21 October 2014

A Man Out of Time

Doctor Mirabilis
by James Blish

This review is prompted by my second reading of Doctor Mirabilis, which I first read when I was far too young to appreciate it or even understand it properly. Besides, I was expecting it to be science fiction (because it’s by James Blish) and was frightfully disappointed to find that it wasn’t.

This time, I could read it and appreciate it for what it is: an extremely well-written historical novel that transcends the genre in much the same way as the Thomas Cromwell books of Hilary Mantel. Blish’s work is not very like Mantel’s, but it has the same intellectual depth and gritty fidelity to the period being described. I re-read it with delight, finding it a far, far better book than I remembered it to be.

Doctor Mirabilis is easily synopsized. It is a fictionalized life of Roger Bacon, the great mediaeval scholar-monk and proto-scientist who was a contemporary of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, but whose interests and concerns were centuries ahead of theirs. Bacon’s life wasn’t very eventful: born to a landed family at Ilchester in Somerset, England, he became a student at Oxford. This was during the reign of Henry III, when England was racked by civil strife; while Roger was at Oxford, the Bacon family property was seized and his relatives driven into exile. Abruptly impoverished, he became a lecturer at Oxford and later at the University of Paris. He spent some time in Rome and later returned to Oxford. Late in life he was imprisoned for some years, but was released and died a free man. Blish has him locked up for supporting a movement for reform within the Franciscan Order, to which he belonged, but history is not actually very clear on this point.

In the novel, this plain tale is spiced with scenes of political manoeuvring involving Henry III, his advisors and his barons, in which Roger is briefly caught up through his protectors and sponsors Adam Marsh (de Marisco), Robert Grosseteste and Simon de Montfort. There is also a sideshow love story between Marsh and de Montfort’s wife, the king’s sister Eleanor. These sections are interesting in their own right but bear only peripheral relevance to the life of Roger Bacon.

It doesn’t sound like much of a story, but Blish makes it fascinating. He presents a resounding case for Bacon as a pioneer of science and pens a portrait of a difficult, combative, socially maladept but brilliant man who was sometimes his own worst enemy.

A word needs to be said about style. Blish does not commit the sin of gratuitous archaization (though he does indulge in some Middle English syntax at appropriate moments), but his style in this novel is fetchingly ornate. There are moments when it achieves real beauty, as for example in this passage:

Elsewhere the street was in its more usual state of evening irreverence. Overhead in one of the hostels, a poor thing which could have held no more than ten fellows and a master as poor as they, the dice were already rattling, for there were three baskets of waffles or rissoles hanging out the window, and some lucky socium had also thrown himself a sausage: there it dangled, with two cats hopelessly a-siege of it in the street, their spines stretched like mandolins, their fretted noses bumping speculatively against the empty burdened air. Roger’s belly twinged in sympathy, and he bought from the next p√Ętisser he saw in the street an eel pie which filled all the rest of his walk with a marvellous vapour of garlic and pepper...

However, be warned: there’s a lot of Latin in this book, even one or two whole paragraphs of the stuff. Translations are rarely provided.