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Book Review: John the Pupil

By (March 8, 2015) No Comment

John the Pupiljohn the pupil cover

by David Flusfeder

Harper, 2015

The main narrative of David Flusfeder’s new novel John the Pupil relates the journey undertaken by the title hero and two companions from their monastery in Oxford to the headquarters of Pope Clement IV in Viterbo in 1267, and around this narrative Flusfeder wraps the clever, familiar conceit of the discovered ancient manuscript, carefully translated, edited and annotated by a nameless scholar whose “Note on the Text” is a quiet, well-intentioned nightmare of Casaubon-style pointless caution:

I have operated under etymological constraints, using only words that would have been known to John or are English cognates to his Latin ones. I may not use the word ‘succeed’, for example, other than to denote a sequence, because that is a secular, originally sixteenth-century term, which presumes to credit a favourable outcome to an individual’s capacities rather than to the divine will. A donkey’s ears cannot ‘flap’; our companions may not ’embark’ or ‘struggle’ or use ‘effort’.

The story itself doesn’t know it’s being edited, as it were. Rather, John the Pupil tells of his life at the Franciscan friary at Oxford, where he’s the student of charismatic chronicler Roger Bacon, who charges him and his two young companions, stolid Brother Bernard and free-spirited Brother Andrew, to carry the manuscript of his newly-completed (and potentially-explosive) “Great Work” to the Pope on a winding journey through Canterbury to the Continent. At the friary, John has led a doubly sheltered life, in the library and under the protection of Master Roger, shielded from the taunting of the other boys:

As for me, they do not dare to act directly. They whisper against me too, I hear them, on walks down to the refectory, to mass, but the fear of Master Roger’s mystery and power extends to me: just as in those days of living outside the walls, when we looked up to the friary tower to frighten ourselves and fear you and throw little stones that would not reach a quarter of the way to the roof, not daring to look over our shoulders as we ran away to the safety of our fathers’ world, in case we saw demons flying after us, they dislike me but they do not dare to assault me in case Master Roger’s power move itself against them.

And set against the masterful twilight sharpness of that image, boys throwing stones at the friary tower half out of defiance and half out of fear, there are the dry interpolations tacked on to the beginning of each little section, noting which saint’s day the section falls on and giving a dutiful story from that saint’s life. At the narrative’s outlet, the book’s canny conceit invites us to read the piety of every Saint Hubert’s Day as coming from our conscientious pupil:

Hubert was a beautiful and courteous youth, noble-born, loved by all, whose single passion was for the hunt. On a Good Friday morning, when the virtuous were all inside church, Hubert was giving chase to a magnificent stag. The animal turned, and Hubert was stupefied to see a silver crucifix between its antlers, while at the same time a voice spoke these words, Hubert! Unless you turn to the Lord and lead a holy life, you will go quickly down to hell.

But strongly and gradually, Flusfeder unfolds a sly parallel story, one that’s happening right under the bespectacled nose of its annotator without him having the slightest idea that people in the past were actually living flesh and blood. Our scholar’s extra-solicitous End Notes form a hilarious Parthian shot of obliviousness, officiously trying to tidy up an enfolded narrative that’s going more and more happily off the rails. The saints’ lives continue to chime like bells, but in the narrative proper, three boys are meeting thieves, grifters, saints, and mercenary bullies; “I have no interest in somewhat prurient speculations,” our docent says, but in the story itself, John is telling us, “We were hungry and cold and lost, but we were joyous,” and he’s running up a wild mountainside with a pretty girl named Aude:

Rivers and streams and rocks the shape of patriarchs and dry river beds and harsh summer gorse and pale lonely flowers on lips of rock and waterfalls and all of it the mountains and my mountain girl. And we ran, tumbling, joyful, not knowing if the sounds we heard are the waters or the thunder on King Romulous’s summit, where the boys climb to die, or the sounds that our own bodies make in motion and glee, and the clouds around us like the fog of spirits, stones falling, something miraculous about our progress, occasions when I am running faster than I can believe is possible, and others when it is as if the two of us are entirely still, motionless, the only still point in the universe, and the world and the heavens are hurtling past us and spinning around us, and she told me not to have fear and never to slow, as we fall and roll and get up again, and tumbling and running always, always running.

Saints’ lives never read like that. John the Pupil is a smart, mint-cool delight.