The Parthenon was devised with the viewer in mind. What must have appeared a perfect façade to the naked eye, according to absolute measurements (each column appearing its sister’s twin) was, in fact, an optical illusion. To the sculptors and designers, perfection was not always to be found in precise mathematical similitude (although this played a major part), but in the appearance of such. For example, the figures depicted on what became the Elgin marbles seem to be of equal proportion at first sight, yet to measure them is to see the careful distorting of ‘actual’ perfection, in favour of sensory aesthetic ‘perfection’. The Parthenon wore its mask well.
Allan Massie has chosen a mask for this novel; or rather — he has chosen, for the main narrative thrust, a ‘double mask’. By setting himself up as the translator of a little-known work by Michael Scott, the ‘Wizard of the North’, tutor to Frederick II, Massie takes on the burden of two defined roles. First, the translator, who must be both careful of the original author’s intent and willing to minutely ‘distort’ the original to appear perfect to the eyes of his reader — Dryden’s ‘liberties’ with the Aeneid, for example, actually heighten, rather than subdue the original. Second, and most difficult, he has to create the literary persona of an educated thirteenth century scholar, widely considered heretical, who aims to tutor his royal pupil through the medium of a ‘Romance’ novel. This novel is set in the fifth century AD, the ‘twilight’ of the Western Roman Empire. For this task, an outstanding knowledge of the intellectual life of the Middle-Ages is needed, coupled with an ability to convey the thirteenth century scholar’s knowledge of the fifth century empire. To complicate matters further, Massie has added the marginal annotations of a member of the persecuted order of Knights Templar and a Rosicrucian scholar — a fourfold conceit. In order for this book to be successful, Massie has to create a literary illusion as precise as the architectural virtuosity of the Parthenon.
Marcus, our young hero, sets off to the Emperor Honorius’ court at the order of the Emperor, who has heard much of his nobility of spirit. A bastard, who nevertheless is reputed to be the son of the Archangel Gabriel, and is descended via his mother from Aeneas, the mythical founder of Rome, Marcus begins a perilous yet enlightening quest. On the way, he will meet love, danger and spiritual turmoil conveyed through the form of Romance allegory. The intention is that the Emperor Frederick should see the problems and virtues associated with power and nobility, via an entertaining romp through the ‘Dark Ages’. What follows, sadly, is an imaginative premise utterly deflated by Massie’s style.
The introduction, an ‘autobiographical’ account of his discovery of the text, aims at self-parody; it is the self-parody of man who cannot quite come to terms with the pose. The authorial style, too, is disturbingly hackneyed — too modern, too intentionally clever-clever to be believable. Nor can we blame this on the ‘translator’ persona: I have not yet read a Medieval text in which ellipses may be used as frequently as they occur here, even in a modernised translation. The handling of speech is also discomforting, as is the creation of Sir Gavin the Knight, a modern rugby lad transposed to the Middle Ages. It is also a worry that the Templar and Rosicrucian annotators are so pathetically banal, so utterly faux-philosophical in their comments, as to be mere parodies of intelligent men. Of course, Massie seems to titter, like the Oxbridge ‘wit’ he is — they’re a bit stupid, aren’t they?
More worrying still, is the utter absence of Augustine — the rock on which intellectual Christian scholarship is based. There is not one mention of the saint in the entire book, which is surprising since a major theme in the novel is corruption of the will; a reference to the Confessions is necessary in such an undertaking. There is, infuriatingly, no clear reference to the Byzantine empire (the eastern half of what was the Roman empire) which lasted, indeed flourished, until Scott’s time. Neither do Scott’s didactic comments to Frederick contain much intellectual gravitas: they are along the lines of ‘so you see milord, how temptation leads us astray’. Massie creates in his Scott something of a buffoon, a barely educated half-wit charlatan — not the man important enough to be sent to hell by Dante.
Of some concern is the stress on homosexuality and paedophilia (predictably linked), which is handled in such a schoolboy fashion. The implication is that Scott had his way with young Frederick, but the appearance is of Massie tittering (again) about ‘bum-bandits’ with his Oxbridge chums. It recalls Burgess’ Marlowe tiresomely approaching every stranger he meets with an, ‘I’m gay, don’t you know.’ Something of the middle-aged schoolboy is at play here, and it’s neither attractive nor funny when nearly every male character is so stereotypically lascivious. To be fair, the relationship between Marcus and his friend Lycas is handled touchingly; besides this Massie had done better to restrain his enthusiasm.
If the author’s intention was to ‘have a lark’, he should have written a wonderful allegory, unencumbered by his personae; the use of the four-fold authorial mask, by implication, suggests a deeper, though here unresolved, agenda. Massie is no stranger to the historical novel: his ‘Emperors’ quintet of novels is testimony to this. Why he continued with a conceit he so clearly struggled with (and failed to master) is a mystery — he may have wondered himself, as suggested by the rushed and truly terrible ending. An Arthurian cycle is intended to be the novel’s sequel, followed by one on Charlemagne … we can only hope Massie improves by then. No literary Parthenon: as far as Massie’s Michael Scott is concerned, it is surprising that the Emperor Frederick, the scourge of Popes, became anyone of worth at all.
Reviewed by Gregor Milne