John the Pupil: A Novel

John the Pupil: A Novel

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by David Flusfeder

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“A superbly written and intellectually stimulating novel.”—The Independent (London)

Since he was a young boy, John has studied at the Franciscan monastery outside Oxford, under the tutelage of friar and magus Roger Bacon, an inventor, scientist, and polymath. In 1267 Bacon arranges for his young pupil to embark on a journey of penitence


“A superbly written and intellectually stimulating novel.”—The Independent (London)

Since he was a young boy, John has studied at the Franciscan monastery outside Oxford, under the tutelage of friar and magus Roger Bacon, an inventor, scientist, and polymath. In 1267 Bacon arranges for his young pupil to embark on a journey of penitence to Italy. But the pilgrimage is a guise to deliver scientific instruments and Bacon’s great opus to His Holiness, Pope Clement IV. Two companions will accompany John, both Franciscan novices: the handsome, sweet-tempered Brother Andrew; and the brutish Brother Bernard.

John the Pupil is a road movie, recounting the journey taken from Oxford to Viterbo by John and his two companions. Modeling themselves after Saint Francis, the men trek by foot through Europe, preaching the gospel and begging for sustenance. In addition to fighting off ambushes from thieves hungry for the thing of power they are carrying, the holy trio is tried and tempted by all sorts of sins: ambition, pride, lust—and by the sheer hell and heaven of medieval life.

“Astonishing.”—Booklist (starred review)

“Strikingly original . . . a hugely enjoyable read.”—The Times (London)

Editorial Reviews

New York Times
“Well-written…Flusfeder’s novel is transporting - it’s set in the 1200s, and it aims to immerse us there.”
Rain Taxi Review of Books
“Intriguing…a skillful, sensitive exploration… reminiscent of the classic Nabokovian unreliable narrator.”
Booklist (starred review)
“John’s both limited and brilliant point of view is astonishing, especially when he describes the intricacies of an illuminated manuscript with entirely fresh eyes. The reader will move from amazement at how dark the Dark Ages were to recognizing the darkness and the hope in our own time.”
The Times (London)
“There is never a dull moment on this trip…The vicissitudes of John’s journey are a delight to follow…The result is a vividly atmospheric sense of period and, in the character of John, a richly comical and engaging hero…Learned, funny and strikingly original, this is a hugely enjoyable read.”
Financial Times (London)
“It is certainly a lively tale and will appeal to anyone who is a fan of Umberto Eco’s THE NAME OF THE ROSE.”
Allan Massie
“Some passages are as beautiful as an illustrated manuscript…inventive…Flusfeder has that essential quality of the true novelist: the ability to look at the world in a new and surprising light.”
Mail on Sunday
“Original, unusual, intriguing: Flusfeder just keeps getting better and better.”
The Independent (London)
“A superbly written and intellectually stimulating novel.”
Daily Mail (London)
“David Flusfeder writes impressively measured prose, provides a convincing look inside the medieval mind, and provokes some interesting ideas.”
The New York Times - John Williams
David Flusfeder's novel is transporting—it's set in the 1200s, and it aims to immerse us there. There are brief moments when it seems ready to become a Monty Python-like comic misadventure, but a few scenes of sobering violence keep it tethered to the sometimes barbaric world in which these men of God lived.
Publishers Weekly
In this multilayered, intellectually challenging historical novel, Flusfeder (The Gift) considers medieval science, religion, and education through a young scholar’s journey from Oxford, England, to Viterbo, Italy. In 1267, real-life freethinker Roger Bacon sends off John, his fictional favorite pupil, accompanied by strong, silent Brother Bernard and sweet-tempered Brother Andrew, on the pretense of a pilgrimage, to deliver a copy of Bacon’s Opus Majus and samples of his inventions to the Pope. At Canterbury, they meet Simeon the Palmer, a pilgrim-for-hire who supplements his income by robbing other pilgrims. In France, John finds contentment tending a garden in a monastery. At Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti’s Italian palace, John’s companions find temptation. By the time John reaches the Pope, he has experienced friendship and conflict, witnessed sin and martyrdom, suffered loss and doubt. The core of the novel is John’s first-person chronicle of the adventures, interspersed with fables and legends of saints, capturing the violence, superstition, and spirituality characteristic of the Middle Ages. Academic endnotes amplify selected references: Cavalcanti, for example, appears in Dante’s Inferno, waiting for his son, the Florentine poet Guido Cavalcanti. The footnotes’ excruciating erudition belie the fact that they are essential reading: they provide place names along the pilgrims’ progress, they both support and undermine the faux chronicle’s credibility, and they include the author’s passionate rant against historical fiction; this is, after all, an antihistorical historical novel. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
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.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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5.20(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.80(d)

Meet the Author

David Flusfeder is the author of six previous novels, including The Gift. He has been a television critic for the London Times, a poker columnist for the Sunday Telegraph, and has contributed features to many other publications, including GQ, Esquire, the Observer, Guardian, New Statesman, and Financial Times. He is the director of creative writing at the University of Kent, and lives in South London with his family.

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John the Pupil 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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