JOHN THE PUPIL by David Flusfeder


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Flusfeder (A Film by Spencer Ludwig, 2010, etc.) entrusts John the Pupil with placing Roger Bacon’s Great Work in the hands of Pope Clement IV.

John is a peasant boy plucked from his village near Oxford’s Franciscan monastery. Clever and malleable, he's the single student to survive polymath Bacon’s rigorous tutelage. "I am the mirror he is constructing, to reflect him back to himself," John discovers before he breaks free of obedience. In 1267, with companions Brother Andrew, "dainty and girlish," and Brother Bernard, "silent and large and phlegmatic, half-doltish," John is charged with carrying Bacon’s Opus Majus—containing "Truth. Wisdom. The meanings of past and future times, the details of the construction of devices that some men might call miraculous"—from Oxford to the pope in Viterbo, Italy. Flusfeder frames his novel as John’s contemporary journal, one discovered, neglected, rediscovered. The journal’s marked by saint’s days, each chapterlike segment highlighted by short biographies of saints known and obscure. The characters John meets are metaphorical: corrupt and duplicitous Simeon the Palmer, a rogue paid by others to do penance; Father Gabriel, "a superior soul," who is a "master gardener" who uses his plants to heal; next, amid a war between the Ghibellines and the Guelphs, they encounter a "holy virgin" and find hedonistic luxury within the great lord Cavalcante de Cavalcanti’s castle. Each tempts John, especially after he learns Bacon hasn’t trusted him completely. John’s meeting with Pope Clement offers a poignant denouement, especially Flusfeder’s sketch of the aged and weary pontiff. There’s distance from the harsh realities of medieval times in the imagined journal text, and the author incorporates a series of notes to explain certain terms and circumstances.

This virgin’s pilgrimage in service of God and wisdom is more intellectual exercise than tale of intrigue, more allegory than adventure.

Pub Date: March 3rd, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-06-233918-8
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2015


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