A few days ago, Helen reviewed Love Without End, which reminded me that I’d read a galley of this novel back in August and had, embarrassingly, failed to do anything about it. I’d been attracted to the book by its story of Abelard and Heloise, the brilliant medieval scholars whose love story captivated me at university and who have never quite released their hold on me. Bragg’s novel, however, is not straightforward historical fiction, as it weaves another story in and out of the past, entwining Abelard and Heloise’s story with that of the modern writer Arthur. He (we’re told) is the author of the historical chapters that we read and, in the modern chapters, we’re invited to follow his progress as he wanders through Paris, having long lunches and intellectual conversations with his daughter Julia. The major difficulty that Bragg faces with the book is that intellect is prized over humanity, which may mean that we get closer to what Abelard and Heloise actually believed, but robs the reader of any chance of truly engaging with them.
There are two stories. On the one hand: Paris, the 13th century, on the tiny island in the middle of the Seine where Canon Fulbert and his niece Heloise live in the cloisters of Notre-Dame. They have heard rumours about the tempestuous scholar Abelard, whose popular lectures at the cathedral school dare to question all manner of ideas about God and the soul. It wins him the admiration of the students, but the enmity of many of his senior colleagues – as does his magnetic effect on women, whom he admires but casually dismisses. For Heloise, trapped in the stifling life of a respectable maiden, but gifted with a fierce desire for knowledge, Abelard is a fascination – a crush. And, when the oblivious Fulbert hires this enfant terrible to teach his brilliant niece, the inevitable happens. The two young people fall in love, setting in motion a terrible cycle of passion, vengeance and self-abnegation that will shape the rest of their lives.
On the other hand, Arthur wanders in modern-day Paris with his daughter Julia, who has come to visit him while he works on a new book. He is obsessed with Abelard and Heloise, longing to talk through every detail with her. She has come in the hope of finally understanding why her parents split up years ago, thereby making sense of her own sense of loss. Over nice lunches in Parisian bistros, Arthur monologues to her about the medieval lovers while Julia, perhaps in the place of the reader, makes occasional comments. (You know exactly the kind of person Arthur is: the person you’ll inevitably end up sitting next to at a work dinner who, when you ask an innocuous question, begins a half-hour lecture about their favourite topic, leaving you unable to get a word in edgeways.) Bragg clearly feels that Arthur and Julia are his way to make the medieval world accessible, because he wants – and Arthur, in his novel, wants – to capture the true medieval world of the mind, complete with all its complex and very foreign notions about the soul and God. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work, because these modern chapters feel like university tutorials (or an episode of In Our Time), bookended by ‘charming scenes in Paris’ in an attempt to make the reader see them as fiction.
Arthur (and Bragg) want us to sympathise with Abelard, and here’s another problem. Despite his status as Great Romantic Hero, Abelard wasn’t actually a particularly pleasant person by modern standards, being incredibly self-centred. Arthur spends many of his ‘conversations’ with Julia explaining why this brilliant, edgy man was ahead of his time and should therefore be admired by the modern reader. He goes into detail about the letters that Abelard and Heloise exchanged after their separation – their self-imposed exile from one another – and I fully believe that he / Bragg are correct in saying that Heloise encouraged Abelard to prioritise his own career at her expense. But it doesn’t make a particularly satisfying novel, especially in the current climate. Essentially we have two stories in which women are submissively respectful towards self-centred men, admiringly allowing them to carry on with their great works despite the chaos they have suffered in their own lives. Bragg wants his Heloise to be brilliant and questing and ferociously intelligent, but I don’t think he’s all that good at writing women, because she comes across as rather flat and uninspiring. It’s perfectly possible to write ruthlessly intelligent women who are both intellectual and emotional beings (see Dorothy Dunnett, A.S. Byatt or Joyce Carol Oates). But that’s not what we get here.
Bragg is still one of this country’s great public intellectuals, and I’m sure his other books are superb. Indeed, this novel was perfectly readable; it’s not screamingly bad by any means. But, alas, it has no soul and feels very dated in today’s literary climate. Essentially it’s a story about a self-absorbed, middle-aged man writing a book about another self-absorbed man, and occasionally breaking off to mansplain history to his admiring daughter. Arthur (and Bragg?) is so caught up in his hero-worship of Abelard that he fails to do justice to Heloise, who here simply acts as the mirror which reflects back and magnifies Abelard’s brilliance. Considering the turbulent events at its heart, it is disappointingly cold and lifeless, and left me distinctly lukewarm.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review