What keeps some things the same, while others change? If history is a tide sweeping down a river, and individuals are leaves being swept along on top of the current, what makes Isabella come back and the emperor stay at home? How much can be changed? Can all of it?
A bit of preliminary housekeeping: in order to write about my experience with this book, I need to include spoilers. Most professional review include some indication of what the book is about (or else how would we know whether we want to read it?), but I will go beyond what they reveal. So be forewarned: SPOILER ALERT.
Most of the aforementioned reviews will tell you it’s Dante-meets-Groundhog-Day, as Cory Doctorow put it in his LATimes review (I would add Milton to the mix). Girolamo Savonarola, the 15th century Florentine monk who is today famous for his Bonfire of the Vanities, lives his life, dies, goes to hell, and does it all over again, trying each time to find a way to stop the cycle. That’s a decent summary, and I impulsively decided to read it (it’s an addition to my summer reading list in the Religion category) since it includes several special interests of mine. Historical fiction meets religion via fantasy, you might call it. Or, “A historical fantasy set in Florence and Hell between 1492 and 1498, pretty much,” as Walton says in her introduction for Tor Books; “The first time through it’s pretty close to what really historically happened, give or take a few demons and the holy grail.” But the heart of the book is much deeper than this playfulness might indicate.
The Groundhog Day repetition is accomplished by structuring the book in Parts, alternating between Florence and Hell; each chapter within Parts One, Three, and Seven, the Florence parts, begins with a consecutive line from the Lord’s Prayer. The even Parts Two, Four, and Six, taking place in Hell, have only one short chapter each. The final Part Seven is a bit different, as it telescopes many, many iterations, and brings things to a conclusion, a single sentence that is climax and denouement. Given there are only two possible outcomes – the iterations continue indefinitely, or they terminate – there is a definitive resolution, yet many questions are left hanging.
Let me again say how much I enjoy a book that teaches me something, and I learned a great deal about the history of Renaissance Florence, her art, and theology from this read; I even created a very small Cerego set so I’d remember some of it. I actually studied a bit before I even started reading by finding a couple of academic lectures on Youtube about Florence and Savonarola (fortunately, I’d already taken a couple of moocs on Dante and Milton). Since the first 168 pages were historically accurate (excepting, as Walton mentions, demons and the Grail, and a few private conversations and a few characters who exist beyond the historical record), it was another read-at-my-computer session, as with Azazeel a few weeks ago. Savonarola, Lorenzo di Medici, Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Angelo Poliziano, and Camilla Rucellai (the Savonarola follower and seer, not the one obliquely related to the Mona Lisa, if I’m reading correctly) are the primary historically documented players, along with assorted religious and government people. The most important non-historical character is Isabella, who is something like a live-in girlfriend to Pico.
I have to admit I had some misgivings early on. I considered putting the book aside, in fact, but given that I’d just abandoned three Sinclair Lewis novels, I thought maybe I was in a bad pattern so just kept reading. I’m very glad I did; the more I read, the more I had to keep reading.
I learned about such things as the Medici Giraffe (which occasionally finds its way into art of the period as a tribute to Lorenzo) and the Pelican of Piety, a symbol used in Renaissance art of the charity of Christ. Then there’s Camilla’s prophecy that Pico would forswear his evil ways (besides a girlfriend, he had written 900 theses that were considered heretical) and take Dominican vows “in the time of lilies”; everyone thought she meant in Spring, which was good news since, in November he seemed to be dying. But he died anyway, as the French, with their fleur de lis flags, passed through Florence by the grace of negotiations and tribute towards other battles. It seems that story has been borrowed by several writers, most notably George Eliot.
Walton’s Girolamo is not at all the fanatical Savonarola that I had in the back of my mind. He disagrees with the Church in many instances, but on things that need disagreement, such as corruption, oppression, and the misbehavior of Popes who not only eschew celibacy but install their children in positions of power. As Walton presents it, the Bonfire of the Vanities was not his idea; it was recommended in a meeting (of all things – a meeting!) as a kind of energizing stunt, since the Medici Giraffe was no longer available. It’s based on a prior event by Bernardino of Siena. Girolamo is seen going over all books and art to determine if they should be rescued; he wavers over Boccaccio, but figures there are enough copies to allow one to burn. Botticelli and other artist donated pieces to the pyre, presumably because they had better works. And, in a fascinating little tribute to Shakespeare, on the night before the Bonfire, a merchant of Venice named Antonio shows up and offers Girolamo a great deal of money for all the items on the pile. The thought process Girolamo goes through before turning down the offer is quite reasonable. This is not an obsessed madman, but a thoughtful monk who appreciates art and literature and philosophy, but has a genuine set of principles.
The Grail comes into things early on as a small stone hidden in a book. Girolamo finds this, wonders about it, hangs onto it, but isn’t sure what it means. And it sits there for about 170 pages doing nothing. Don’t worry; it will come into its own in another lifetime.
In the final pages of Part One, Girolamo is hanged over fire, as he indeed was in history. The superstition is that those who are good, who are going to heaven, fall from the gallows onto the fire on their faces (prostrate before God, perhaps?) so do not feel the flames, while those who are destined for Hell fall backwards and feel everything. This moment after execution becomes a resonating trope opening every Return part. But it is here, in Part Two, that we first learn who – or what – Girolamo actually is (seriously, SPOILER ALERT, it’s the last time I’m telling you):
And the rope breaks, and he falls into the fire, not forward onto his face, like good people, but onto his back, like the damned.
He lands on his back, slamming into Hell with a force that would have knocked out the breath and broken all the bones of a living man. He knows he is not that, nor never has been…. He is a demon, beaked and bat-winged and foul; he was sent into the world to live without this knowledge only to make this moment of returning what it is: Hell.
It is the utmost imaginable anguish. Of course it is, for this is truly Hell, and torment is Hell’s only handicraft. This moment of utter knowledge and despair is his earned and well-deserved punishment for opposing God. For he had been an Angel, long ago, spending all his days praising God, in heaven. …and from that, he had, through his own will, fall into this.
Well, that was unexpected.
If this raises some questions, be assured that Girolamo will spend the rest of the book, his multiple iterations, asking the same questions. Few will be definitively answered, but some light will be shed on most. I’m left with many, but they are questions more of faith and interpretation than of fact; Walton’s answers wouldn’t be any more satisfying than my own.
One of the theological ideas presented again and again over time is apocatastasis, the theory that Hell is itself a kind of purgatory, and that all souls will eventually be purified and redeemed. This was rejected long before, however, by no less than St. Augustine. Apparently it survives in some sects, but in Girolamo’s time, it is considered untrue. Even if true, he doubts it applies to the demons, the fallen angels. Yet he hopes. “Hope hurts,” he says.
What stood out to me, given the whole Dante-does-Groundhog-Day prompting, was the difference between Dante’s Hell, and Walton’s. Dante constructed an elaborate system of punishments for various categories of sins, relating each punishment to the sin with exquisite specificity: wind, water, fire, ice, disembowelment, decapitation. In Girolamo’s Hell, there is only despair of everlasting separation from God. Now, many years ago, the Baptists and Pentecostals tried to sell us on fire and brimstone being metaphorical equivalents this separation, but given the prominence of the former and the occasional mention of the latter, I suspect they would be disappointed in Walton’s version (and tweens-teens are far more impressed by flames and screaming than by despair). However, she is extraordinarily good at conveying Girolamo’s pain, a pain that has little to do with physical discomfort and everything to do with loss and hopelessness:
He could summon up his own cell, as he has done before. Only the crucifix of his bedside he cannot summon, or the painted likeness of the Savior on the wall, or the faces of the Virgin or the Saints. He is filled with the emptiness of where those things should be.
He has done it before. He can do it again. Yet it is only now that he realizes the full horror of his predicament. He has been lent to earth again and again, and in endless iteration will go on being lent, be born again and to go through that same life of hope and ignorance, only to return again and again to this first appalling moment where he must face the fact that he has forever lost God, and all hope and possibility of God’s love.
That is what it means to be damned.
Notice also the punny twist on Lent. The odd-numbered Parts do begin, typically, in the spring, when Lent would fall, but now there is this other meaning.
Milton comes into play as well through the fallen angel thread, though Paradise Lost would not be written for over a century after Savonarola. For while Girolamo’s struggles on earth take up most of the book, it is this falling of angels that intrigues me the most. It’s a topic that’s always been addressed mostly in legend and speculative theology with only a few verses of biblical support. Milton started his poem with Satan, cast out, as an antihero, rebelling against a tyrannical God, then goes on to destroy humanity’s sacredness. As the poem evolves, he becomes less and less sympathetic, until at last God again is victorious over him by having the last word.
In Walton’s book, the details of the rebellion are unclear throughout, a technique I appreciate since more detail would necessarily entail its own theology. There’s a puzzling use of the name Asbiel, similar to Abdiel, one of the angels in Milton’s poem, the angel who tattled on Lucifer; I’m not sure if they’re supposed to be the same being, since that would create a pair of brothers who started the rebellion. My read at the moment is that Crookback (I’ll get there, don’t worry) is indeed Lucifer, Girolamo/Asbiel is his brother, and they were the initial troublemakers. The had “wanted a world without pain, when pain was just an intellectual concept.” They had pride, to believe they knew better than God.
As Bill Murray’s weatherman had to lose his cynical, narcissistic way of viewing everyone else as instrumental to his own needs in order to break out of his loop, so must Girolamo overcome his pride. And that involves his brother, who on earth is the mercenary soldier called Crookback (and sometimes Richard III), who sent the Grail to Florence where Girolamo finds it and discovers it unleashes his memories of past lives, deaths, and his demonic nature.
In addition to the Shakespeare references, I found a few others (and who knows what I missed through my own ignorance): my manuscript-hunting buddy from The Swerve, Poggio Bracciolini; and Michelangelo, who plays a bit part in a couple of Girolamo’s lifetimes:
Michelangelo Buonarroti comes over, a cup of wine in his hand. He is growing a beard. “I have it !” he says delightedly.
“What?” Girolamo asks, but Marsilio knows.
“That huge block of marble that’s been standing about for so long?“
“Yes. I am going to carve the prophet Amos, to go high up on the cathedral. I thought him with the face of brother Giovanni. What do you think? “
Isabella and Girolamo exchange a glance. Marsilio nods gravely. “I think that would be splendid,“ he says.
Michelangelo looks at the others. “And his body too,” he says, with a hint of defiance in his tone.
Yes, there is humor, probably more than I recognized. In one spot, Girolamo offers an apple to a beggar, and sheepishly tells his earthly companion, “I like apples.” In another spot, when a plan involving the Grail goes awry and it is lost to Crookback, Girolamo’s great friend Pico says, “Well, that went badly”, perhaps an anachronistic understatement, but one that, under the circumstances, made me laugh. Out loud.
But again, I come back to the religious component. See the comparison between Girolamo’s Heaven and Hell:
“Will there be poetry in heaven?“ [Angelo, the poet] asks, like a child, as he hands back the cup.
“I think there will be something better, “ Girolamo confides. “Something that poetry reminds us of, and that is why we are drawn to love it. I think loving all earthly beauty is a way to lead us to love heavenly beauty. So there will not be sunsets or poetry, but there will be something like them but even better.“
There is no relief in Hell, so he cannot weep for his innocence, his lost illusions. Will is power here, and he has his place in the ranks of power. That is all he has. … There is no fellowship in hell, the only relationship possible is that of tormenting one another. Spite, Hell’s closest approach to joy.
Through Girolamo’s subsequent earthly lives, some details change a little, some a lot. He has different close allies each time; given that he is a demon and Hell has no relationships, his earthly relationships are wonderful, even as he bears the knowledge of his despair. He formulates plans to break the cycle, to harrow hell, as it were, to free the demons there. This is like Milton’s hell, not Dante’s: Girolamo’s Hell has only demons. Questions of atonement, of forgiveness, of salvation in the face of eternal damnation, of hope and despair, become more prominent as the cycles proceed. It’s truly wonderful. Girolamo may be a demon, but he’s a demon with a mission, and a heart of gold, just about the most sympathetic demon you could ever know.
I am, as I’ve said, left with questions. Where did the Grail come from? Sure, it’s a gift from the King of Hungary, and Girolamo discovers it by chance, but how did that happen? How does it have the power to harrow hell? How does the time looping work: does the entire world loop indefinitely? Does it go back to the day in April when he discovers the stone, or back to the beginning of the universe? If/when he stops looping, will that be the End of Time, or just the End of Hell? And then, not a question but an interpretation I wish I could verify: I see a strong parallelism between Christ harrowing people and Girolamo harrowing demons. Christ is the begotten of God, sent to live on earth, die, and redeem human souls. Girolamo is the brother of Lucifer (my interpretation; in any case he is the brother of a Prince of Hell) who is “lent” to earth to redeem the unredeemable, using the Key to the Kingdom Christ gave Peter. Why is it Girolamo who is the earthly figure for the demon Asbiel, instead of someone else, in another time or place?
None of these questions, or the others that flit by once in a while, are really answerable, since this is a fantasy based on religious imagery and story. I’ve never been comfortable with the category of fantasy, but I keep running into such wonderful examples such as this, and Helen Oyeyemi, and various authors from my Pushcart and BASS editions. And now, Jo Walton, an author new to me.
Given that I gave up on organized religion fifty years ago (though I do hang out in churches sometimes, because, to paraphrase Willie Sutton, that’s where the music is), it’s odd that I’m so drawn to these kinds of stories about holy forgiveness and damnation on such cosmic scales. That’s what story does: it brings us closer to what was far away. Girolamo, Pico, Angelo, Camilla, Isabella, they have all captivated me, and now that I have finished the book, I find I miss them. The good news is: I can come back to them any time, just by opening to page one.
Addendum: FMI, listen to the podcast about this book by Julie Davis and Scott Danielson at A Good Story is Hard to Find