Stumbling with Gower

I finished Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book about a month ago or so, and I meant to write an immediate blog post/review. But, as with so many things, time slipped away with me barely noticing it. It has a habit of doing this, time. I’m comforted, though, by the fact that I think Holsinger’s John Gower would be sympathetic to my angst-filled relationship to time. At the very end of his book, Holsinger writers (from the perspective of Gower):

Outside the customhouse I stood on the wharfage, watching the slow, careful movement of the Goose as it craned a pile of wool from the dock. On the decks of the trading vessels, workers toiled at the crates and barrels of goods brought to London from around the earth, from the looms of Lyon, the vineyards of Alsace and Tuscany, the olive groves of al-Andalus, and there, on the river’s edge of London, with the low bulk of Southwark rising before me, with the dense span of the bridge against the sky, I felt the unboundedness of it all. A history I would never fully understand had passed me by, these great machinations linking Florence, London, the marches of Aragon and Castile— and the narrow lanes of Southwark, and a dead woman on the moor.

Gower is thinking about the events of the story in which he had just played a part, refracted through the sights of the city that only fitfully acknowledged these events. On one hand, he’s watching the every day movements of London–goods moving about, people toiling, the steady movement of the water. On the other hand, there is something awesome at work, something overwhelming. Gower feels “the unboundedness of it all.” This unboundedness, of a time that sweeps us up and yet escapes our apprehension is there in the steady movement of the boats that bring goods from Tuscany and al-Andalus. Time is a river, and we don’t risk drowning in it because we’re already submerged.

Unsurprisingly, I loved this book. If I had to try to sell someone on this book, I’d say “Come for the prophecies, intrigue, and machinations of fourteenth-century England, but stay for the mundane, for the everyday, and for the restless heartbreak of its characters.” Not every character ends the novel as the victim of tragedy, but it’s there gnawing at the margins of everyone’s life nonetheless. These are characters who are peripatetic in their movements across, within, and outside of London, but that’s nothing compared to the unboundedness of their inner worlds. Greenblatt be damned.

Perhaps the most frustrating word for medievalists in the past few years is “swerve,” taken from the title of Greenblatt’s book. I won’t rehearse the argument here, except to say that Greenblatt’s (by now) repetitive thesis imagines history as a movement from an abjected, static, stultifying Middle Ages to a Modernity where we are fully realized selves. Miraculously, for Greenblatt, we swerved out of the darkness and into the light. One of the most intriguing parts of Holsinger’s book, then, is his reclamation of the term “swerve” in the body and character of Eleanor/Edgar Rykener:

Swerver. And that’s what I am, like it or not. A man in body, a woman in soul. One day a he, the next a she, a stiff cock for some, a tight arse for others. Provided they could pay, Eleanor would do all and be all for her loyal jakes, and she had plenty who liked taking it and giving it every which way. Sometimes as a man, sometimes as a woman, sometimes as both at once, though that could get complicated. Why, just last week there was this gongfarmer, big-muscled and hairy as you could like, but get him in the stall and he starts to–

Eleanor is, for me, the most compelling character in the book. Her story is both extraordinary and yet so painfully ordinary. She lives a life that many would choose to ignore (even when enjoying its fruits) and her story intersects repeatedly with the goings-on of the elite and the powerful, but still hers is (at its center) a story of someone trying to save a sibling from an abusive situation. In Holsinger’s hands, “swerved” becomes a term of pathos, but also a sign of our wounded identity–it’s first an insult hurled at Eleanor/Edgar, but it is also a term that captures her mobile and flexible identity, and I would suggest it points to a similar existential state for so many others. Gower and the Fonteyn sisters might not be transvestites, but their lives are similarly mobile, unbounded, and at times alarmingly unmoored–they reside in so many places but find themselves not quite at home all too often.

At the very end of the novel (don’t worry, no spoilers here), Gower buys a pigeon pie, finds it to be rotten, and he slips on a loose paving stone. These are comic and absurd details, intrusions of the everyday in the face of the epic sweep of history. More to the point, though, these intrusions, these haptic happenstances are everything:

We live in an immense world, whole universes of taste and touch and scent, of voices commingling in the light, and dying away with the common dread that stands at every man’s door. Yet we perceive and remember this world only as it creates those single fragments of experience: moments of everyday kindness, or self-sacrificing love, or unthinkable brutality. I angled my face to the sun and blinked away a spot, then another, these dark blemishes floating in my sight, mottling my vision, more of them by the day.

I’m looking forward to the sequels — there is a lot more plot that seems looming, and I love the intricacies of such stories. But mostly, I want to stumble along with Gower and Eleanor a little more.

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