The Calligrapher: A Novel

The Calligrapher: A Novel

by Edward Docx
The Calligrapher: A Novel

The Calligrapher: A Novel

by Edward Docx


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This beguiling novel is a provocative romantic comedy centered on a young London calligrapher named Jasper, who is an engaging, intelligent serial seducer and a breaker of hearts. But when he meets Madeleine, a captivating but enigmatic woman who is his equal in every way, he falls helplessly in love. Vulnerable for the first time, he is headed for his comeuppance at last. Jasper is transcribing the Songs and Sonnets of that other great lover, John Donne, for a rich American client. As he works on them (revealing to us the fascinating art of the calligrapher), he discovers that these wise and beautiful love poems illuminate his own experiences — of the difference between love and lust, of the play of truth and deceit between men and women, of the cost of constancy.

As well as bringing modern London vividly to life, The Calligrapher is keenly observant of contemporary relationships and modern mores. Underlying its sparkling surface are Jasper's wry but heartfelt lamentations about the diminishment of our culture: the trivial masquerading as the consequential, the rising tide of ignorance, the triumph of the lowest common denominator. At once wickedly witty and deeply serious, sweet and cynical, romantic and reflective, this stylish, wonderfully entertaining novel is an accomplished and exciting literary debut.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618485345
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 01/11/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 937,371
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Edward Docx is the author of the acclaimed The Calligrapher, named a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year. He lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Confined Love

Like so many people living through this great time in human history, I am not
at all sure what is right and what is wrong. So if I appear a little slow to grasp
the moral dimensions of what follows, I'm afraid I will have to ask you to bear
with me. Apologies. It's a difficult age.
Actually, I do not believe I was behaving all that badly when these
withering atrocities first began. (And if it would now be helpful for me to admit
that mine was a crime of sorts, then I feel I must also be allowed to maintain
that I did not deserve the punishment.) Rather, I seem to recall that I was
trying to be as careful and as sensitive and as discreet as possible; it was
William who was acting like a fool.
We had finally come to a halt in the middle of 'The Desire for
Order.' Lucy and Nathalie were somewhere up ahead—progressing
unabashed through the room designated 'Modern Life.' I had been hoping to
slip away without detection. But matters were not proceeding according to
plan. For the last two minutes William had been following me through the
gallery with the air of a pantomime detective: two steps behind, stopping only
a slapstick fraction after me and then raking his eyes accusingly up and
down my person.
He spoke in a vociferous whisper: 'Jasper, what the hell are you
'Ssshh.' The artificial lights hummed. 'I am attempting to enjoy
my birthday.'
'Well, why do you keep running away from us?'
'I'm not.'
'Of course you are.' His voice was becoming progressively
louder. 'You are deliberately refusing to enter 'Modern Life'— over there.' He'And you keep drifting back into 'The Desire for Order'—in here.' He
pointed again, but this time at his feet and with a flourish. 'Don't think I
haven't been watching you.'
'For Christ's sake, William, if you must know—'
'I must.'
'I am trying to get off this floor altogether and back upstairs
into 'Nude Action Body' without anybody noticing. So it would be very helpful
if you would stop drawing attention to us and go and catch up with the girls.
Why exactly are you following me?'
'Because you've got the booze and I think you should open it.
Immediately.' He paused to draw a stiffening breath. 'And because you
always look oddly attractive when you are up to something.'
'I'm not up to anything, and I haven't got the wine—I stowed it
inside Lucy's bag, which is now safely inside a cloakroom locker.' I feigned
interest in the mangled wire that we were facing.
'You didn't. My God. Well, we must mount a rescue. We must
spring the noble prisoner from its vile cell straight away! People from Texas
put their cream sodas in those lockers—I've seen them do it—and their . . .
their fanny packs. And God only knows what's in Lucy's bag—women's
products, probably. And cheap Hungarian biros. You realize—'
'Will you please keep your voice down? ' I frowned. An elderly
couple wearing 'I love Houston' T-shirts seemed to be choking to death on
the far side of the installation. 'Anyway, Lucy uses an ink pen.'
But William was undeterred. 'You realize that you may have
ruined that great Burgundy's life. One of the most elegant vintages of the last
mille recovery within minutes of your having taken
possession. It's barbarous. I am holding you personally resp—'
'William, for fuck's sake. If you must talk so bloody loudly, then
can you at least try to sound more like a human being from the present
century? And less like a fucking ponce.' I cleared my throat. 'Besides, you're
not allowed to wander around Tate Modern swigging booze. It's against the
'Balls. What rules? That's a 1990 Chambertin Clos de Bèze
you've got locked up in there like a . . . like a common Chianti. Bought by
me—especially for you, my dear Jasper, on this, the occasion of your twenty-
ninth birthday. How could they stop us drinking it? They wouldn't dare.'
I mimicked his ridiculous manner: 'As well you know, my dear
William, that bottle needs opening for at least two hours before we could even
go near it. It's my wine now, and I forbid you to molest it before it's had a
chance to develop. Look at you, you're slathering like a pedophile.'
'Well, I think you're being very unfair. You drag your friends out to
look at all this—all this bric-a-brac and mutilated genitalia —and then you
deny us essential refreshment. Of course I am desperate. Of course I need a
drink. This isn't art, this is wreckage.'
I took a few steps away from him and turned to face a large
canvas covered in heavy ridges of dun brown paint. William followed and did
the same, tilting his head to one side in a parody of viewers of modern art the
world over.
'Actually,' he said, a little less audibly, 'I was meaning the small
bottle of specialty vodka that Nathalie bought you might have
stashed it in your coat or something. I only need a painkiller to get me
through the next room.' Mock grievance now yielded to genuine
curiosity: 'Anyway, you haven't answered my question.'
'That's because you are a complete penis, William.'
'Why are you in such a hurry to leave us? What's so special
about 'Nude Action Body'?' He looked sideways at me, but I kept my
attention on the painting. 'Is it that girl you were staring at?'
'Yes, it is. It's that girl from upstairs.'
'No, it isn't.'
'The one you were pretending not to follow before we came down
here.' He paused. 'I knew it. I knew it.'
'OK. Yes. It is.'
He gave a theatrical sigh. 'I thought you were supposed to be
stopping all that. What was it you said?' He composed his face as if to
deliver Hamlet's saddest soliloquy. ' 'I can't go on like this, Will, I am going
mad. Oh Will, save me from the quagmire of womankind. No more of this
relentless sex. Oh handsome Will, I have to stop. I must stop. I will be true.' '
I ignored him. 'William, I need you to buy me some time and stop
fucking around. Lucy and Nathalie will be back in here looking for us any
second. Go and distract them. Be nice. Be selfless. Help me.'
He ignored me. 'OK, maybe not the 'handsome Will' bit, but those
were more or less your words. And now look at you—you're right back to
where you were a year ago. You can't leave your flat without trying to sleep
with half of London. And never a moment's cease to consider what the fuck
you are doing or—heaven forbid—why.'
I walked toward the exit on the
considered a collection of icons made to evoke the Russian Orthodox style.
The figures were blurred and distorted and appeared to recede into their
frames, so that it was impossible to tell whether they were indeed hallowed
saints or grotesque contorted animals or merely half-smudged lines signifying
'Look, Will, I need fifteen minutes. Will you keep an eye on the
others for me—please? Don't let them leave this floor. If they look like they're
moving, set off the fire alarm or something. I don't want to fuck up and have to
concoct some stupid bullshit. Not tonight. It would be awful. Lucy gets so
uptight. I just want everyone to have as relaxed and pleasant a dinner as
possible this evening.'
'The fire alarm?'
'Yes, it stops the escalators working.'
He shook his head, but there was amusement in his eyes.
'I'm sorry, Will. But I swear to you, that girl winked at me, and
she is far too pretty for me to ignore. Admit it, she is. What am I supposed to
do? I can't just let it go. Come on. Millions of men would pay to be winked at
by girls like her. I have a responsibility to act. Fifteen minutes max.'
He smiled. 'Well, go on then—get on with it. But if the authorities
arrest me for false alarms, I shall instantly confess that you made me do it. I
shall explain that you are dangerously persuasive and the worst sort of
unscrupulous libertine—'
'I'm exceptionally scrupulous.'
'And I shall tell them that you are incapable of behaving in a
decent manner toward friends—or even your own girlfriend—and that you
deserve to be taught a serious fifteen.'
'Thank you, William.'
'And don't forget to check for sisters.'

Now, I don't want to start blaming Cécile for the first wave of demoralizing
setbacks that followed hard on the heels of this, the otherwise inauspicious
evening of my twenty-ninth birthday, but as far as immediate causes of
disaster go, then she has to shoulder full responsibility: J'accuse Cécile, la
fille française. Had she not winked at me, I probably wouldn't have risked it.
But what could be the purpose of such fetching Mediterranean looks as hers,
if not to fetch?
All the same, the fire alarm surprised everybody.
Chaos followed fast, rushing through 'Nude Action Body' like a
messenger from the front with news of approaching armies. From hidden
antechambers and doors marked 'Private' dozens of orange-clad ushers
emerged and began urgently to usher; the lifts stopped; small blue lights
flashed from odd places high on the walls; and (as if all this were not
encouragement enough) an unnervingly measured female voice interrupted
the revels every thirty seconds to spell out the situation in an exciting variety
of languages. 'This is a routine emergency. Please leave the building by the
nearest fire exit and follow the advice of the officials. Thank you.'
I had only just returned to the fifth floor and had taken no more
than three steps into the gallery proper. But now I doubled back and stood to
one side by the wide emergency exit doors at the top of the escalators,
waiting for Cécile. Along with everyone else, she was sure to leave this way.
There was no longer any need to seek her. And I was r all the
Parents issued taut-voiced instructions to their charges.
Scandinavians strode calmly toward the emergency stairs. Italian men put
their arms around Italian women. A litter of art college day-outers roused
themselves reluctantly from their beanbags. Two children came careering out
of 'Staging Discord,' opposite. And an American woman began to
scream 'Oh my God, oh my God.'
Given that Irony and Futility still seemed to be filling in for God
and Beauty on the art circuit, the thought occurred to me that had I been
filming the whole thing, I could perhaps have submitted the results for
exhibition myself; perhaps a showing in 'History Memory Society': 'People
from All Over the World Leaving in Uncertainty' ( Jasper Jackson, calligrapher
and video artist).
Of course, I didn't actually know that Cécile's name was Cécile as
I fell into place three or four people behind her. ( Jostle, jockey, joke and
jostle all the way down six flights of unapologetically functional fire stairs.) I
didn't know anything about her at all, except that she had short, choppy,
boyish black hair, a cute denim skirt cut above the knee, thin brown bare
legs and unseasonable flip-flops, which flapped on every step as she went.
And that she had (quite definitely) winked at me as we circled Rodin's Kiss.
Outside, safely asquare the paving slabs of the South Bank, I
looked hastily around. The light was thickening. St. Paul's across the
Thames—a fat bishop boxed in and stranded flat on his back —and two
bloated seagulls, making heavy weather of the homeward journey upstream.
Crowds continued t from the building, but there was as yet no sign of
William or Nathalie or Lucy's adorable light-brown bob. Still, I had to act
Cécile was standing with her back to me, looking across the river.
'Hi,' I said.
She turned and then smiled, an elbow jutting out over the
railings. 'Oh, hello.'
'That was quite exciting.' I returned her smile.
'You think there is a fire?'
I looked doubtful. 'Probably terrorists or art protesters or rogue
'I wonder what they save from the flames.' She bent an idle knee
in my direction and swiveled her toe on the sole of her flip- flops. 'The
paintings or the objets?'
'Good question.'
'Maybe in an emergency they have an order for what to keep —
and they begin at the top and then descend until everything is burning too
'Or maybe,' I said, 'they just let the bastard go until it's finished
so that they can open up afterward as a new sort of gallery— Burnt Modern.
A new kind of art.'
'Perhaps that's what the protesters want—a new kind of art.' She
was a born flirt.
I met her eye and moved us on. 'They evacuated the building very
'Yes. But there are some people still coming out, I think.' She
gestured. 'I like how in an emergency everybody starts to talk. As if because
there is a disaster, now we can all be friends, happy together.' She looked
past me for a second. 'Will they let us back in, do you think?'
'I'm not sure. But I'm supposed to be going to a restaurant at
eight, so I don't think I will be able to wait. This might take a cou they are OK.'
'Me too. I have already lost them once today—when we were on
the London Eye.'
'How long are you in London for?'
'I live here.' She frowned slightly—amused disparagement.
I pretended to be embarrassed.
She relented. 'I am teaching here.'
'Yes.' A pout masquerading as a smile.
'You have an e-mail address?'
'If I write to you, do you think that you'll reply?'
'Maybe. It depends what you say.'

I found William sitting on a bench with a diesel-coated pigeon and the man
who had earlier been selling the Big Issue outside the main entrance.
'Jasper—Ryan. Ryan—Jasper. We haven't thought of a name for
this little chap yet.' He indicated the creature now pecking at a chocolate
'Where's Lucy?' I asked, acknowledging Ryan.
'She's fetching her bag with Nat. Did you meet anyone nice' —
William winked exaggeratedly—'in the toilets?'
'Yes, thanks.'
William did an American accent: 'I hope you were real gentle with
Ryan snorted and got up. 'See you Thursday, Will, mate,' he
said, 'and let's hope this new bloke knows how to deal with those fucking
tambourine bastards.'
'See you later.' William raised an arm as Ryan left.
I sat down and was about to speak, but William motioned me to
be quiet.
'Here they come,' he said, 'they've seen us.'
Lucy and Nathalie were making their way toward the bench.
William addressed the pigeon: 'You'll have to piss off now, old chap, but we'll
catch up again soon, I hope. Let me know how the diet of my firmest
friends from the freezing Fenland days of my tertiary education. (Philosophy,
I'm afraid, man's most defiant folly.) I can still remember the pale afternoon, a
week or so after we had all arrived for our first year, when we were walking
back from a betting shop together and he came out to me. It was going to be
very awkward, he confided, and he was at a bit of a dead end with the whole
idea, because—apart from his sister, who didn't count—he hadn't really met
any women before now, but—how could he put this?—he was rather worried
that he might not be homosexual and—as I seemed to be rather, well, in the
know on the subject, as it were—had I any suggestions as to next steps vis-
à-vis the ladies?
Unfortunately, several centuries in the highest ranks of
government, church and army had left the men in his family quite unable to
imagine women, let alone talk to them. Indeed, William suspected that he
was the first male child in sixteen generations not to turn out gay. As I could
imagine, this was a severe blow both to him and to his lineage, but he had
tried it with other boys at school on several occasions and there was
absolutely nothing doing. The truth of the matter was that he liked girls; and
that was that. And as he was now nearing twenty, he rather felt that he
should be getting on with it. Could I offer any pointers?
Naturally, things have moved on a good deal since then, and
these days Will is regularly trumpeted by various tedious publications as one
of the most eligible men in London. He is an invaluable ally and well known
on the doors o venues—early evening, private and exclusive as well
as late-night, public and squalid. I regret to say, however, that his approach
remains erratic and hopelessly undisciplined. Though many women find him
attractive, the execution of his actual seductions is not always the most
appropriate. It is as if a strain of latent homosexuality bedevils his genes—
like an over-attentive waiter at a business lunch.
All else aside, William is the most effortlessly charming man that
anybody who meets him has ever met. He is also genuinely kind. And though
he claims to feel terribly let down by the astonishing triviality of modern life,
this is merely an intellectual arras behind which he chooses to conceal a rare
species of idealism. He does not believe in God or mankind, but he visits
churches whenever he is abroad and runs a music charity for tramps.
On the subject of William's relationship with Nathalie . . . Back in
March he claimed that it was purely platonic, and I have to say that I think he
was telling the truth. Under light questioning, he explained that it was only in
this way that he could maintain the exclusivity of their intimacy, since of the
few women who shared his bed from time to time, Nathalie was the only one
with whom he was not having sex. They were therefore bound together by
uncompromised affection and happily unable to cheat on each other. (She
too, I understood, was at complete liberty.) This approach, he confided, was
an ingenious variation on the arrangement his forefathers had shared with
their various wives since they had first come to prominence (under Edward II);
dynastic ob aside, they had kept sex resolutely outside of marriage,
thereby removing all serious woes, threats and resentment from their lives.

A little before midnight, the birthday evening's rightful enchaînement having
been long reestablished, Lucy and I were alone at last, intimately ensconced
at the corner of the largest table in La Belle Epoque, my favorite French
restaurant. We were considering the last of our dessert with a certain languid
desire, and feeling about as happy as two young lovers can reasonably
expect to feel in a London so beleaguered by medieval licensing laws. A little
drunk perhaps, a little reckless with the cross-table kissing, a little laissez-
faire with the last of the Latour; but undeniably at ease with each other and,
well, having a good time. The bill was paid and my friends had all left—
William and Nathalie among the last to go, along with Don, another university
friend, over from New York with his wife, Cal, and Pete, Don's fashion-
photographer brother, who had arrived with a beautiful Senegalese woman
called Angel.
If pressed, the casual observer would probably have informed you
that he was watching a boyfriend and girlfriend quietly canoodling while they
awaited a final pair of espressos. If he was any good at description, this
observer might have gone on to say that the woman was around twenty-eight,
five foot six or seven, slim, with dead straight, bobbed, light brown hair,
which—he might have further noticed—she had a habit of hooking behind her
ears. Had he dashed over and stolen my chair while I visited the gents', he
would also have been able to tell that her face was very slightly freckled,
principally across the bridge of her nose, that she had thin lips (but a nice
smile), that her eyes were a beseeching shade of green and that she liked to
sit straight in her chair, cross her legs and loosen her right shoe so she
could balance it, swinging a little, on her extended big toe. He might have
rounded the whole thing off with some remarks about how— even now—
England can still turn out these roses every once in a while. But at this stage
we would surely have to dispute his claims to being casual and tell him to
fuck off.
It is more or less true to say that back then, Lucy and I were more
or less a year into it—our relationship, that is. I'm not sure why—these
things happen . . .
Actually, I am sure why: because I liked Lucy very much. That is
to say, I still like Lucy very much. Which is to say I have always liked Lucy
very much. Lucy is the sort of woman who makes the human race worth the
running. She's not stupid or simpering, and she only laughs when something
is funny. She's intelligent and she knows her history. Yes, she can be
cautious, but she's quick-witted (a lawyer by profession) and she will smile
when she sees she has won a point. Then she'll pass on, because she's as
sensitive to other people's embarrassment as quicksilver to the temperature
of a room. She keeps lists of things to do. She remembers what people have
said but doesn't hold it against them. She seldom talks about her family. And
she has no time for magazines or horoscopes. If you were sitting with us in
some newly opened London eatery, privately w had an ashtray for
your cigarette, you might well find that she had discreetly nudged one to a
place just by your elbow. Which is how we met.
Even so, it is with regret that I must add that Lucy is a nutcase.
But I didn't know that then. That all came later.
'Close your eyes,' she said, putting her finger to my lips for good
I did as I was told and lowered my voice. 'You haven't organized
'Too late. It's tough. I've got you a big cake with candles and all
the waiters are going to join in with 'Happy Birthday to You,' so you'll just
have to sit still and act appreciative.'
I heard the rustle of a bag and the stocky chink of espresso cups.
'OK, open your eyes.'
A young waiter with a napkin over his shoulder hovered nearby —
curious. A neatly wrapped present lay on the table.
Lucy smiled infectiously. 'Go ahead—guess.'
I leaned across and kissed her.
'You wish.'
'A gold locket with a picture of Princess Diana?'
'Oh, go on, for God's sake . . . open it.'
I undid her neat wrapping and unclasped the dark velvet case: a
gentleman's watch with a leather strap, three hands and Roman numerals. I
held it carefully in my palm.
'So now you have no excuses.' Her eyes were full of delight.
'You can never be late again.'
I felt that tug of gladness you get when someone you care about
is happy. 'I won't be late again, I promise,' I said.
'Not ever?'
'Not for as long as the watch keeps time.'
'It has a twenty-five-year guarantee.'
'Well, that's at least twenty-five years Love' is one of John Donne's more transparent
poems: a man railing against the confinement of fidelity. Neither birds nor
beasts are faithful, says his narrator, nor do they risk reprimand or sanctions
when they lie abroad. Sun, moon and stars cast their light where they like,
ships are not rigged to lie in harbors nor houses built to be locked up . . . The
metaphors are soon backed up nose to tail, honking their horns like offroad
vehicles in a downtown jam.
On the face of it, Donne, the young man about town, master of the
revels at Lincoln's Inn, seems to be striding robustly through his lines,
booting the sanctimonious aside with a ribald rhythm and an easy rhyme, on
his way to wherever the next assignation happens to be. But actually, that's
not the point of the poem. That's not what 'Confined Love' is about at all.

Copyright © 2003 by Edward Docx. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

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