From the New York Times:


A Mad Emperor Meets His Match



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

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


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


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


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