Monday, June 09, 2008
The Floating Book
Our book today is Michelle Lovric's lush and utterly confident first novel The Floating Book, which takes its readers to the very beginnings of print culture by taking them to 1468 Venice, where Wendelin von Speyer and his assistants Bruno Uguccione and Felice Feliciano have just set up the city's first printing press - which is revolutionary enough, but their choice of printing matter only increases the tension between themselves and the city's ruling councils: they've chosen a first edition of Catullus, whose Lesbia poems, some of you may recall from school, are raw and scandalous. As the inevitable controversy erupts, so too does an intense love triangle between Bruno, Felice, and a mysterious woman named Sosia.
Lovric interweaves this story with the story of Catullus himself (printed in a different font; as befits a book about the birth of Venetian printing, The Floating Book is gorgeously and variedly assembled), and it's impossible to judge which portions of the book are better: both 15th century Venice and 1st century b.c. Rome come marvelously alive through Lovric's talent. In the case of the former, tossed-off descriptions are brought home with one or two perfectly chosen adjectives:
The clouds had parted in front of them all the way back to Venice. By the time Lussietta and Wendelin set foot in Mestre, the warm rain had evaporated, leaving the streets shining with puddles dizzy as shaken mirrors.
And in the case of the latter, Catullus' tortured love for Clodia, his 'Lesbia,' is followed through all its painful stages, as is his terror that all the poems into which he's poured his heartache, all the work he's created in his short life, might one day amount to nothing:
I know all too well the way these things go. Ignominious destinies meet some of the best books ... after languishing overlong in the storerooms of the booksellers they're sold off by weight to the grocers and bakers to wrap pastries and spices or to line barrels in which cereals are stored, or theyre sent to the butchers where they're wadded around sanguineous cuts of veal and the lolling heads of tiny songbirds impaled on sticks. There are so many ways for a poet and his poems to lose their immortality - even while he's still alive! I walk past the butchers and bakers, whistling, but in my heart I dread to see my own work embrace their wares one day. Yesterday I saw one of Caelius's poems flapping like a tunic round a fine mackerel, and smiled for the first time in weeks.
Of course, to those modern-day readers familiar with Catullus' textual history, his worry in this passage is only the more ironic, for we have him today through the survival of only one manuscript - he came that close to being fish-wrapping and only fish-wrapping.
Lovric's book has everything in it for the reader tired of thin, jaded prose and flimsy plots. The old Venice and much older Rome it evokes are each perfectly rendered, and the storylines in each are very satisfyingly intertwined and counterbalanced. And as an added little bonus, each chapter is headed by an English rendering from Catullus. Since the book nowhere attributes them, we have to assume they're Lovric's own, and some of them are quite good:
You have forgotten.
But the Gods remember
and so does the Truth.
It's the truth that will make you sorry
for everything you did, and everything you do.
We here at Stevereads whole-heartedly endorse The Floating Book; it's an extravagant example of historical fiction done right.