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The Confraternity of Times Lost Regained Will Now Come to Order

By (April 1, 2008) No Comment

All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well

By Tod Wodicka
Pantheon Books, 2007

As a medievalist, I’ve often wondered why seemingly normal Americans dress up in pseudo-accurate period garb and pretend to be wenches, blacksmiths, and mead-brewers. Rather than helping me understand the impulse that drives people into tights and onto the beer-scented grounds of medieval and renaissance fairs, my own historical training in the late-fourteenth century has made me view these festivals with even more bafflement. Who would want to live in medieval times? Lice? Farming your own food? Plagues? In fact, I still feel irritation whenever a cocktail-party acquaintance assumes that I wear muslin and corsets in my spare hours. Why do people think medieval research has a dress-up component? You don’t see eighteenth-century scholars in enormous wigs.

Long after I started my Ph.D. in medieval literature, I decided to put aside my own prejudices for an afternoon and attend the medieval festival in Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan. I found wand shops, roasted turkey legs, and a jousting tournament, and there was nothing vaguely medieval about the event. It was the cultural equivalent of Las Vegas’s Excalibur casino—everyone there wanted to live in a highly stylized fairy tale. A few participants may have been trying to recreate the past, but I couldn’t tell the difference between them and the avid Lord of the Rings fans. Still, riding home from the fair tipsy and slightly sunburned, I understood the appeal of wearing a costume and pretending to be someone else for a summer afternoon. Sure, historical accuracy had been sacrificed for the sake of life-affirming, escapist fun, but who’s to say that’s not a great way to pass the time? As these “lords” and “ladies” imagine the distant past, they escape their own past mistakes and unromantic presents for a few hours.

Tod Wodicka’s endearing Burt Hecker (medieval identity: Eckbert Attquiet) in All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well believes in the right of people to live, play, and most importantly re-enact in whatever manner they see fit:

I have never had a problem with the concept of medieval re-enactment. In fact, many believe that I actually invented it. The world is riddled with far worse activities and I altogether refuse to even feign embarrassment.

For Burt, a sixty-something bald man with a big, misshapen nose, the act of pretending to be someone else in another time is no less than a calling—he feels most comfortable as affable mead-brewer (and drinker) Eckbert; to his continuous disappointment, however, he isn’t able to live in the past all of the time.

When I encountered this character in the first pages of All Shall Be Well, I imagined that the book would be a Confederacy of Dunces-like farce with an older version of Ignatius J. Reilly holding court—a character so ensconced in his medieval worldview that he can barely function in the current century. In some ways, my first impression was correct: Wodicka presents Burt as a character who wears tunics made of period-appropriate materials and refuses to eat OOP (Out of Period) french fries because potatoes weren’t readily available in Europe in the Middle Ages.

As the plot continues, though, it becomes clear that Wodicka respects Burt Hecker enough to give him the self-awareness and insight to reflect on his own obsessions as well as his own century. In this, the book decidedly steps away from the broad comedy that typified Confederacy of Dunces—Burt Hecker isn’t a deluded individual presented for the reader’s amusement; on the contrary, he often seems like the only person who is fully aware of the emotions and circumstances surrounding him. For example, when Burt visits Europe for the first time at the beginning of the novel, he makes a series of wry, detached observations about the modern world:

The Germans – who had something of the sad, silent delicacy of gorillas – planted their homes inside manias of flowers. I’d no idea that Europe would be like this…. Did they take summers off, I wondered; did they get to stop being Germans for a few months, time off for good behavior? If so, who pruned the shrubs?

Burt has travelled to Rudesheim, Germany in order to help an organization of female chanters re-enact the early days of Hildegard of Bingen, who (starting in 1106 at the age of eight) was a member of an religious anchorage; as an anchorite, young Hildegard would have shown her devotion to God by enclosing herself in a stone cell with only a single window to the outside world. But even as Burt zips up his re-enacting compatriots in tents to give them a sense of Hildegard’s confinement, the real reason for his European trip slowly comes to light. He has travelled abroad after selling his house and possessions to reconnect with his estranged and beloved son, Tristan.

Wodicka interlaces the story of Burt’s quest to find Tristan with stories of the Hecker family in the years leading up to the death of Burt’s wife Kitty two year prior—as Burt gets closer to Tristan’s present location (travelling from Rudesheim to Prague), the reader learns about the past events that separated the father from his son. Usually in a quest narrative the reader feels hopeful anticipation at the prospect of the forthcoming reunion, but Wodicka’s method of relating the history of the family as he traces Burt’s journey makes the reader more and more doubtful that any kind of reconciliation will be possible. So even as Wodicka writes comic scenes and observations portraying Burt’s semi-detachment from the modern life, the bulk of All Shall Be Well recounts the melancholy story of a father’s disconnection from his children. Based on the other reviews of this novel, I had hoped for a light, funny read detailing the life of one of the re-enactors that I had encountered at the Fort Tryon medieval fair—instead I encountered a meditation on death and the resulting trauma it wreaks upon a family. Although Wodicka leavens his devastating story with witticisms, amusing asides, medieval trivia, several well-wrought characters, and quickly-paced prose, I would hardly call this an example of escapist literature. It’s not a day at a medieval fair, even though it depicts one.

The gulf between Burt and his children becomes apparent in a particularly poignant (yet funny) scene on the road to Prague. Burt, acting on the suggestion of his cosmopolitan best friend and lawyer Lonna Katsav, calls his daughter June from a pay phone to inform her that he has sold the family’s Victorian B&B, left all of his worldly possessions behind, and gone on a one-way trip to Europe. June, however, never receives the desperate information. Burt has never been able to communicate with his resentful daughter (who has always balked at the “abnormality” of medieval re-enactment), and he chooses the worst moment to call her. June happens to be in the bathroom crying over the departure of her cheating husband when her father calls, and Burt himself is in the worst environment for a heartfelt conversation—a seedy German strip club. (Why is he there? His travelling companion, Max Werfel, an indecipherable Brazilian dermatologist has dumped him there on the road to Prague. Too frequently, Wodicka inserts quirky characters for the sake of being quirky.) Burt, as in most situations, is drinking, so the phone conversation takes place between a daughter who can’t hear because she is overwhelmed by her own life and an intoxicated father who is overwhelmed by twentieth-century noise:

‘She won’t come out of the bathroom.’
There is the click of another phone being picked up. The bathroom phone, I assume, remembering that in California nothing is sacred….
‘June,’ I say. ‘I’m at a strip club.’
Dad—’ and she laughs. I can’t recall the last time I made my little girl smile even. Moreover, since childhood, she’s rarely called me anything but ‘Burt’.
.…She’s separated from her husband Jack, she tells me, and soon to be divorced. She begins to talk quickly, then angrily, and then she weeps. I cling to the phone.…Injuries are listed and injustices related—possibly savored. June’s perennial garb of woe. Everything is bad, everything has always been bad, and it’s still somehow my fault. Chastisements, maledictions, sobs: I helplessly listen, trying to get a foothold somewhere in my daughter’s emotional vortex. I want to help her. Here is my chance to help her, I think.
She says, ‘Dad, we’re coming back home.’
She falters, ‘Dad? Is—so is that cool with you?’
What?’… ‘I’m not coming home,’ I say. ‘End of Discussion.’ June’s dead mother hangs in the air, filling the silence. They’ve identical silences, June and her dead mother.
‘Of course you are,’ June says.
I cannot possibly tell her, not yet. … I can hardly believe a place like California exists. June is pleading with me from outer space. I look at my bottle of Bohemian wine, now serving as a spa for insects. Endowed with reason, I prefer folly. Shall I tell her that my follies are all I have left? I am going to be ill.
‘Dad, please, For once in your life,’ my daughter says, sobbing. ‘I need help, Dad. I need help. I hate it here. I want to come home.’
For once in my life? I back away. I stand there, colored lights swooping down and picking at me like seagulls. I’ve hung up the telephone –I stare at it. Is it ringing? Something is ringing. Why is everybody dancing? I wonder as I stumble towards what is presumably an exit. Why is everyone dancing to that terrible ringing?

Wodicka’s achievement in scenes like this is in eliciting sympathy for Burt even as he inadvertently hurts and misunderstands his own family. What really happens in this scene? Burt sells his daughter’s childhood home, calls her while completely drunk, and then hangs up on her as soon as she reaches her most desperate note. Insensitive father, right? But no, in Wodicka’s telling, Burt is one under attack by June’s “chastisements, maledictions, sobs”—she demands everything from a man who has nothing to give. Burt’s desperation and emptiness following the death of his wife leaves him incapable of interacting with his children, let alone supporting them, and June behaves callously for not recognizing that she is replaying (once again) the role of discontented daughter and casting her father in the role of “bad parent” even as he hits bottom.

“Re-enactment,” and its ability to bring the past events into the present, therefore, becomes a leitmotif throughout All Shall Be Well. Burt, Tristan, and June seem doomed to re-enact their old family roles ad infinitum after the death of Kitty—the children have no sympathy for the father who embarrassed them with his Confraternity of Times Lost Regained and who essentially abandoned them to cope with their mother’s death alone. Burt drank homemade mead to excess, dove into his medieval persona, and wallowed in grief beside their mother’s bed—he did not help the children run the B&B or talk to them about the cancer taking away their mother’s body, if not her memory. To Burt’s despair, by the end of his journey to Prague, he doubts that he’ll ever be able to understand or bond with his children ever again:

Families are historical things. You have to believe in them for them to be real. They have precedent, they repeat themselves, they have a million points of view and they never stay the same, even after they happen. If you can prove they happened at all. But they’re always happening and you’ll never understand them: you can dress up, re-enact, but you’ll never get to the heart of them, of how they are when they are what they are. It is too terrible to contemplate. The brevity of life, the delusions, all that delusional thinking that adds up to a single, useless, personal reality; and I suddenly crave my tunic, the safety of a medieval re-enactment. The ritual of it. I don’t know these people and I never will.

Although the book ends on a slightly more hopeful note than the one above, the reader realizes that any forgiveness between the family members will only come about slowly and painfully.

Wodicka juxtaposes this curse of family re-enactment—a father, son, and daughter unable to communicate in the present due to their inability to set aside their shared past—with dazzling scenes detailing the pleasure and delight afforded by Burt’s medieval re-enactments during the time when Kitty was dying of cancer. Although Tristan and June still resent the especially eccentric retreats from reality that Burt took back then, his medieval re-enactments provided solace to Kitty as well as Burt during her dying days. On the night of the annual Confraternity of Times Lost Regained medieval fair, which takes place on their family’s B&B grounds, the hymns of Hildegard of Bingen bring the husband close to his suffering wife:

The music was timeless though, beneath the heavens, beneath light which had just started its journey towards us when Hildegard had left her anchorage and begun composing music, or so I wished to believe—because, really, what did I know about anything? The bonfire crackled and sang along. My grandson half asleep in my arms. I looked up at my wife’s window. Kitty was awake, listening; and, more than that, I knew she was happy. There was a candle in her window. I knew at that moment that we were together, and that we would be together. Tivona’s singers transcended any idea of history.

And later that night, Burt plays the role of a knight saving his lady from the tower—only the tower, in this case, is a sick room. Because Tristan and June believed that Burt had become a drunken, grief-ridden danger to their mother, they locked him away from her. Role-playing allows Burt to reincarnate his and Kitty’s healthy youths, if only for a few moments—the cancer-ridden present dissolves away because Burt hearkens to the past:

Reaching the level of the Siege Tower adjacent to Kitty’s window, I took out a small hammer…. And I broke the window…. The window, of course, had been unlocked in the first place. I could have simply opened it. But no matter, I thought. I’m old, the house is old, old people break things, and what’s done is most certainly done. Besides, I enjoyed smashing the window in, giving my transgression some outward, measurable shape. I was serious. I would break the world for Kitty. Carefully, I put half of my body into the dark nothing of the room, the front half, leaving my legs and posterior sticking out of the window like one of those people-trumpets that Hieronymus Bosch’s demons tend to blow. Using all the force I could muster, I kicked the Siege Tower over. Now none could follow me…. I took off my tunic and stood naked. I felt strong, young. I was young. I was strong. My heart beat wonderfully. I got into bed with my wife…. There was no cancer. I saw it all so clearly. There was only Kitty, my wife. There had never been any cancer, not really. In the dark, she was what she’d always been and always would be. Together we were something else.
‘Finally,’ she whispered.

Fun details like Burt breaking the window despite its already being unlocked and the comparison to a Hieronymus Bosch painting keep the novel from becoming too maudlin or contrived—though I must admit that I got a bit tired of the author visiting and re-visiting the theme of re-enactment; it’s a good metaphor, but I almost felt that Wodicka made Burt Hecker a medieval enthusiast simply because the re-enactment angle provided a clever way to address family, alienation, and death. Clever indeed, but there’s a fine line between activating a metaphor and hitting a reader over the head with it multiple times. For example, the novel begins by relating the history of Hildegard of Bingen, which is then re-enacted by a group of American chanters visiting Rudesheim. When Burt first sees Tristan in Prague, his son is playing a song by Hildegard of Bingen. Burt and Kitty listen to Hildegard of Bingen’s music as Kitty dies. Finally, Hildegard reappears in Burt’s thoughts at the end of the novel, which finds Burt sitting alone in a dark corridor of his son’s apartment building: “And I feel as though I am little Hildegard, alone in her anchorage, hearing the monks sing their daily offices.” But by this point the imagery has outworn its welcome. There’s an inelegance in constantly calling up Hildegard’s name, as though Wodicka doesn’t trust that his readers can make the connection themselves.

It’s with this theme of re-enactment that Wodicka can’t leave well enough alone: Burt re-enacts medieval times; rebellious June was once a “Trekkie” (or Star Trek re-enactor); Anna Bibko, Kitty’s ever-present mother, wears Polish folk clothes in upper state New York, re-enacts the daily life of her native Lemkovyna village, and lectures on its destruction at the hands of Communists; descriptions of Kitty’s last days are interwoven with scenes of the death of her great-grandfather so that her death seems like a re-enactment of his. The concept is employed so repeatedly in the narrative that it begins to overshadow the characters and their conflicts.

Even so, the characters remain memorable, and none more so than Burt Hecker who is sympathetic, humane, and real. I’ve already forgotten most of Wodicka’s devices and digressions, but I remember Burt’s funny remarks, his tenderness towards his wife and children, and most especially his joyful embrace of things past:

The candlelight, the sound of medieval masticating, belching, shouting, roaring. The players, flatterers, fawners, talebearers, minstrels, and the jongleurs spinning fourteenth-century political satires. The laments and the Dawn Songs. It was a magnificent feast.

Sharon Fulton is a PhD candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about the role of animals in the literary dream-visions of the late fourteenth-century.

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