Jonathan Levi’s exhilarating and complex novel “Septimania” follows an organ tuner and Cambridge graduate student who learns that he has inherited an ancient European kingdom.

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by Jonathan Levi

Overlook Press, 336 pp., $27.95

Reading Jonathan Levi’s new novel, “Septimania,” is like dancing on a moving stage; it’s exhilarating, even as you worry that your feet might fly out from under you.

Its story careens from one century to another, while keeping two central characters as a touchpoint: Malory, an organ tuner and Cambridge grad student who’s spent the past 10 years avoiding his doctoral thesis on Sir Isaac Newton, and Louiza, a fellow student and math genius who cheerfully takes his virginity, in a church loft, on a sunny March afternoon in 1978. And then she disappears.

Levi, a native New Yorker now based in Rome, has had his own version of a literary disappearing act: “Septimania” is his first novel since his 1992 debut, “A Guide for the Perplexed.” (He hasn’t been idle: Levi is the co-founder of Granta, the former fiction critic for the Los Angeles Times, and a composer, playwright and producer.) Perhaps he’s missed writing fiction; you sense, between the lines, a real zest for creation, with a narrative voice that sometimes seems to be happily revising as it goes along. In that church, we’re told, “[a] curtain, or better still, a gentle waterfall of light flowed down from the beveled slats of the roof …”

Author appearance

Jonathan Levi

The author of “Septimania” will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday April 14 at the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle. Free (206-386-4636;

“Septimania” is, however, anything but a straightforward narrative, and those without a taste for magic and fantasy may give up midway through. Once we get past that romantic interlude in Cambridge, in the early pages, the stage starts moving: Malory, off to Rome in pursuit of both Louiza and the wishes of his dead grandmother, learns that he is the heir to Septimania, a kingdom given by Charlemagne to the Jews in the eight century, and therefore he is both King of the Jews and Holy Roman Emperor. (Septimania is a real place: Its origins live on in the present-day Catalonia region of Spain. Malory is, of course, fiction.)

The novel alternates between brief seventeenth-century conversations with Newton and more-or-less contemporary chapters following Malory, Louiza and a handful of other characters, most notably a Rumanian experimental theater director, who offers to be the Virgil to Malory’s Dante — “I will help you find your Beatrice,” he says — and a young woman who may or may not be Malory and Louiza’s daughter. Along the way, real-life history flits in and out, both past and present (the events of 9/11 make a startling, vivid appearance).

This dizzying tale is told with a delicate, playful artistry: a kitchen is “bread-warm”; a guitar’s low, slow note approaches from a distance, “like a Ducati along the Lungotevere.” Levi writes especially lovingly about music and math, which illuminate, respectively, Malory and Louiza’s worlds, and hold answers to mysterious questions.

I won’t pretend that, after finishing “Septimania,” I wasn’t longing for a bite of fiction that was a bit more grounded. But the book haunted me, the way a painting does when you’re trying to figure how the artist created light. Consider this sentence, as Levi writes of a character’s death: “Then came a silence and then the prayers of the crickets and the mantras of the bullfrogs, as the fireflies — whose memories are the merest fraction of their brief lives — lit what was left of the world, until, giving way as it must to the law of gravity, the light circled back upon itself, licked its paws, crept into a box, let fall the lid and seal, and settled cold, extinguished, irreversible.”