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The Calligrapher


The Calligrapher

If you were to determine the precise opposite of the typical Chick
Lit heroine --- think Bridget Jones and her collection of crippling
neuroses --- you'd have Jasper Jackson, the 29-year-old narrator
and, well, perhaps hero isn't the right word, of Edward Docx's
winning debut, THE CALLIGRAPHER. While the Bridget Joneses of
literature balance their self-image issues and uncontrollable
addictions (to cigarettes, chocolate, men) with withering wit and
boundless capacity for love and fidelity, Jasper, like so many
other men's men in fiction and film, works a reversed formula: he
compensates for his roguish infidelity and incorrigibleness with
charm, handsomeness, erudition and confidence. In fact, Jasper is
just the sort of romantic mistake Bridget Jones would make.

"I think I must have had some sort of a physical relationship with
half the women in [London]: young, old, dark, fair, married or
lesbian; Asian, African, American, European, even Belgian; tall,
short, thin, or hefty" and so on and so forth. In the novel's first
50 pages, his two-day tryst with a plucky French woman named
Cécile ruins his yearlong relationship with a beautiful
attorney named Lucy, who even he concedes is as close to perfection
as the English produce. He will, in short, soon meet his match;
Docx will deliver a comeuppance. Jasper not only falls in love, but
he finds himself in deep smit with Madeleine Belmont, a beautiful
and mysterious travel writer who buys a flat in his building.

If all this sounds hopelessly familiar to the point of cliché
--- and, true, the romantic-comedy contrivances make the novel's
plot twists predictable --- Docx freshens it up considerably with
observations about romance that run much deeper than your average
lad mag, and characters whose intelligence and wit do not preclude
them from making entertainingly stupid decisions. His prose is
comic, playful and clever, gleefully mixing British slang like
"Excuse the Frog" (which means, pardon my French) and "zugzwanged"
(what this means I have no idea) with gloriously disdainful
observations along the lines of "Indeed, I always think traveling
on the London Underground is something akin to the experience I
imagine some of the Victorian anthropologists used to have when
they visited their lunatic asylums, similarly beset by
institutional shades of green and black, prey to strange winds and
distant groaning, beloved of scurrying mice and shuffling men --- a
place of tremors and mad convulsions."

Furthermore, Docx dresses his story up very nicely in a two-piece
suit of calligraphy and the love poetry of John Donne. Jasper is a
professional calligrapher who has been commissioned by a wealthy
American media mogul to reproduce thirty of Donne's love

This profession is a monumentally fascinating aspect of THE
CALLIGRAPHER. Docx helpfully explains the various scripts, inks and
papers Jasper uses and delivers a short history of the discipline,
even flying his characters to Rome just to visit the Vatican
library, a slim excuse to further explore the field. In the clever
invocation of the muse, Docx even introduces us to Titivillus,
whose gleeful shenanigans are apparent throughout the story: "You
will find that most human pursuits have a patron saint, but of all
the arts in the world, only calligraphy has a patron demon. His
name is Titivillus. And he is a malicious little bastard."

But it is Donne the poet who threatens to steal the show from
Jasper and Madeleine. Docx must be either admirably brave or
disgustingly arrogant to intersperse lines of Donne's poetry
throughout the novel; it takes guts or overconfidence to invite
that comparison. But Docx and Donne are actually co-conspirators,
as the former uses the latter to provide a play-by-play commentary
on the events and the characters' emotions as they develop. Such
collusion begets a very sly structuring device that reveals the
true heart and meaning in THE CALLIGRAPHER.

In the end, Docx suggests, love is its own comeuppance, its own
reward. The novel's overflowing humor, its biting wit, resourceful
storytelling, engaging characters, and intelligent interplay
between poetry and prose are enough to seduce even those readers
playing hard to get.

Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on January 21, 2011

The Calligrapher
by Edward Docx

  • Publication Date: October 7, 2003
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0618343970
  • ISBN-13: 9780618343973