The Calligrapher by Edward Docx
It took me awhile to get into this book and no blurb or review adequately prepared the way. The intro about the Titivillus, the Devil of Calligraphy, was clever but a bit silly, and only in the most backhanded way provided an introduction to the book--though when I think about it it may signal the reader not too take this story of love and revenge too literally.
I’ve been thinking of who to recommend this book too—because I really liked it—and concluded that mostly likely someone who’s read Donne’s love poetry, maybe even someone who actually likes to read 17th century poetry and understands the “conceit” (noun meaning “a fanciful idea” or “an elaborate or strained metaphor”). That’s a purposefully strained metaphor, one so outrageous as to seem laughable had not the author proven its validity—and then both appropriate and comic. The most famous conceit—the one used in textbooks to illustrate the tradition—comes from Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” (one of many love poems quoted in Docx’ text):
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
What could be more unlike than two lovers and the little metal compass you put in your school box in about the third grade? And yet Donne works it out beautifully. The lovers are like the two sides of the compass that move together and when far apart stretch to keep the one point of contact. Donne intends the sexual overtones too, with words like “stiff” and “erect”. And the fact that a compass was an important tool of navigation must not escape us.
The book is, in a way, about Donne’s love poetry: each chapter begins with a quotation and interspersed is serious analysis of several of the poems. The protagonist, Jasper Jackson (sounds like Jasper Johns, doesn’t it? who is also known for making lettters) is a calligrapher working on a job to copy 20 Donne love poems for a NY media mogul who plans them as a gift. More important though, the plot is not unlike a Donne love poem: playful, sexy, witty, clever, ambiguous, above all, artificial. Wit and humor hiding truths difficult to articulate without sentimentality.
The surface story must been seen as an artifice, itself a conceit, not be be confused with realism. It’s a clever book and I enjoyed it. I can imagine readers going on to read more Donne and other 17th century poetry as a result. Not a bad outcome. I'll look for Docx' next novel.