Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sometimes a Book is Just a Book

I recently read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet. I am still trying to make my mind up about the novel in some respects.

Parts were a fascinating read; others parts I found less interesting, particularly the parts that seemed cribbed from a Penthouse Forum Magazine. Every chapter seemed to have a part that should have begun “I really never thought it would happen to me, but…”  The worst part was the end.  It literally felt like the author ran out of enthusiasm for the book and just wrapped it up somehow. Through a thousand pages a given character would act a certain way, with certain motivations. In the last 80 pages all of that went out the window.

Am I glad I read it? Yes. But I won’t bother with the sequel and I won’t bother to read it again. How’s that for a ringing endorsement?

As briefly as the plot of a 1,087 page novel can be described; a small, fictional medieval English Monastery and its village build a cathedral. The book chronicles the arrival of the master-builder to the site and the various political and financial maneuverings that both enable and stymie the construction. That also includes the personal lives of the various characters; the Prior of the Monastery, Prior Phillip; the builder, Tom; his family-children, step-child and wives; the local Bishop and the local Earl. 

This is where I found my first fault; only one or two of the characters were well rounded, even the essential ones. If they were evil; they were never nice to anyone. If they were good, they never had a bad moment. Until the last chapter.

The second fault was the lack of detail on the construction of the Cathedral. For a book about the building, you would think a few of the 1087 pages could be spared for a few details on the actual construction or maybe a description of the various trades involved. But then the author would have had to drop one of the forty or fifty sex scenes that seemed to plague the story. I was beginning to think someone had actually slipped me a copy of 50 Shades of Grey. Based on this book every Cathedral in Europe physically went up without a hitch.

Well, until they fell down. Which, of course, this one did. The primary crux of the story was the change between round and pointed arches; a discussion that took place with minimal interruption of the characters lives and even less explanation of why this was such a sea change in public building. They did discuss how the pointed arch allowed for taller churches with more windows, but more history of development between the round and pointed arch would have been apropos, especially given the pivotal place in the story given to the pointed arch.

Bear in mind, in most communities the Church was THE public building. There were no public halls or municipal buildings like town halls. The Church was the town hall; it was the center of the community and the gathering place for every purpose.

Pillars does reflect that, and in some ways is a fascinating look into Medieval England, in the years immediately following the Norman Invasion and during the period of Anarchy after Henry I death. The history seems to be correct, albeit with our fictional characters thrown into the mix. And one of the fictional characters being thrown into the mix suffers a non-historical fate. But, since he really wasn’t a part of the history, and his fate is almost required by the story, so, no harm, no foul. At least in this case.
But there were a lot of other fouls; illiterate builders use multi-syllabic words; the language itself is not even remotely like Norman English and the characters seem to be able to speak both native English- akin to German- as well as Norman English- very French-like- with equal ease and without fault. There also seemed to be an acceptance of quite a few cultural items without comment, almost as if we should be as familiar with the methods of Medieval Dress and Buildings as we are with modern ones.

These can be written off as poetic license; liberties taken to insure a smooth flow and readability of the story. And I would be willing to agree; if elements of the story itself didn’t constantly remind me of a Harlequin dime romance.

Let’s take the character of Waleran Bigod. When we first meet him he is an archdeacon to the Bishop of Kingsbridge, the fictional location of the Cathedral. His first act in the book is to scheme with the hero of our story, Prior Phillip, maneuvering Phillip into agreeing to support Bigod to replace the current Bishop. Later it becomes evident that the Bishop was already dead, a fact Bigod was hiding from the world. This is just the beginning. Bigod is constantly scheming, lying and dealing, not only as an arch-deacon, but as a Bishop as well. His scheming never lets up, and includes the ordering of the murder of members of his diocese, with absolution granted prior to the act itself.

And then in the last few pages he repents and becomes, almost literally, a kind, saintly old man. Which in itself is not a problem; entire books are based on the reasons behind a character’s motivations for changing himself. But here the motivation is lacking. Maybe it’s there, and I just missed it. But the change is similar to Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, without the intervention of the Lord’s lightning.

Set in an era when The Church ran everything, and being ex-communicated was almost a death sentence, only Prior Phillip seems to be truly devout. Monks in the Monastery do their best to avoid devotionals or anything relating to their religious duties and most of the main characters, most of them deeply involved with building a Cathedral, the highest concrete form of worship, seem agnostic at best, and atheist at worst.

As I said early on; it was a fascinating read in parts, and I am glad I read it.

I am also equally glad I didn’t buy it.

‘Nuff said.


Anonymous said...

This was the first novel I've read by Ken Follet so I'm unfamiliar with his writing style but from his forward I gather he's a mystery writer. I believe life is too short to finish a bad book and can honestly say I enjoyed the read and was glad it was written in modern english. It's a work of fiction so I expect to be entertained and hope the author did his research to make it as historically accurate as possible. With that being said aren't history books the interpretation of the person who penned them?

While you were feeling parts of the book were cribbed from a Penthouse Forum Magazine I was commenting to my husband "this author is secure in his sexuality and is probably a gentle lover." When I think of the middle ages I think blood and sex. It was a pretty ruthless time and I was glad Follet gave the perception that all sex wasn't savage. Could the book have told the same story without the sex, probably. Would "I" have enjoyed it as much, probably not. I wonder if, like the bible, this book was penned in it's native language the sex wouldn't have been so offensive to you.

I'm not sure I'll read the sequel but I'd like to read another book by Follet just to see if he can end a book without leaving me disappointed in my time invested in his tale.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

When it comes to the sex scenes I am of the opinion that "Less is More", meaning the more left to the individual imagination teh better it is.

Sometimes the details can get in the way of the feeling; like you noted, these scenes left you with a better understanding of the author than of the characters he was writing about.

The author is the chronicalor; not the star. His voice should come through in third party narration, not in the voices of the characters, and certainly not in the actions of the charcters.

In some ways sex scenes are like the songs in a musical; they need to move along the action or the charcter development or help build the story, and the recent- 40 years or so- development that the only way to have an 'adult' (as opposed to a 'young adult or teen) novel is to include graphic bordering on pornographic sex and profanity is to me a crutch to be used to support a lack of creativity.

Which brings us back to Pillars of the Earth.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

Besides, most sex scenes are so badly written as to create a humorous interlude, instead of a romantic or erotic one.

Pillars was differnet in that respect, hence my 'Damning with faint praise' comment about them havong been cribbed from Penthouse Forum.