That’s it! I’ve done it!
It was a tremendous endeavor, meaningful and profound, but I told myself I simply mustn’t give up or give in, not now or ever. I remembered the 1,024 pages from the previous book, and I obligated myself: you will start this and you will finish it! It took me a whole week of none-stop reading, but it was done. 816 pages later I can proudly declare I love Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.
I can see why you liked this book better than World Without End. It’s the same principle: people who shape the modern world through the darkness of mediaeval times. It was like seeing history in the making, right there, with all the twists and turns (fine, now I feel utterly silly because World Without End is the sequel to The Pillars of the Earth. That’s what happens when one doesn’t read the back cover before reading the book – although in my defense I must say there was no back cover to World Without End. I mean – there was, but there was nothing written on it. Probably because everyone else was already got the memo. Everyone but me that is. Oh, what an embarrassment? But – did you know that Ridley Scott has just now adapted the novel for a television movie?! Super exciting! I’m so happy I learned about it only after reading it. There is a website for the series too – .. Now if someone could only tell me where I can watch it…).
You know what’s very evident in these novels? The characters are either extremely good or incredibly bad. There is no middle, no depth.
William Hamleigh was a nightmare: a sadist who became so due to the humiliation that one woman inflicted on him. His compulsive – sickening – childish need to gain constant respect was his fuel. Horrifying as it sounds, the murders he committed weren’t as awful as his rape and abuse of women. The violence and the enjoyment of poor womens’ weaknesses – all this was revolting. My anger towards his appearances in the book grew stronger each time: “here he comes again, to wreck things!” I understand every story need a villain, but this was overdoing it.
It is a novel filled with nauseating descriptions, I must say that Follett’s imageries of gruesome battlefields, cockfights, bear and dogfights were truly difficult to read.
The fights are interspersed with Church and historical saga. Between Bishop Waleran, whose sharpness balanced his lust for power and Philip, the monk, the head of Kingsbridge cathedral (the Bishop of Kingsbridge).
Philip was a wise but very limited person, due to his monasticism, which pretty much prevented me from favoring his character (I wonder if Ken Follett has a personal issue in criticizing the Church). William Hamleigh performed the most vicious and inhuman acts but Bishop Waleran gave him absolution each time. All it took was for Hamleigh to make declaration and light a candle or do something just as ridiculous. He didn’t even have to pay a penance, as the commoners did. They didn’t have much to begin with, but the Church took from them anyway.
So you see, in this book there is good and there is evil. There isn’t any half way.
The fact that Philip was highly intelligent with great managerial skills who perceived the world though very narrow binoculars did not make him a rounded character. The only one who – maybe! – had a multi layered persona was Aliena, although the only change she went through was puberty. Something of her young upbringing stayed with her, determining her path forward: she swore to sustain her promise to her father and that is what she had to do.
One must admire the struggles she had: she wasn’t very apparent at first, at least for me, but when her involvement with the redheaded Jack started to kick in, so my interest grew, together with the dislike of William Hamleigh. Does that mean that all it takes to draw my attention is a romantic relationship? I would like to think I’m not so superficial – it was just the position she took in the story. Take The Medici Seal by Theresa Breslin for example. It also featured romantic relationships, but they weren’t as central as they are here. It didn’t make it any less interesting.
I confess I wanted to write to you about The Medici Seal in a separate e-mail, which I planned to start with: “good morning, pupils. Please open your study books to page 64…” with a picture of a serious looking school teacher. Just as well. I couldn’t find an amusing picture. Besides, as I have mentioned The Medici Seal twice already, it would be absolutely unfair to have you waiting for another e-mail…
So here’s the thing. The first obvious contras between the two authors is that Ken Follett is a man and Theresa Breslin is a woman. Not funny: there is a fundamental difference between the concise writing of a man and the emotional writing of a woman. Both of them do not renounce history, so one can’t claim Breslin did anything better or worse than Follett. Well, actually… he does linger a lot on architectural descriptions of building a cathedral, which was his main interest in the story to being with (or so he confessed). Bresling concentrated more on Leonardo da Vinci, with emphasis on many important aspects in his life – the paintings, the travels, the nature studies, the human body and the Mona Lisa (someone asked me a week later about the Mona Lisa, and thanks to Bresling I had an explanation).
Bresling creates a larger than life persona of da Vinci, with his achievements and personality and she tells us about the Medici family, which is totally Prof. Stow’s thing. I really miss taking her classes (even though I keep saying it, it doesn’t take away from the feeling). She made mediaeval history fascinating!
Bresling also mentions Machiavelli’s The Prince, which is a philosophical – political matter in its own right and how it connects all the right dots together (I read that The Medici Seal is basically a novel for teenagers, which made me feel stupid for the second time during this e-mail. You should have told me! Did you know?)
It’s not that I’m a qualified historian, thanks to these two novels.
Maybe books aren’t supposed to teach you history, although they do. Interestingly, I must add.
What is certain, though, is – mind the incredible leap – Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases didn’t teach me history. It made me study it.
The first chapter almost made me renounce the whole thing. I got lost with all names on the tombstones in the graveyards and I couldn’t find logic in anything. “Tsofit couldn’t possibly recommend me something like this” I thought. “I must persevere”. So I did, and was overwhelmed.
Everyone is so enthusiastic with Nathan Englander. Truth be told? I didn’t notice. I mean – I noticed it was good writing, but I was more concerned with the intensity of his irresistible story. I think it is an amazing achievement for a writer – or for any creative person.
He opened a whole new world to me.
You probably won’t believe this, but he too has a website.
Shocking, isn’t it?
I could have written a whole lot more, just so you know.
I wanted to.
I wanted to enrich our knowledge with all the history that I met in these novels. But it’s hopeless. And neither of us are historians.
At least we read books.
And write about them.
That’s important! Because we could have read a book, been deeply impressed and then forgotten it.
But when we talk about them and when write about them – we remember.
Something concrete stays with us.
Did I just write “we” and “us”?
You never answer back. Why should you get all the glory?
After these three novels, I think I deserve at least one (!) email, if not one for each of them.
A proof of life, an encouragement, an alphabet.
At this point I will settle for anything.
Have a great evening and a wonderful week and the best of news and a lot of energy to write to me all about new recommendations for lots of new books…
All the best