manuscript study. And that is the best thing about this book, from the perspective of this medievalist. We learn the virtues of using ultra-violet light over reagents to uncover text written in palimpsest, that is to say, text that has been over-written by another text. It is under the original cursed colophon that they find their clue to the location of the manuscripts they seek. They are thwarted by the demons that plague all of us: libraries with inconvenient opening times and backward equipment, jealous librarians who refuse to understand the crucial importance of our own personal quests, languages that need to be learned, transportation that must be acquired, and the religious agendas of those who are the custodians of the treasures the scholars seek to reveal. The final crisis comes, not at the hands of the enemies who have been dogging their every step (book dealers who *gasp* cut up manuscripts in order to sell their miniatures one by one), but at the hands of the customs officials who threaten not to let them remove their prizes from the country.

If you ever have had to sweet-talk someone in a language you don’t know very well to look at a manuscript you are sure will be crucial for your work, this is the novel for you.

When I Knew

The title is misleading. The question I still ask myself is not, “When did I know I was Jewish?” but, “How, in God’s name, did I not figure it out sooner?” I blame Captain von Trapp.

I cannot remember a time when I did not know the story of how my grandmother fled Czechoslovakia, weeks after the Germans invaded, with my two-year-old father in tow, to meet my grandfather in London (the story of how he got to London, however, remained a secret until much more recently). She was a great storyteller, and in her version, she was not a bold heroine, but a foolish and somewhat spoiled girl, slightly oblivious of the danger around her. I heard many times about how she charmed the Gestapo at the border into letting them leave, how they had to stay in Versailles, and how my grandmother abandoned my father every morning to the tender ministrations of “la promeneuse” so she could hot-foot it to Paris, and later, of their life in London and Wales, of ration cards, and air raids, and shoes that unaccountably did not get polished when you left them outside your door at night. What I did not hear anywhere attached to the story was the word, “Jew.” It was a word I never heard used by any member of my family, in any context.

And that is where the Sound of Music comes in. I saw it for the first time a long time ago, long enough ago that I remember standing for the national anthem before it began. My grandparents had come to visit in Toronto, and we all went together. And there, on the screen, was their story, their love for their homeland, the evil Nazis, and their flight to freedom. They even lived high on a hill with a lonely goatherd, in a Swiss Chalet. In Quebec. Here it is:

Granny and Gumper's house in North Hat;ley

When the Captain sang “Edelweiss,” my mother says, tears rolled down my grandfather’s cheeks. Bless my homeland forever.

And once again, not a mention of the word “Jew” in the whole movie (Weirdly, when you think about it. Sure, the von Trapps weren’t Jewish. But Max? Max?). No wonder I was confused as the evidence began mounting and the questions started to come. Because I knew, I knew. But I didn’t know. I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and then all the Leon Uris books. I had dreams about being chased by Nazis. I even wrote a short story for school about a young girl, oh roughly my age at the time, escaping. I asked my father where our name came from. He lied (Miners from Lancaster come to work in the Silesian coal fields. I still have not forgiven him for this one!). I asked him why Gumper was smart enough to leave when others didn’t (you can tell I am getting close at this point). I asked my grandfather what happened to his two sisters. He left the room, and my grandmother changed the subject. I knew we weren’t Catholic, like all the other Czechs I knew, though when my grandfather swore, it was by Jesus and Mary (this also threw me off). Did I think they were Hussites? But no, the von Trapps weren’t Jewish. You didn’t have to be Jewish to flee the Nazis. It wasn’t a question about myself that I asked; it was one I had already answered.

Then cousin Frances came for one of the last Christmases before my grandfather and father died, and this time brought with her a family tree. On it were large branches that were missing, unknown relatives marked only “died in the war.” And Frances told us that we had a Jewish background. I didn’t fully absorb it, confused as I still was by the Captain. Maybe Gumper’s mother had been Jewish?

After my father died, my uncle sat me and my sister down with my mother and told us the story of our origins and swore us to secrecy. My mother already knew; my father had told her before they were married in an offhand way, and she regarded it as a matter of complete indifference. We didn’t keep it a secret; we started talking about our background and history with our father’s cousins, and with our grandmother, especially when we travelled with her to the Czech Republic after the wall came down. My sister remembered revealing all to our Kitchener cousins when we visited them for Christmas a couple of years after our father’s death.

For me this knowledge came, not as a revelation but as a confirmation, an “Oh, of course.” It was like I had spent my life doing a puzzle without the picture on the box, trying to piece together the faces I saw from the pieces I had. Someone handed me some missing pieces and suddenly all the sections I had been working on began to fit together. And on the woman’s face, the pieces now formed a smile.

Christmas at the Picks

Christmas 1939

The official part of Christmas with my new family is over, and I have an evening alone, as the rest of them go out to shop, eat, and watch a movie, as is their usual custom on Boxing Day. We have been talking a lot about what our Christmas traditions are over the past few days, as we attempt to merge our practices and rituals, honouring what is most important to all of us. Like most of us, I have had a series of Christmas traditions, depending on where I lived and who I was living with at the time, but if you ask me what I think of when I think of Christmas, it isn’t Toronto in the 1970s or Detroit in the 1990s; it is spending Christmas in North Hatley, for many years at the incongruous Swiss chalet on a Quebec hillside house built my Gumper, my grandfather Jan Pick, and later also at our own cottage. It was always our family and my grandparents; sometimes our cousins from Kitchener joined us, and in later years, my father’s cousin Frances would come from Mexico.

What did it mean to us? It was the light in the darkness of winter. We feasted and burned candles. We skied through the woods and snowmobiled, and chopped down a tree, bringing the freshness of the forest indoors. The ornaments were battered and glittering survivors of those collected by my grandparents in their years as exiles and refugees from their native Czechoslovakia. We ate fish soup, and herring, and salmon, and eel. We ate turkey and plum pudding, and spiced beef. We ate candied orange peel, truffles, florentines, pepperkakor, vanilkove rohlicky, rum balls, Turtles, mince pies, and shortbread.  We opened a mountain of presents (This was the only part my grandfather did not like — he thought we had too many presents, and he was right. And it only got worse when the Kitchener Picks joined us!). And like the Whos down in Whoville what we did most of all was sing. At Christmas Eve dinner, the apex of our feast, we would sing and sing and sing, songs in English and French; Czech, Slovak, Swedish, and Hungarian. Some were toasts and drinking songs, some were folk songs; we sang songs about the black earth of my grandparents’ homeland and about battles fought in far off Herzigovina; we sang songs my grandfather learned as a student in France and songs my mother grew up singing around a Swedish Christmas smorgasbord. We banished the darkness and drew our family together around the table. It was this family we were celebrating as we sang, especially my grandparents, especially my grandfather.

The Picks were Jewish of course, and it may be surprising for some of you to read that Christmas was so important to them. It is one of the curiosities of the ways a culture borrows from another that many Czech Jews celebrated Christmas with as much enthusiasm as their neighbors, albeit with less piety. I remember my grandmother taking about childhood Christmasses, about the carp who would come to live in the bathtub to be cleaned of its muddy interior before it would be eaten on Christmas Eve. And their family was not alone. My grandfather’s best friend from the old country was a man who survived Auschwitz and wrote a memoir of his experiences. “It was a very sad Christmas for the Jews this year,” he wrote without irony about Christmas 1939 in occupied Czechoslovakia.

The grainy photo at the top, which shows my grandmother, Liska, lighting the candles on a Christmas tree, is a still from a movie made by our cousin Frances’s father at Christmas in 1939 in the UK. He and my grandparents and my father, Michael, had managed to escape there. Also in this film are my father’s young cousins, Peter and John, kindertransport children who had been saved by Nicholas Winton, and my great grandmother Ruzena, whose necklace I wore at our own Christmas dinner last night. The people in the film are all people I knew well, so even though the film is silent I can tell what they are saying and even what they are thinking, as they greet Father Christmas, and praise my father for riding his first tricycle. And I can see the moment when the mood grow dark and they raise a toast their friends and family left behind — my grandmother’s parents, my grandfather’s sisters, all to perish, with so many more — and my grandmother knocks back her drink, and stiffens her jaw and smiles again, prepared to defy the darkness for another year.

 

 

Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me

I was tagged by Julianne Douglas over on Facebook to quickly write down ten books that have meant something to me, and then pass along the request to ten more people. I can’t do anything the easy way, so I thought it would be fun to do a blog post about it, and to explain why these books are important to me. Since it is the time of year when many people are looking for gift ideas, maybe even some of what I say will provide some inspiration. I am going to stick close to historical fiction for my list, since I have been thinking a lot recently about what makes good historical fiction in general, and medieval historical fiction in particular.

  1. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdattir. It is maybe cheating to begin with this because I have about fifty more pages to go, but it was reading this book that got me thinking about medieval historical fiction in the first place. Somehow Undset managed to write here a novel that continues to speak immediately to contemporary themes and problems, while at the same time maintaining a perfect period voice. I have not discovered one jarring note (though specialists in medieval Scandinavia might feel differently). I am thinking of how I could work it into a course.
  2. Cecelia Holland, Great Maria. This novel is another of the first that comes to mind when I think of other books I have loved that, for me, capture the Middle Ages and its values perfectly. Its heroine is awkward and difficult, and unsympathetic at times. This is because she thinks and feels and acts differently than we would do. This is because she lives in a very different world, and Holland does not allow us to forget it.
  3. Margaret Elphinstone, The Sea Road. This one will be less well known even to my book-reading and medievalist friends. It is the eleventh-century tale of Gudrid, as told to a cleric and scribe in Rome, of her role in the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic and her own journey to North America. Gudrid’s world is pagan and Christian, civilized and wild and once again, Elphinstone gets her voice perfectly. I should also say that everything Elphinstone writes is an instant hard-cover buy for me.
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. This isn’t historical fiction, most would argue, but rather fantasy. I am going to argue that it belongs on this list of books that made me think about how to write historical fiction. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is not some fantasy realm in some imaginary world, however it may appear to a casual reader. He binds it to the geography and language of the word that we know, the world that is ours, by creating stories told about stories told about stories, layering the past upon the past.
  5. Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Shadow of the Wind. I saw that Julianne had The Angel’s Game on her list which I unaccountably still have not read, though I went to an author reading when it first came out, and got a signed copy. This one is a book about books by a man who loves books. More than that, Ruiz Zafon casts a spell on the reader from the very first page. We are in post-civil war Barcelona with all its beauty, menace, and danger until the last page when he lets us go again.
  6. Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This is the perfect book for someone raised on Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. Like Heyer, she captures that Regency voice without anachronism, and at the same time manages to work in the magic in a way that seems seamless and plausible.
  7. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel in her best historical fiction, here and in A Place of Greater Safety, about the French Revolution not only writes a historical novel, but constructs a historical argument. Here, her argument is a revisionist portrait of Thomas Cromwell. Usually he is depicted as the most hated of Henry VIIIs servants, but Mantel gives us a view of him from the inside to present him as a more sympathetic character. Her depiction of Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More were equally daring.
  8. Sarah Dunant, Sacred Hearts. Most people would think that a story that takes place entirely within the walls of a tightly enclosed sixtenth-century Ferarrese convent would not be interesting. Those people would be wrong. I read this shortly after teaching a class on Terese of Avila’s autobiography and felt it gave flesh to some of the bones of what Teresa describes.
  9. Markus Zusak, The Book Thief. I have already discussed this book on my blog, so I won’t say too much here except that this is another book about books (I am detecting a theme here…), and it made me have sympathy for characters I thought I could not feel sympathy for.
  10. Simon Mawer, The Glass Room. The story of the twentieth-century told through a modernist house built in what was once Czechoslovakia, this one hits close to home. Not only does it depict the world of my ancestors, the world into which my father was born, and the pain of going into exile from that world, the characters themselves reflect elements of members of my family. This may, then, seem less strictly “historical” than the other works on my list. But whether a book takes us to Tang China or Renaissance Italy, surely we love it because we see parts of ourself in it?