Friday, April 26, 2013

Review: Voltaire's Calligrapher by Pablo de Santis

 Title: Voltaire's Calligrapher
Author: Pablo de Santis
Genre: Literary / Historical Fiction
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Released: 2001 (as El CalĂ­grafo de Voltaire)
Pages: 149

Rating - 8 out of 10

About Reading This Book
I read this book sitting one afternoon in a Barnes & Noble  near my house, which is now tragically closed, with a cup of cinnamon tea. After reading, I found a tiny lizard, smaller than a quarter, trapped in the rest rooms, and set it free outside.

Originally written in Spanish by Argentine author Pablo de Santis, this book is the story of a young man named Dalessius in 1700's France. From a young age, he is trained as a calligrapher, which later earns him a job working for the eccentric Voltaire.

This book was beautiful and intellectual. It is a book that you must pay attention to, and read carefully, as there are countless little details on every page that you would miss if only skimming. Essentially, these little details were what made this book so fascinating for me.

De Santis is a skillful, intricate writer who masterfully creates a vivid world by using a curious method. He gives the reader a strong impression that other lives and stories, besides the one that he is writing, are going on all around it. Little descriptors given for an unimportant individual, or a place, or an object, hint at there being so much more under the surface - other, unrelated stories that sound intriguing, but that he doesn't have time to go into.
The result is a very realistic, artful sense of setting that does not rely so much on a place as it does on the realistic presence of the people who inhabit it.

I just loved all of these little details and eccentricities, which were scattered over nearly every page. Most were unimportant to the story, but they added so much to it. They were the minuscule moments in the book that contributed beauty and a sense of cinematic-style art. Dalessius accidentally glimpses the face of a beautiful corpse in her coffin, a man tells us that he carries a withered enemies hand about with him wherever he goes. Kolm tells a story of accidentally executing his estranged father and giving up his job as a hangman afterward, students whisper rumors of an unspecified "cursed" word that they will punished for happening to write down. A man accidentally uses disappearing ink when writing a woman's execution document, so that when it is opened and found blank, the people take it as a sign from God, and she is let go. An actor becomes so well known for playing his role of a notorious local villain that he becomes hated himself. A man who lost three fingers setting off fireworks tells the tale with nostalgia, likening it to an honorable sort of battle wound. A traveler sees a woman on her deathbed and takes it as a sign, returning home to his wife and never leaving her side again. A maid is given a candle but is forbidden to light it, lest she waste her master's hoarded money. A sculptor finally finds his paragon model, a beautiful girl who can sit deathly still, but she disappears the next day, resulting in only a half finished sculpted head and his eventual suicide. A man writes using the blood of his enemies as ink....
And there were so very many more. None took up more than a few lines, which actually made them seem all the more realistic, allowing the reader to fill in extra details in their imaginations.

Another thing that I absolutely adored about this book was Dalessius' view on his trade as a calligrapher.
I think that what gave this book its literary, intellectual texture was the way that our main character looks upon his career. To him, it is more than just copying words in pretty handwriting.
He experiments with it and becomes obsessed by it, both hating and loving his trade all at once. He develops finesse and sophistication, even strategies that have to do with his techniques, his paper, his quills, and most importantly, his inks. He describes to us different methods, comparing some calligraphers to stonemasons. He uses describing words like "laceration" or "flow" for his writings.
As the book progresses, calligraphy becomes less of a study and more of an art to Dalessius, and finally, a philosophy.
He develops theories concerning his calligraphy, entertains deep-thinking notions and musings, all related to us with a light sort of sincerity.
I loved de Santis for what he created here. Truly, nearly any topic can be twisted into something intellectual if given the precision and philosophical, artful manner than he conjured up here.

The above is the essence of what I got out of this book and enjoyed about it. If none of that sounds like your type of story, you will probably not enjoy this book.
It does not have a specific outline of a plot, and yet neither is it a character-driven story. In fact, it would be a bit difficult to pinpoint exactly what the purpose and main story would be.
True to the title, Dalessius does work as a calligrapher and assistant to Voltaire, but not for a long enough time to be considered the main plot line. I loved the depiction of Voltaire as an eccentric, messy, quirky old man and wish that he had been focused on more.
Dalessius is in Toulouse for quite some portion of the book, which makes a less than favorable impression upon him (he stays in a filthy inn room and spends most of his time delving into the lives of hangmen, stories of grisly executions, and local tales of murders that are later glorified in plays).
Later in the story, he meets the fascinating clockmaker and mechanic von Knepper and his beautiful daughter Clarissa. Von Knepper's life's works are his life-size mechanic dolls, fashioned after Clarissa herself.

My one small complaint about this book would be that the author, or publisher, or someone really ought to included some actual calligraphy in this book! Even a pretty beginning letter at the start of each chapter would have been a lovely and relevant touch. Dalessius and de Santis make calligraphy sound gorgeous, and I wanted to see some examples! A few typical squiggles underneath the chapter numbers were included, but that was all.

All in all, this is a book as intricate and calculatingly artistic as Dalessius' calligraphy or as von Knepper's mechanical art. Though it was extremely short at only 150 pages, the author's shading of the story with detail and back-stories make it seem like a very long, complex book. This is a perfect example of beautiful, thoughtful writing.