OF EMPEROR RUDOLPH II, JOHN DEE AND RABBI LOEW…

06 JULY 2002: OF EMPEROR
RUDOLPH II, JOHN DEE AND RABBI LOEW…

From the New York Times:



 

A Mad Emperor Meets His Match

By RICHARD EDER

THE BOOK OF SPLENDOR

By Frances Sherwood

348 pages. Norton. $25.95.

Stout, vain, self-willed
and under a lowering psychotic melancholia, the Emperor


Rudolph II dismisses his
trusted manservant Vaclav from the imperial bedroom. He


swaddles himself in cream
silk and ermine, lifts a razor and inflicts a delicate


cut on his wrist.

“Vaclav,” he screams immediately.
“Do you not see, you knave, I am bleeding to


death?” Successively then,
in the rhythm of the clockwork figures that circle


atop one of Prague’s Old
Town towers, Rudolph’s doctor, courtiers and guards


troop in, followed by the
clergy, heads of guilds, leading citizens and Maisel,


the emperor’s wealthy court
Jew.

Why the flirtatious dabble
at suicide? It is an act of petulance. As one Prague


resident remarks later:
“The emperor is so afraid of dying, he tried to get it


over by killing himself.”
Capricious as a kitten, frightening as a panther,


Rudolph instantly switches
from petulance to autocratic mania.

Two eminent English alchemists
˜ one, Queen Elizabeth’s legendary John Dee ˜


will be sent for to prepare,
on pain of death, an eternal-life elixir. As


backup, Rudolph commands
Prague’s likewise legendary Rabbi Loew to devise, on


pain of the destruction
of the Jewish quarter and its inhabitants, an


immortality spell.

The clouds of imperial madness
give way, for the tiniest of moments, to a patch


of mad lucidity. How will
he tell, the emperor wonders, whether the remedies


have worked? “How will I
know that I will live forever? What if I live and then


I die? What then?”

“What then?” would make a
splendid title for Frances Sherwood’s historical novel


˜ a confining category for
such a freely expansive book ˜ set at the start of


the 17th century. Her choice,
though, “The Book of Splendor,” is not just a


title but truth in labeling.

How the author presents Rudolph,
and what she does with him, is by turns a


fiction, an essay and a
Punch-and-Judy show about the comedy, the aberrance and


the futility of power. About
its humanity, too, in a way: the tyrant as infant.


Conceive a Nativity scene
with Herod burbling in the manger.

If this were all, “Splendor”
would be a chilly gem: a portrait of the rarefied

atmosphere at power’s heights
(Hradcany Castle, in this case, set on a bluff


above the town) and of the
oxygen-starved delusions they breed. The author has


surrounded her lethal imperial
child, though, with a quirkily humane


counterpoint.

There is the astronomer Tycho
Brahe ˜ the savant likewise as child, but an


endearing one ˜ and Johannes
Kepler, his disciple and mentor a posteriori. He


instructs Brahe’s theories,
that is, by taking them further. There is Vaclav,


who turns out to be something
more and better than a servant, and Kirakos, the


court doctor, who is also
something more ˜ an Ottoman spy ˜ and then more and

better than that. Ms. Sherwood’s
characters don’t just possess qualities; they


propagate them.

The main counterpoint to
the castle, though ˜ the heart and a dose of demonic


cackle to “Splendor’s” brain
˜ lies in the town below, specifically in the


Judenstadt or ghetto. Here,
in alternating and converging chapters, is the story


of Rochel, the beautiful
and restless bride of Zev the shoemaker. For a while we


may wonder: another “Fiddler
on the Roof”? Forget it: heartwarming it may be but


only to provide forging
temperature for an armored spine and spark-spitting


medulla.

Rochel is an orphan; worse
than that she is illegitimate and the product of


rape; worse yet, the rapist
was not a Jew but a Cossack. Only the prophetic love


of Rabbi Loew and his wife,
Perl, win her a grudging acceptance by the community


and marriage to a fussy,
loving, but, at that point, unloved older man. She is a


free spirit confined. “I
have entered the forest of the dead,” she exclaims when


she sees Zev’s dark dwelling,
hung with tanned hides.

But the ghetto is in danger,
not just from the emperor’s threat but also from


whispers of pogrom from
the town. So Rabbi Loew ˜ a real figure to whom a legend


has attached ˜ goes down
to the river bank and fashions a golem, traditionally

meant to do household chores
and defend the community.

As prescribed, Yossel is
a giant, though a gentle, loving one (until the end)


and beautiful. He and Rochel
exchange glances. “A delicious tingle started at


her heels, spread upward,
and the tips of her fingers sizzled like a water


bubble in a frying pan.”
Then come caresses, then much more. Ms. Sherwood writes


with quiet but arousing
eroticism; no small achievement for a coupling of maid


and mud.

Yossel’s true strength is
an innocent intelligence. Accompanying the rabbi, he


stymies the emperor’s pogrom
threat by devising community life insurance. Each

Jew, he tells Rudolph, will
uniquely possess one secret word in the eternal-life


spell that is being prepared
for him.

There is a violent and exuberant
climax that enmeshes the castle with the


ghetto. There are heroic
deaths and a variety of ingeniously encouraging


individual endings. The
main ending is stunning: as Yossel tragically blossoms,


we realize, Rudolph has
been receding all the while into golemlike mud. Rochel


grows old and wise. She
writes books. Her face, by Ms. Sherwood’s description,


resembles her own jacket
photograph. Why shouldn’t an author have her personal


golem, particularly when
she uses it so well?

As noted, “Splendor” is based
on history. But Ms. Sherwood, author of


“Vindication,” a treatment
of the early English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, is


the rare writer whose work
goes far beyond what we think of as historical


novels.

Instead of history’s retrospective
certainty ˜ this is how it was ˜ Ms. Sherwood


projects her readers, as
if by time machine, back into a place where everything


is still to be discovered.
We do not feel that her characters are keeping


appointments. Rather than
moving confidently backward out of the clarity of Now,


we move uncertainly forward
from a foggy Then. We are only truly in the past

when we feel lost in it.

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About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in Tucson, Arizona with Stephanie Smith. https://linktr.ee/jaywbabcock