Thursday, September 25, 2014

Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Chrisite - Book Review

Gutenberg's Apprencticeby Alix Christie (Harper, September 23, 2014, 416 pages,$27.99/13.59) accomplishes what an historical novel ought to. Christie's first novel takes the reader to the mid-fifteenth century German free city of Mainz, where Johann Gutenberg is feverishly seeking to perfect a the printing process and produce the first printed version of The Bible, knowing that his invention will change forever the balance of power between the Church and the rest of society. Christie successfully captures the broken society, the danger of life and death at the immediate point where the middle ages are about ready to give way to the Renaissance in northern Europe. The race to get The Bible published before Church officials find out about its imminent completion provides the framework for a human drama of enormous interest in a time fraught with tension and problems.

The novel begins as wealthy merchant bookseller and publisher Peter Schoeffer is telling the story of the first printed Bible and of Johannes Gutenberg to Abbot Trithemius at Sponheim Abbey in 1485, where the Abbott, noted as an important German humanist historian, is in the process of writing a biography of Gutenberg. In a series of interviews, Schoeffer tells his story to the aging, gentle Abbott. We first see young Peter Schoeffer as a scribe in Paris, dedicating his life to hand copying the sacred works of the church, when he's abruptly called home to Mainz by his stepfather Johann Furst to protect Furst's investments in Gutenberg's project as an apprentice to him. Upon seeing the press, he immediately interprets it as a blasphemy to replace the beauty and reverence attached to hand made manuscripts. As he learns smelting, print design, and pressman skills, Schoeffer brings his organizational skills and inventive genius to bear helping to improve on Gutenberg's primitive process and begins to see the possibilities of printing for making the Word available more widely. He comes to know and care for his fellow workmen and gradually earns their respect and friendship. Eventually, Gutenberg, always short of money and filled with wild ideas and new plans looks towards the next project, making Peter his foreman, placing him in the uncomfortable position of standing between Gutenberg's wildness and his stepfather's cautious investments in the project. Wound into the narrative is the charming love story of Peter Schoeffer and the beautiful and intelligent Anna, daughter of a tradesman that his father, Furst, sees as an unworthy in-law for Peter. Tensions and problems arise as the need to finish the Bible before it is discovered becomes essential.

Set in the late middle ages with the German Renaissance looming just around time's corner in mid-fifteenth century Germany, the story of the invention of the printing press and the production of the first printed Bible is ripe for the telling. The Catholic Church is a voracious, corruupt consumer of all the wealth produced everywhere, selling indulgences, which promise remission of sins in the afterlife, to support the lazy habits and huge organization that have developed over the previous 1000 years. Working men and their masters are divided into guilds which control all the crafts, limiting change and innovation. Constantinople has fallen to the Infidel and another Crusade threatens to draw all the able bodied men away to war, while plague is always near breaking out bringing death and loss. Aristotle is the source of the Church's idea of science, and all awaits two events: the printing press and Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation, still seventy-five years in the future, but internal and external reform in in the air. It's a roiling time of tumult amidst the conflict between the conservative Church, hierarchical society, and guild structure just waiting to be portrayed, and Alix Christie does an excellent job of bringing it to life.

Alex Christie

Alix Christie's was born in the Silicon Valley while it was still orchards, and grew up in California, Montana, and British Columbia. A move to New York state to attend Vassar College, where she was a Phi Beta Kappa philosophy major, led to Manhattan and a stint in advertising copy-writing. She returned home to pursue a masters degree in journalism at the University of California and has been a peripatetic reporter and writer ever since. Her articles and commentary have appeared in theWashington Post, International Herald Tribune, The Economist, The Guardian, Salon, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. She is the former editor of the Foreign Service of theSan Francisco Chronicle, a network of freelance foreign correspondents. While raising two children in the 1990's she earned a Masters of Fine Arts in fiction from St. Mary’s College of California. An earlier unpublished work was a semi-finalist in the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest, and her short stories have appeared in Southwest Review, Other Voices, and For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn: Six Words, Six Stories, Six Writers, a limited letterpress edition from Foolscap Press. Gutenberg'sApprentice, is her first novel.

Gutenberg's Apprencticeby Alix Christie (Harper, September 23, 2014, 416 pages,$27.99/13.59) is a first rate historical novel capturing the spirit of the times at both its spiritual and profane levels. The faith it took to undertake the project of developing printing and producing the first printed Bible is set against the ambition, greed, and competitive spirit of the age. Christie successfully captures these rivalries and conflicts in passages capturing the heat and pain as well as the beauty and ugliness of the society. The characters are solidly based in history, and the book kept sending me to Wikipedia to check on its general accuracy. I highly recommend this book to people seeking an engaging introduction to the period and the issues involved and those who like their history in a fictional format. Gutenberg's Apprenctice was provided to me by the publisher through Edelweiss. I read in on my Kindle.