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.
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 …”
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; spl.org).
“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.)
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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.”