Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The quiet light, Louis de Wohl

I read the Italian version of this book, and I find the Italian title to be more meaningful than "The quiet light". The Italian title translates to "The freeing of the giant", a title that captures the two main themes in the book: 1) the power of Saint Thomas's work in reconciling catholic faith with Aristotelian philosophy (Aristotle being the giant); and 2) the story of how Saint Thomas, as a kid, had been imprisoned by his own family who didn't want him to join the Dominican order, and how he ultimately was able to escape and go on to become one of the most brilliant stars of the catholic world (Thomas being the giant in this case. He was also quite a big guy).

"The freeing of the giant" is a historical novel. Luis De Wohl was a German-Hungarian writer who, in the '30s, left Germany and moved to live in London. His specialty were historical novels, and after WWII he committed to writing about the life of the saints. He was himself a catholic and had a face to face chat with the Pope before writing this book. The Pope asked him to write about St Thomas, and so he did with this book. It should be noted that this is not a novel about religion, but rather about history.

While the book certainly does not have great literary value, it is written in a really engaging style, it is well researched and also well balanced between history, philosophy/religion, and fiction, to the point that I'm wondering why this author is not better known.

Writing a historical novel is no easy feat, even if you know your history well. You need to get the details right, and the spirit of the time you are writing about. Moreover, writing a novel about a Dominican Saint who did little else in his life other than read, pray and write, sounds like a real challenge.

But I think De Wohl nailed it on the head. He uses one single fictional character, Sir Piers, to give the novel the dynamism it needs, a little romance, but most of all as a tool that allows him to weave together in one coherent plot various historical characters like emperor Frederick II, his court, Saint Albert the great, and even some contemporary Muslim characters.

The second half of the 13th century was a very interesting time: Frederick II had an immense power over Europe, however the European region was under a lot of pressure from Islam, that was pushing from both the west (Spain) and the East (Turkey). Muslim culture was peaking. On one hand, you had the military conflicts, between the Sacred Roman Empire and Islam, through the Crusades and other battles. On the other, there were cultural battles, no less fierce, among the various intellectuals of that time: on one hand, Averroe and his school of thought were trying to use Aristotle as a way to weaken Christianity, by separating everything religious from what was "rational", and arguing that Aristotle would have never given in to anything but pure rationality and experimentation. On the other, you had the Church, who specifically requested Saint Thomas, one of the finest minds of those times, to find a way to reconcile Aristotle with the Christian faith. And that's what he did, in his "Summa Theologica".

To make things even more complicated, the emperor's relationship with the Church kept worsening, ultimately resulting in a real conflict, that had Frederick II as the end loser, and Italy torn between pro-church and pro-emperor factions.

De Wohl touches on all of these historical and philosophical elements with great simplicity, but never with a heavy hand or in a tacky way, always respecting the known facts in a graceful manner.

In particular, St Thomas's personality comes out of this book as a shining light, as he is depicted as a truly humble, shy, good and highly intelligent man. Yes it is a work of fiction but these personality traits have been well documented.

Sometimes I think that back in those days, "intelligent" people were much smarter than what we are on average today. Or perhaps, they were intelligent in a very different way. They used to have dialectical, rhetorical, and mnemonic skills that today you probably cannot even find (maybe because they are not required anymore?).

You don't really learn history by reading these type of books, although it's clear that De Wohl had done his homework. It will help enjoying the book more if you already know the main historical facts (or keep Wikipedia close to your thumbs). However, this kind of book is able to bring history to life in such a vivid way, that in a sense you do learn about history. It's history for right-brainers.

Overall, a truly enjoyable read for lovers of historical novels, and if you are interested in the history of Catholicism.

No comments:

Post a Comment