Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ross King's Ex Libris

[a review]

Title: Ex Libris

Author: Ross King

Copyright: 2001, Penguin Books, paperback (ISBN 0-14-200080-9)

Length: 392 pages

Genre: Historical fiction/mystery

Summary: In 1660, in the wake of the restoration to power of the monarchy in England, Isaac Inchbold is summoned to Pontifex Hall by Lady Alethea Marchamont. The hall is a crumbling wreck following the depredations of Cromwell's soldiers, but rather than focusing her strengths on rebuilding, Lady Alethea is more concerned with the recovery of a specific volume taken from her father's library. Isaac, an asthmatic, near-sighted, lame bookseller, may strike one as a disconcerting choice for a satisfying protagonist, but he is dogged in his pursuit of the trail to locate the mysterious volume. He leaves his bookshop for the London underworld.

To further complicate the narrative thread, interwoven with Isaac's search, is a related series of events associated with the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1620. Running as a parallel subplot, the reader follows the journey of Vilem, a royal archivist, and lady-in-waiting Emilia in 1620 as they attempt to smuggle crates of material from the Emperor's library over land and sea to safety in England. The city of Prague has fallen and with the aid of Sir Ambrose Blessington (Lady Alethea's father), the books must be got safely out of the hands of the rebels for both state and religious reasons.

A trio of dark mysterious strangers, dressed in black and gold livery, emerge and recede in the story, further clouding the novel with a sense of espionage and subterfuge.

A recurring motif is a Latin phrase "Verba Volent; littera scripta manet". [Words fly away; the written letter abides] To my mind, the point of the story is indeed the preservation of human knowledge in the form of the written word, whether a book, a scroll, a palimpsest, etc. Another reference that frequently surfaced was Don Quixote -- a man who tries to operate in the real world according to what he has read of only in romances. Isaac must step beyond his safe world of books in order to find his way through a labyrinth of real-world schemes and plots.

The historical detail provided is extensive; what is missing is perhaps a guide to the early half of the seventeenth century. Reading this did prompt me to look up a variety of monarchs, events and subjects. Not since a freshman survey course in Western Civilization, have I had to rack my brain for specifics. Did Sir Walter Raleigh actually explore Guiana? What do I really know about Galileo? There was a revolution in Bohemia in 1620?


One of my earliest memories is of watching my father write. He was a scrivener, so writing was his profession., an affair governed by all sorts of precise and complex rituals. I can still picture him hunched as if in supplication over his battered escritoire, his hair hanging over his face, a turkey quill pivoting back and forth in his slender hand. In appearance, he was ,as I am, unimposing; a small man with dark garb and the morose worried eyes of a puffin. But to watch him at work was to marvel at the genius of the scribe's hand. I used to stand beside his desk, holding aloft a candle as he mixed his ink or trimmed his quills with a penknife as carefully as if performing the most delicate surgery.

Also Relevant
: As with so many books I have talked about on this blog, I find myself once again favoring one that is complex, requiring time and attention in order to fully savor the meaning. This book ought not to be approached as a casual read; King's story-telling skills aren't inclined to the simple and straightforward. Reviews of the book, when it was initially published, faulted him on that score. Characterization (except for the development of Isaac) is not particularly insightful or engaging. But King is writing more to make a point, rather than entertain. I believe his point is that cultures and history are shaped as much by what nations fail to preserve in libraries and books as by what is successfully archived and preserved. Time and again in this book, the recognition is that libraries represent arsenals of power.

Did I love this book as a "great read"? Nope. Nor would I offer this book to someone seeking a relaxing beach read. You probably ought not to approach Ex Libris, expecting "just" entertainment. The complexity serves a real purpose in discussing how we rip apart the fabric of human knowledge when we destroy libraries in wartime or burn books. If you give up at page 253, you won't engage with the author's intent. You have to make it to the very end to grasp the point King makes about the vulnerability of mankind's aggregated knowledge.