The Book of Splendor By Frances Sherwood W.W. Norton and Company, 2002 $25.95
Already the recipient of rave reviews from the New York Times and other publications, Frances Sherwood's The Book of Splendor promises to create as much excitement on the literary scene as her award-winning Vindication, about the life of 18th century feminist Mary Woolstonecraft.
Sherwood is professor of English at Indiana University-South Bend.
In The Book of Splendor, Sherwood takes the reader to Prague at the dawn of the 17th century. Blending fact and fiction, she spins a tale of love, magic and struggle against oppression.
The Jews, long granted the right to live peacefully in Prague, are under threat from unruly citizens and their emperor, Rudolph II. Rudolph, the famous Rabbi Loew and his legendary golem are important characters in this action-filled tale, but the novel also features the astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe and assorted alchemists and spies - all comic, quirky and possessed of a zest for life.
The character who touches the reader's heart, however, is Rochel, the beautiful young orphan conceived in a pogrom. It is considered her good fortune to be accepted as a bride by an aging widower of Judenstadt, but it is no wonder that she looks lovingly on the handsome golem Yossel, which the rabbi creates to protect the community from Passover violence.
Rabbi Loew is a student of the Kaballah, the repository of Judaism's mystical tradition. Yossel, like Frankenstein's monster, is more attractive morally than most humans, and, good looking in the extreme, he is spared the persecution that makes Mary Shelley's creation turn violent. The rabbi forms Yossel without a tongue, anticipating a dullard fit to be a drudge and watchman, but the golem comes to life a handsome giant of a man: sensitive, intelligent and able to read and write Hebrew, Czech and German.
The story begins with the discovery of a dead Gentile baby in the ghetto - obviously a plot by the scheming Father Thaddeus to discredit the Jews and justify violence against them. To the disgust of Father Thaddeus, however, the resourceful rabbi arranges to smuggle the baby back to a Christian doorstep.
The novel moves rapidly between the castle, the tavern and the ghetto. Rudolph is a buffoon-like character, obsessed with finding the "elixir of life." Rochel dreams of the golem and struggles with poverty and the contempt of her "betters." When Rudolph hears that the rabbi may have the magic that can prolong life, all the major characters are brought together.
Sherwood presents a compelling portrait of 17th century Prague. Her research has uncovered piles of human and animal excrement on the stairwells and in the corners of the castle and has determined the exact dimensions of the one-room dwelling of a poor family such as Rochel"s. We learn what the various classes wear and what they eat - jellied eel, pheasant and marzipan for the emperor and lentils for Rochel.
Set in a world of violence and death, rampant disease and excruciating poverty, the novel nonetheless celebrates life, a thing of mystery, magic and joy. A booksigning by Sherwood will be at Barnes & Noble, 3748 E. 82nd St., Saturday, Sept. 7, 7:30 p.m. For more information, call 594-7525.