Thoroughly unpleasant

Clerk of Oxford, Ellesmere Chaucer
The Clerk with his books, Ellesmere Chaucer

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. He is a dilettante dependent on the wealth of his wife Cecilia, earning his way by advising clients on what books to adorn the shelves of properties which have had their interiors designed by Cecilia. He becomes infatuated by Claudia, married to nouveau-riche client Jim Swanson, a banker whom Matt quickly despises as completely undeserving of good fortune and a happy marriage. Matt sets out to seduce Claudia with one-to-one book tutorials while plotting to make nasty things happen to Jim.

I found this a thoroughly unpleasant read. It is difficult to sympathise with a narrator who is not only an amoral womaniser but also a self-absorbed psychopath. In The Talented Mr Ripley Patricia Highsmith managed to create a protagonist whom the reader, despite him- or herself, really wanted to escape retribution — even though this character too was a self-absorbed psychopath — simply by making him supremely efficient at evading suspicion and, using the third person, distancing him from any implied approbation. Matt however is rarely master of the situation, and in this first-person tale his confessional tone somehow makes the reader more complicit and so somehow sullied.

Matt appears to have it all on a plate: a good education, a beautiful and successful wife, a valuable collection of rare books and a career allowing him a totally reprehensible access to pliant female clients. But he is lacking in any form of empathy, evincing little or no reactions to the various deaths that he comes across, but — like the capable sociopath that he is — able to make the right noises if necessary. Make no mistake: the author is a capable writer, catching Matt’s obsessions perfectly and providing a good working plot with a couple of unforeseen twists. But there were too many longeurs; the story didn’t really pick up till halfway through, and even then there were many lurches in the pacing. The frame, I felt, was clumsy in trying to prefigure Matt’s state of mind at the end of the novel; and I didn’t care whether he got his just deserts or not, just wishing the story would end sooner than it did. In fact, I couldn’t empathise with any of the characters, even the ones who were more sinned against than sinning.

The Clerk from the 1492 Wynkyn de Worde edition of The Canterbury Tales
The Clerk of Oxford from the 1492 Wynkyn de Worde edition of The Canterbury Tales

Still, the Chaucerian dimension to The Book Lover’s Tale at least gives the character of Matt a little more depth: an individual who is so wedded to book-collecting that, like the Clerk, he would spend good money on books and keep them close at hand; a person who though he says one thing means another; a man who believes women are playthings with whose feelings and emotions he can trifle with impunity; and a character who even tries, rather dramatically, to use a 500-year-old copy of The Canterbury Tales to get him out of an awkward situation. I can’t say this endeared me to him at all but, at least, one woman manages to get her own back, though in truth it’s little consolation.

Reading Challenge category: a book with a love triangle involving Matt with Cecilia as the wife he cheats on and Claudia as his wouldbe conquest


8 thoughts on “Thoroughly unpleasant

    1. Thanks, Steve, though it’s a personal reaction of course and another reader might assess it differently. It’s good to persist with reading an indifferent novel, if only to perceive what doesn’t work — and sometimes they even confound your pessimistic expectations at the very end!

  1. Hmm. This sounds like a book I won’t be reading. If feeling resilient I am happy(?) to read many different hard to stomach books and can enjoy them objectively at least. At the same time I am not a glutton for punishment and this one sounds like it would be just that. Thanks for the top off 👍

    1. It’s not truly awful but it left me with a bitter taste in the mouth, especially as I couldn’t feel much for a poor old rich white middle class guy with self-inflicted injuries.

      Stourton’s first novel The Night Climbers (about Cambridge students doing a bit of parkour on college buildings) garnered more praise, but as this too seems to be about a white, middle class, privileged elite I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to sample it just yet, and you may be wise to avoid this too, Alastair!

  2. Wonderful review! I enjoyed reading your assessment, cannot say I would enjoy the book. I applaud you for finishing it. When I find myself unable to empathize or identify with book characters, I know it’s not for me and simple move on.

    Thank you for reading it so we don’t have to.

    1. Thanks very much, Sari! Love your parting remark — for me one of the points of reading reviews is to help me decide whether the book itself is worth a look or not. If I respect the writer’s opinions then I feel it’s a job well done!

    1. The possibility of a Chaucer link was one of just two things that kept me going till the end with any enthusiasm, and luckily my patience was rewarded: it was the 15C Chaucer wot wuz the instrument of death …

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