David O. Scaer, Passacaglia. Roanoke, VA: The Fourteen Seventy.
Reviewed by Michael Evans, Delta College (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“You should never be king” King Louis VI of France tells his son at the beginning of David Scaer’s Passacaglia, “You have no sense of the arc of years“ (p. 5). Such an accusation could never be leveled at the author of this “Analytical Novel”. Scaer’s characters and storylines interweave and collide to illustrate how time is not a neat continuous thread but a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff. For example, Vincenzo Peruggia, the would-be patriot thief of the Mona Lisa, drags his loot in a brass-cornered case through the streets of Nice, streets named after Napoleon and his generals who Peruggia (falsely) believes stole La Gioconda from his beloved Italy. Peruggia’s tragi-comic journey is interweaved with vignettes from the life of king François I, patron of Leonardo and the man really responsible for bringing the painting to France. Leonardo proposes a series of ambitious engineering projects to François, who reluctantly turns them all down, as Peruggia embarks on his equally ambitious and equally fruitless odyssey to repatriate Leonardo’s greatest work to their shared homeland.
Scaer spins five distinct but interwoven threads, two of them medieval (although medieval themes and motifs also overlap into the modern and early-modern storylines): Havoise, wife of one of William the Conqueror’s thuggish knights-turned-lords (turned-abbot in the case of her husband Torsten, an unreformed cleric who brings the Gregorian reform to England at the point of a sword), creates the Bayeux Tapestry; Philip Augustus, son of that same, hapless Louis VII who has “no sense of the arc of the years” and who loses Aquitaine, obsessively plans to win the duchy and his father’s former wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, back for the crown of France; Peruggia embarks on his picaresque quest while Leonardo languishes at the court of François I; Vicus, an intellectual is adrift in modern-day France amid a failing marriage; and finally Vicus again, now recast as a lover, woos his beloved El. The image of weaving and threads seems particularly appropriate in the case of the Havoise, who when we last see her is literally wrapped in history as she returns from England to her native Normandy clothed in her tapestry (p. 510). The characters all share in the fanatical pursuit of a lover or a work of art (or both; Peruggia’s concern for his stolen painting matches the tenderness of a lover for his beloved). A recurring motif in the novel is George Santayana’s definition of a fanatic as “one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim” (p. 423). Scaer does not, however, condemn his characters for their redoubled efforts.
As the musical-themed title suggests, the novel’s strands are also linked rhythmically. French sonnets with English translations (both written by Scaer) introduce each section (there are no numbered chapters), adding their own 4-4-3-3 rhythm to the text. The numerical sequence 9-1-4-7-3-6 recurs like a musical motif, whether describing the number of islands in the Loire delta at Nantes, the mathematics of Leonardo’s engineering, or the registers of a window dedicated by Philip II at Chartres cathedral. The author describes this numerical pattern as a site-shifting algorithm, determining the transitions between the five narrative strands of the novel. The passacaglia (from Spanish pasa-calle – literally, walking along a street) accompanies the reader in the footsteps of Vicus through Nantes and Peruggia through Nice. Scaer has also written accompanying music, and the notation for one composition (“Conditur Alme Siderum”) appears in the book, where it is attributed to Vicus (p. 489). The relation between music and mathematics feels appropriate in a medievalist novel, given that the two disciplines were classed together in the quadrivium on the curriculum of medieval universities.
While Scaer emphasizes the fragility of the barrier between past and present, we are also made aware of the blurring of arbitrary national and geographical boundaries. The border between France and Italy is of utmost importance to Valois armies invading the peninsula and to Peruggia as he attempts to smuggle the Mona Lisa back to his (and its) homeland. Yet Vicus in the age of the European Union and the Schengen Agreement “had wandered over the border with Italy – and back – a few dozen times that year. It was no big deal. There was no wall, no fence, no nothing. No Italians with machine guns demanding his papers in one direction, no Frenchmen with machine guns in the other direction, either” (p. 28). Ironically, Peruggia barely notices the frontier when he reaches it; “It’s not like there’s a wall or anything before legal Italy starts … it’s not like they’re suddenly about to leap out, weapons drawn, as I Cross Over” (p. 449). Nice itself is barely French; originally Greek Nikaia, given to France only 21 years before Peruggia’s birth as payment for Napoleon’s III’s aid in the wars of the Risorgimento, it is today the place “where France and Italy rub their loins together” (p. 86). Seated in the city’s Italianesque cathedral of Sainte Réparate, Peruggia encounters a huge (French) tricolor and fantasizes about tearing it down (p.388). Nice is also the venue for his rendez-vous with partner-in-crime Guillaume Apollinaire; the Roman-born Apollinaire is an appropriately Franco-Italian figure to encounter in this hybrid border city.
The River Loire also plays an important role intersecting the different timelines. It flows through the Angevin lands that Philip Augustus covets, past François I’s palace at Amboise down to Nantes, where we first encounter Vicus in the city where land and sea, France and Brittany meet and blur together. Leonardo’s plans to divert the Loire as part of his grandiose architectural schemes on behalf of François are rejected as unrealistic by the king’s advisors, and we are reminded later that the movement of rivers’ courses must be the work of centuries, not of a single man: “empires rose and fell and rivers changed their course in their meandering way” (p. 433). Water is not the only element to cross the time-lines; fire destroys Chartres Cathedral in the twelfth century, and the Cathedral of Nantes in the twentieth, just the latest of a series of conflagrations from Viking invasion via World War II bombs. (A percentage of the price of each copy of Passacaglia is donated to the Amis de la Cathédrale de Nantes).
Geography is also central to Philip Augustus’ obsessive pursuit of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Like Prince Herbert’s father in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he is interested not so much in the woman herself as her “huge tracts of land”. As he lies with his wife Isabelle of Hainault, the young king thinks of territories and titles, “Aquitaine with her ammonitic peaks. Aquitaine with her rushing-grustling forests sighing. Aquitaine with her dappled Atlantic sands, her salt-capped waves and her dusty grapes ... Aquitaine and her Eleanor, that restless huntress who had besotted his slow, cold, dimwitted father … And he came, hot and freely” (p. 13). When he finally defeats and kills Richard the Lionheart at Château-Gaillard (the historical Richard died in the Limousin, fighting a rebellious vassal) Philip’s joy is almost sexual as he exclaims “Eleanor, you are mine” (p. 500). Eleanor never appears directly in the novel, but her presence is felt not only through Philip’s ambitions but in the modern love triangle between Vicus, his beloved El, and his rival Ricus, which recalls Philip’s father Louis VII’s loss of Eleanor (and Aquitaine) to Henry of Anjou; [Ludo]Vicus, El[eanor], [Hen]Ricus.
Scaer, a professor of French literature of Roanoke College, joins the ranks of academics who also engage in the writing of fiction (and, in Scaer’s case, of music and poetry also). His interdisciplinary background allows the author to adopt a more complex, playful, and multilayered approach to the past than is usually encountered in the sometimes tired genre of the historical novel. Like other academic-novelists such as Umberto Eco and Bruce Holsinger, Scaer strives not to reproduce the past as a Rankean “as it really was” – there are deliberate historical “errors” (improvements?), such as Philip Augustus killing Richard the Lionheart, and Peruggia and Apollinaire’s meeting in Nice – but to engage with how history is made, and how the past intersects with the present. Scaer’s work is complex without being baffling, challenging without being inaccessible, and intellectual without being pretentious. Readers with a background in the history, music, art or literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance will enjoy identifying the allusions and references, but those without such a background will still appreciate the novel for its strong characterizations, fine prose and poetry, and evocation of France.