Taking Flight

Thomas Jones

  • The Justification of Johann Gutenberg by Blake Morrison
    Chatto, 259 pp, £14.99, August 2000, ISBN 0 7011 6965 6

Towards the end of And When Did You Last See your Father? (1993), Blake Morrison says:

Stand them up against grief, and even the greatest poems, the greatest paintings, the greatest novels lose the power to console. I used to think that solace was the point of art, or part of it; now it’s failed the test, it doesn’t seem to have much point at all. FICTION FICTION FICTION the shelves scream in bookshops. But to invent or be artful seems indecent to me now. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to imagine. The music of what happened is the only music in my head.

It’s hard, perhaps pointless, to talk about the ‘point’ of art, but one of the uses of stories, fictional or otherwise, is to provide a context that will help us to understand things for which we otherwise have no context. A few pages later Morrison says something in connection with his father’s will which would seem to endorse this: ‘The books here on my shelves have countless examples of similar behaviour.’

When Michael Ryan murdered 14 people in Hungerford in 1987 (and then killed himself), the idea was put about that he’d been motivated by watching Rambo videos. That someone could, apparently without motive, massacre strangers on the streets of a Berkshire town was incomprehensible; to describe it in terms of a violent Hollywood film made the atrocity not only less real but easier to understand. A video, too, was in some quarters said to be to blame for the killing of James Bulger in 1993. But once again, the willingness to accept this had to do with the extent to which Child’s Play 3 provided in the figure of Chucky a fictional precedent for Robert Thompson and Jon Venables: not an inspiration to the children, but an explanation of what they had done. Child’s Play 3 wasn’t the only story offered to provide a context for the killing: Andrew O’Hagan’s Diary in the LRB (11 March 1993), for example, provided a corrective to the point of view that Thompson and Venables were inhuman aberrations; even if the correspondence that followed soon retreated into an altercation about what Just William may or may not have got up to.

Blake Morrison’s As If, a study of the Bulger case, was published in 1997. The conclusions to be drawn from reading it are not particularly original: the boys should never have been tried in an adult court; children need – and too often don’t get enough – love, attention and supervision. The question that plagued Morrison throughout the trial, and that he keeps coming back to, is ‘Why?’ He doesn’t give an answer, but the book provides a context not for the killing itself, but for the incomprehension and powerlessness felt in the face of it by bienpensants like Morrison. Robert Thompson’s mother is criticised for giving the impression of feeling that she is the focus of the trial – there’s no evidence that she did feel this, it’s only an idea Morrison has as he looks at her sitting behind her son in the dock – but the focus of As If is undoubtedly Morrison himself. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this – the reviewer in the New Statesman praised him for turning ‘his appalled gaze inwards’ – but his self-absorption has some unfortunate consequences.

There’s an all too famous passage in the book in which Morrison describes in unashamedly erotic terms undressing his daughter. He goes on to say: ‘a child in my lap, being read to, and I find myself erect’. Elsewhere he informs us in detail of the ‘ritual’ of taking his sleeping son from his bed ‘to pre-empt his bedwetting’: ‘I set him down by the water, swing him round – still asleep – to face the bowl, pull his pyjama bottoms down and find his little prick in its dream-erection. His legs against the cold of the porcelain detumesce him, and I aim him at the centre, the line of pee hitting its target.’ What is objectionable about these passages is the fact of their publication. He agonises over the implications of his erection, but never pauses to consider the effect of writing about it. One of the many responsibilities of parents should be to respect their children’s privacy.

By the time he wrote As If, Morrison had already exposed his father in a similar way. He refers so often to the dying man’s genitals that at times it seems a more appropriate title for his memoir would have been ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father’s Penis?’ Morrison senior didn’t want friends to visit him in hospital; when he got home he boarded up the window in the front door. ‘To be stalled and stranded like this is bad enough; for others to see him in this condition ...’ It’s very hard to understand how Morrison can both have thought this and written the book in which the sentiment appears. And when Morrison reproduces not only his father’s medical records but a letter from his father’s lover which she makes perfectly clear is for his eyes only, it’s hard not to see And When Did You Last See Your Father? less as a memorial than an act of Oedipal revenge. In As If, Morrison asks: ‘what’s the point of fiction when it’s your own life in disguise?’ But it’s not just your own life, it’s other people’s, too; and it’s inappropriate, not to say unfair, not to take that into account. There are some things better left unsaid; or, if they have to be said, refracted through the protective lens of fiction.

And, at last, Morrison has turned his talents to novel-writing. Very little is known about the life of Johann Gutenberg; in his author’s note at the end of the book, Morrison says: ‘for much of this novel, I have had to make things up.’ If he hadn’t, it wouldn’t exactly qualify as a novel, but never mind. Gutenberg was born in Mainz round about 1400, and died in 1468. He lived in Strasbourg during the 1430s, where he probably took up printing; by 1448 he was back in Mainz, in partnership with Johann Fust, a goldsmith, and his famous Bible was completed c.1455. In that year Fust successfully sued him for debt, and took his equipment from him in lieu of payment. The record of this trial is the only extant document concerning Gutenberg which mentions printing.

In The Justification of Johann Gutenberg, the old man is living out his days in Eltville, a town on the Rhine, dictating his life story to a young scribe (and Morrison is at pains to point out the irony of the inventor of printing employing someone whose career he has made obsolete). It’s not a novel to read for page-turning thrills, because it doesn’t have much of a plot. Nor is it a novel to read for laughs. Morrison has clearly done his homework, but if you want to learn about the historical Gutenberg’s life and work, you could no doubt do a lot worse – I confess I haven’t read it – than turn to Albert Kapr’s biography, Johann Gutenberg: The Man and the Invention, translated by Douglas Martin, a source Morrison acknowledges.

The novel is the story of a man who fails at life – passing up on love, friendship, wealth and happiness (salvation would have been a more authentic aspiration, but then this is a 21st-century novel) – while coming up with ‘the greatest invention of the last millennium’. The idea that Gutenberg single-handedly ‘invented’ the printing press isn’t given much credence nowadays – at best he refined a number of existing processes to produce a flat-bed printing press employing reusable type (see Charley Seavey’s letter to the LRB, 1 June) – but that doesn’t really matter for the purposes of the novel, the dynamic of which is dependent on the tension between his flawed character and his role as the founding genius of modernity. But the tension isn’t there, regardless of doubts about the overarching importance of the printing press (in The Nature of the Book, published earlier this year, Adrian Johns argues that the ‘printing revolution’ was the ‘retrospective creation’ of 18th-century historians of the press).

Morrison’s Gutenberg isn’t even interesting, let alone sympathetic. He loses Ennelina, the love of his life, not because he’s devoted to his work but because her mother takes him to court and he’s determined to get the better of the old woman. Gutenberg never intends to repay the money Fust has lent him – he’s gleeful at the thought of cheating his partner out of a very substantial amount of cash – and it’s hard not to feel he gets what he deserves when Fust finally sues. Offsetting all this is the story of Gutenberg’s invention, which he first imagines in a naff vision, the 15th-century equivalent of Bill Gates’s computer on every desk: ‘As I stood with my hand raised, it was as if the dove that perched there spreading its wings had become an open book. And the dove departing from me was like a book taking flight. And the grain the dove held in its beak was like a kernel of knowledge seeding itself through the world.’ So Morrison proceeds, stumbling between misanthropy and sentimentality, and anyone hoping for a bit of warm-hearted cynicism can whistle for it. After describing how he has lost everything, Gutenberg asks his scribe: ‘Was that a tear, Thomas? If I had eyes to study your writing, would I find that last line blotched? Perhaps my readers, if there should be some, will weep as well.’ He should be so lucky; Morrison’s not so deft at conjuring emotion when he’s unassisted by what he in And When Did You Lost See Your Father? calls the ‘frisson’ of knowing that ‘the people captured here are real.’ What may or may not have been ‘real’ about the historical Gutenberg isn’t captured here, partly because the work isn’ta ‘real’ document.

In an ill-advised bid for authenticity, Morrison turns to the grating diction you might expect to find on the menu of a pub in Stratford-upon-Avon: women aren’t pregnant, they’re ‘heavy with child’, even if ‘enthusiasm’ has the modern godless meaning it picked up in the 18th century. (Anyone interested in reading a modern novel set in the Middle Ages that’s written with any intelligence should read The Name of the Rose. And if you’ve already read it, read it again rather than struggle through this.)

The conceit of having the text dictated to a pair of scribes is more trouble than it’s worth. The first boy is called Anton, and the story is littered with implausible interruptions such as this: ‘Forgive me, Anton. It is not my intention to speak ill of scribes. Even with my poor eyes, I can see how fine your hand is.’ The digressions get even more ridiculous when Gutenberg starts to fondle the boy: ‘Why, even as I dictate these words I have laid my hand on his thigh, which he seems to find a rhythm that aids the work, my fingers gently urging him on as he strokes my thoughts across the page. I think he likes it – deny it Anton, if you dare – and why not?’ Towards the end of the ‘manuscript’, we learn that Anton’s mother has removed him from Gutenberg’s service because she doesn’t approve of the physical side of their relationship. There’s also a passage written by Gutenberg himself while Anton has a snooze – and who can blame him? Five pages from the end of the novel, Gutenberg gets a pair of spectacles, one of the many inventions mentioned in the novel – zero is another – which are near contemporaneous but of course inferior to the printing press. He looks over some earlier pages of the manuscript and discovers to his horror that Anton wasn’t a reliable scribe, ‘I find many a word has been missed out, so that the meaning is hard to unpick. Worse, far worse, are sentences – whole passages even – that have been added, with words of mine I surely never spoke.’

So: not only is Gutenberg not to be trusted because of his faulty memory and self-mythologising, but this might not be his story at all, it could be Anton’s; or maybe someone else altogether has made the whole thing up – Blake Morrison, for example. It’s hard to see this gets us anywhere, except to long for a novelist who doesn’t think that to have an unreliable narrator – just for the hell of it? – is a pretty neat idea. The historical Gutenberg didn’t stamp his name on the Bibles he printed, and his story potentially raises interesting questions about authorship and authority, but in trying to present his narrator’s monologue as a written text Morrison gets hopelessly entangled.