Ivo Stourton The Book Lover’s Tale Doubleday 2011
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre;
But al that he myghte of his freendes hente,
On bookes and on lernynge he it spente.
Anything with ‘book lover’ in the title is bound to attract, is it not? And The Book Lover’s Tale has such echoes of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that it comes as little surprise that a late 15th-century printed edition of the Tales plays a crucial role at the climax of the novel. But take note: Chaucer is nothing if not ironic. The Clerk, who appears so idealistic, the antithesis of greed and worldliness, a man who would rather “have at his beddes heed | Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,” is — like all the Pilgrims — not quite what he seems. His tale, following on soon after The Wife of Bath’s Tale with its theme of women’s sovereignty over men, appears to favour the model wife: The Clerk’s Tale tells the misogynistic story of Patient Griselda, uncomplaining despite everything thrown at her by a husband determined to test her obedience. However, the Clerk then adds some surprising comments: women should really stand up for themselves and follow the example of the Greek nymph Echo who, of course, always answered back. His further advice is that wives should aim to make their husbands worry, weep, wring their hands and wail.
All this background, I think, is important in trying to understand what is at first sight a pretty grubby tale told in the first person by a real Lothario, a book collector by the name of Matt Le Voy. Continue reading “Thoroughly unpleasant”