|Oct/Nov 2003 Book Reviews|
In the most recent issue of Eclectica, Kevin McGowin publicly asked my opinion and response to Edward Docx's novel The Calligrapher in a not-so-brief notice in his Briefly Noted review section. Without going into what I suspect may be the reason(s) for his doing so, I suppose it should suffice to remark that I am indeed familiar with both the novel and with John Donne's fifty-five Songs and Sonnets, which cleverly if sometimes reductively serve as the skeleton on which the probably not-too-substantial flesh of the novel is supported. But answer his implied challenge I shall.
Dr. McGowin grants that he rather likes the book—he should, as its protagonist is not glaringly dissimilar to himself, especially in Kevin's younger years, a point he willingly concedes with something of the relish with which Docx's transparent protagonist, Jasper Jackson, reports the intricacies of preparing for yet another conquest.
However, I don't think the reader, male or female, is intended to like Jasper much, any more than one might like one of Donne's cynical "speakers." To give credit where it's due, Docx indeed does illuminate Donne's text through both plot and through the voice of Jackson, the "calligrapher" of the title, who throughout the course of the novel's events is at work on a laborious edition of his own selection of thirty of these poems for the mistress of a wealthy American businessman. In the process, the calligrapher has insights into both Donne's work and what he sees as his own parallel situation. For the literature instructor attempting to enlighten young contemporary students to the Songs and Sonnets, then, the assigning of this novel in tandem with the other course readings would not be at all misguided.
Docx draws his characters so large, in fact, and makes so much of the intricate details and meanings of the Donne poems, that on consideration one wonders if they are simply a kind of surreal "device"; moreover, the novel opens in a gallery of modern art. A perfectly valid reading of the novel might hold that the entire action takes place, as it were, inside Donne's great poetic sequence, or between its lines, with its characters merely acting out the verities of the timeless tensions implicit in each singular poem. It is the dramatization of a poetic conceit.
Docx's narrator takes care to articulate the differences between the poems, and even within the tone of a single poem; he also anticipates the novel's surprise ending in noting that some of Donne's speakers are indeed women. The timelessness and universality of the poems is underscored by the calligrapher's coming to see them as a "cycle"—where McGowin smells Suskind's Perfume (the introduction of which, ironically, is a replication of Dr.McGowin's beloved Dickens' opening of Bleak House), I see Bach's Goldberg Variations, or the Jungian ourorboros (snake with tail in mouth).
While to continue along the lines of these observations, or "takes" as McGowin has it, would certainly be amusing, such would end up as a thesis, ruining the novel for those who wish to read it. Those who admire Donne certainly should, and the aspects of The Calligrapher that deal with his poetry are indeed often fun, as it is to see what happens to Jasper Jackson. But having responded to Dr. McGowin's shout-out to me, I should like to point out that neither am I the last word, God forbid; I'd love for someone else to read the novel and the poems with a different take, and to hear from her as well, perhaps in this forum.
Finally, though, this novel does, perhaps, succeed in illuminating Donne's work and in underscoring at least one difference between men and women: and at least McGowin, like Donne, has had the sense to defer, lest he end up in the Vertigo of Edward Docx's calligrapher.