Gutenberg’s Apprentice: Alix Christie

★★★ ½

What was the year that changed the world? We could probably argue about that until we were all blue in the face, but 1450 has more claim than most. For it was in this year, in Mainz, that a small team of artisans began work on a formidably ambitious project: the creation of the very first book printed with movable type. This novel follows the gestation of this project, drawing out all the sweat and labour of the process, under the beady eye of its suspicious, unpredictable, misanthropic begetter: Gutenberg.

Peter Schoeffer has followed his calling as a scribe to the very heart of the learned world: to Paris, when he plies his pen among the scholars and university students. He’s surprised to be called home from this idyll by his foster-father, the Mainz merchant Johann Fust; more surprised still, and resentful, to hear that Fust has plans for him at home. For Fust has been approached by a remarkable man, with a remarkable idea, and he wants Peter to be his eyes and ears on the inside of this new project. Peter is dismayed to find that all his fine craftsmanship is to be put to waste, for this brilliant idea is a shocking betrayal of the very trade he’s trained in: a press which has been adapted to print text using movable type. The idea of a book that can be replicated, identically, in multiple copies is both devilish and anathema to Peter, but he has no choice: Fust is to be the financier behind the scheme, and so Peter is obliged to shackle himself to the workshop’s master.

As time passes, Peter will learn to take pride in his new work and to seek to bring beauty back into these crabbed, crude letters, so that a printed page can appear as beautiful as that of a fine scribe. But, as time passes and they begin to work on a project to show off their skills – a monumental Bible, spreading the word of God without a copyist’s errors – Peter finds that the flaw in the plan lies not within the technology itself, but in the erratic personality of Gutenberg himself, who is both the project’s midwife and its greatest liability.

I haven’t read much fiction about 15th-century Germany – indeed, the only vaguely related novel I can think of is Doctor Copernicus – and so the lie of the land was foreign to me, in a way that Renaissance Italy simply isn’t. Christie does a wonderful job of bringing out the complex feuds that existed, not only between neighbouring lordships or dioceses, but within the government of a town itself, between the secular power of the wealthy guilds, and the religious clout of the Church, or even between the guildsmen and the town nobles. Here in Mainz all these forces are in play. The city, with its fine cathedral, is at the heartland of Archbishop Dietrich’s domain and the people suffer from the taxes and tithes levied upon them, not to mention his ruthless excommunications if he fails to get his way. The nobles or Elders, of whom Gutenberg’s family are members, maintain their hold over the commoners by siphoning off bonds and charges of their own. And a city for which trade is its very lifeblood is affected by much broader worldly events: a plague here; a petty war there; or, most terrible of all, the crushing fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, which closes off a whole region of potential commerce. In such unsteady times, what place does an experimental, expensive and secretive venture have?

For it is secret. They teeter on the brink of a new world, but it’s one that might be happily squashed, should certain people come to hear of it. Which clergyman would welcome an invention that puts scribes out of business? And which power-hungry archbishop would be pleased at the creation of a book which freely spreads a standardised Word of God, free from his own control? Paranoid at the thought of his ideas being stolen, Gutenberg demands that their activities are secret from everyone; but how can that be accomplished in so close-knit a city as Mainz? And so Peter finds himself sinking into a morass of lies, half-truths and fabrications, torn between his father’s world of cost and practicalities, and Gutenberg’s wild dreams. War trembles around them, but there is a kind of cold war brewing even within the walls of their workshop: a war of ideas, ideals and ambitions.

There is a lot going on in this book and it feels a little longer than it actually is, because it’s just so intense. You’re essentially stuck in the workshop with these men, bound up in their growing tensions and, like them, you don’t get much relief through emotional or romantic subplots. What struck me, however, was the sheer physicality of it. Christie was trained as a letterpress printer and it shows in her reverence for the heft of the bar, the thump of the press, the smelting and casting and correcting; the practical worries about how to print when the ink runs in the summer heat, and how to cast letters strong enough that they can stand repeating pressing without buckling. And she emphasises the sheer tediousness of it. Chapter headings include the number of quires printed for the Bible so far, and emphasise the long slog involved in bringing it about. In her author’s note, she acknowledges that much of the work is fiction based on the fragmentary facts that we know. But her own direct experience of the process brings a real solidity to her book: a forceful authenticity that can’t be faked.

A story of strong personalities, ambition and obsession, this is a fine addition to the field of Renaissance historical fiction and it’ll give you a new respect for books as objects – no longer stamped out page by page by hefty men, of course, but all stemming, like the fruits of some labyrinthine Biblical genealogy, from the men who worked in that little workshop in Mainz five hundred and sixty years ago.

Helen wrote a review of this book two years ago. Rereading it just now, it seems that we felt broadly the same way about the novel, although my interest in printmaking gave me slightly more tolerance for the technical aspects – which I can appreciate might feel rather overdone for others.

Buy the book

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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