If you’d told me back on New Year’s Day that my favorite book of 2016 (in April, at least) would be a love story between an organ tuner and a mathematician, I would’ve balked. I hate math, for starters, and have never been able to appreciate Bach the way most people do.
And yet Septimania—Jonathan Levi’s first novel since 1992’s A Guide for the Perplexed—won me over in chapter one, despite the appearance of imaginary numbers. Thanks to a fateful meeting in St. George’s Church, Whistler Abbey in 1978, a young Cambridge history scholar discovers he is the heir to a secret kingdom (based on the real-life Septimania) with the power to select popes, influence international affairs, and a vast library hidden beneath the hills of Rome.
Intellectually fascinating and emotionally powerful, the tale that follows is a poignant meditation on youth, love, myth, history, and quantum theory. I recently spoke with Levi—who co-founded Granta and splits his time between New York and Rome—about the origins of Septimania, his inspirations, his narrative decisions, and his goals as a writer.
What drew you to the story of the historical Septimania?
30 years ago, I read a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail. While much of the public was taken by its portrait of a French secret society dedicated to the theory that the holy blood of Jesus landed on the shores of southern France care of a pregnant Mary Magdalene, I was drawn to a reference to a book about the 8th-century Jewish kingdom of Septimania written in 1972 by a historian named Arthur Zuckerman.
I found the book buried deep in stacks of the Columbia University Library. I read the book. I photocopied the book. And over the next 20 years, I took the copy out every once in a while, fascinated by the notion that 1,200 years before the founding of the State of Israel, an independent Jewish nation had existed in Europe. Being a bigger fan of fables than nations, I began to ask myself all kinds of hypothetical questions. What if Septimania still existed? Who would be the King or the Queen? Why would it matter? And when I sat down to begin writing the novel in 2007, Septimania was naturally at the center.
Why did you decide to set the majority of the novel in the 1970s?
Septimania opens on March 16, 1978, the day that the Red Brigades kidnapped Aldo Moro in Rome. It was a year of three Popes, that saw the death of Paul VI, the thirty three-day reign of John Paul I, and the beginning of John Paul II’s long tenure. It was the year of Saturday Night Fever and Elvis Costello. And it was the year that I spent over the rainbow as a student at Clare College, Cambridge. Although my heroes Malory and Louiza travel forward from the 1970s into a new millennium full of falling towers and rising anxiety that no wizard could have foreseen, they were also propelled into adulthood, as was I, by that extraordinary decade.
As a writer, what did you set out to do differently in Septimania than you did with A Guide for the Perplexed?
I used to warn friends who picked up A Guide for the Perplexed, don’t worry. The first hundred pages are dense, but once you get past them it’s smooth sailing. I was determined, this time, to start Septimania on page 1, not to make life so tough on my readers. I wanted, as I always do, to write a novel full of ideas, that would take others on a journey of questions and wonders. But most of all, I wanted to write a love story. Not perhaps your ordinary love story, but a love story nonetheless full of all the stumbles and stupidities I’ve accumulated over the years.
Was it important for you to be hyperspecific about the locations in Cambridge and Rome? Why so?
Everything in Septimania feels absolutely real to me. But I recognized that some aspects might seem a wee fantastical to others. I reckoned, therefore, that the best way to root the story in the here and now was to plumb my memories for the images that lived in three-dimensional color of my experiences of Cambridge, Rome, and New York for that matter. Curiously though, when I returned to Cambridge recently, after an absence of many years, I didn’t particularly feel like I was strolling through Septimania. Time, as Einstein told us, walks hand in hand with Space. And the Cambridge of today, the Rome of today where I live and write very happily, are spaces nearly four decades removed from the Septimania of my novel. And yet both cities are full of ghosts and echoes. As Bob Dylan wrote, “You could almost think that you’re seeing double, on a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs.”
For most authors I know, the idea for each book begins with a single image, a single character, a single setting, or a single scene. What did Septimania begin with for you?
Back in 1978, when I was a student at Cambridge, I found myself at a wild dinner party at a house my girlfriend was sharing with a Hungarian and a historian of science. The historian was an expert on Isaac Newton and was helping some friends of his at the BBC series Omnibus on a documentary about a French secret society—the series, in fact, that led to the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail that in turn led to a book by a guy named Dan Brown whose title, at the moment, I can’t quite remember. In any case, at one particularly raucous point in the dinner—the historian was telling us about a manuscript he’d discovered in which Newton had calculated the End of Time—the telephone rang, and the historian answered it. I can’t remember whether he quieted us down or whether we just saw his expression ashen—he was a small man but he had a serious beard that only accented his change of complexion. I remember that he listened for a while, said oui a few times, and then hung up. When we asked him what that was all about, he told us that someone speaking in French and claiming to call from Paris had insisted, in no uncertain terms, that he stop working on the documentary or else.
Knowing what I do about your background as a musician and playwright, is there a bit of you in the character of Tibor?
Tibor is a character who in many ways is my complete antithesis. He is a Rumanian, a smoker, a boozer, who can do as he pleases and take what he wants, whether it’s alcohol, pills, or women, without guilt. He can grow a beard. And yet I have surrounded myself with Tibors throughout my life—friends who are fearless, who seem out of control, out of tune, and yet are deeply committed to ancient values of friendship and doubt. Certainly I drew upon my knowledge of the world of theater to imagine the kind of Eastern European director that Tibor is. But I looked upon him a little the way Malory does, from a safe distance, in awe and horror and love.
Within a few chapters, it’s obvious the novel was written by a polymath, and the story often celebrates the intersection of diverse fields in the arts and sciences. Do you think it’s important for writers, readers, and other creative types to engage in the arts and sciences promiscuously?
Isaac Newton, who wanders through the pages of Septimania, used a prism to devise the science of optics. But he also used a prism to separate the whiteness of light into color—the meat and potatoes (or kale and quinoa) of artists. Does that mean that Newton, or the prism for that matter, was two-timing as a scientist and an artist? While monogamy might be best for marriage, promiscuity makes for better novels, at least to my way of thinking. I like books where I learn stuff, where the authors engage outward with the world. I’ve just finished reading, for example, the novels of a dynamite married pair of Mexican writers, Valeria Luiselli and Alvaro Enrigue. In her Story of My Teeth, I learned about logic and Mexican juice factories. In his Sudden Death, I learned about tennis balls, Caravaggio, and Anne Boleyn’s hair. I came away feeling exercised and enlarged and encouraged by other sympathetic writers, also promiscuously hungry to know, well, everything!
Septimania by Jonathan Levi
April 5, 2016
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.