Peter is unhappy to be called home from Paris to corrupt and feuding Mainz, wrenched by his father from his vocation as a scribe copying sacred texts. He’s unhappier still when apprenticed to the blunt and ambitious Hans Gutenberg in a fetid workshop of hellish furnaces and tedious tasks. His introduction to his master’s mission is unsettling:
Each of those lines ended with an utter, chilling harmony, at precisely the same distance from the edge. What hand could write a line that straight, and end exactly underneath the one above? What human hand could possibly achieve a thing so strange? He felt his heart squeeze and his soul flood with an overwhelming dread. (p16-17)
Books everywhere, and costing less than manuscripts – in quantities that simply stun the mind. Imagine how the world would look if anyone could buy one! (p49)
It’s not until a role is found for his meticulous calligraphy that Peter can renounce his dream of returning to Paris. What follows is an account of the combination of commerce, craft and creativity that led to the invention of the printing press and the first mass-produced Bible.
While strongly rooted in a specific time and place, the novel is rife with parallels to small-town and workplace politics in the modern era, especially when that work entails artistic creativity. How do you weigh up the relative merits of the aesthetics of the printed page versus the need to produce volumes at an affordable cost? How do we ensure effective teamwork:
It was remarkable, how lightly they all worked without the master breathing fire. Each man was part, yet apart, responsible for his own task – just like the scribes who penned the students’ books in sections. (p192)
that each individual contribution is appropriately acknowledged, interpersonal rivalries managed and group loyalty maintained? How to safeguard one’s intellectual property and maintain secrecy in the development stages while securing financial support from outside?
The arrogance and narcissism of Gutenberg’s character:
He moved as if his garments shone, and none might touch them – as if the chain that bound him to the ordinary world had snapped. (p 286)
is reminiscent of Dean Jocelin in William Golding’s novel, The Spire; I’ll leave it to others to identify any present-day mavericks whose self-belief gets things done but makes them a torment to work for. The politics of production in the need to grease the palms of both Church and Guild was convincingly handled. There’s a nod to time and motion studies, supply chains, shifting deadlines and the anxiety of second guessing the market. Yet while I admired Alix Christie in making the mechanics of invention and manufacturing the subject of her debut novel, it was overly long for my liking. With her background as a letterpress printer, one would imagine that she relished researching the various stages of printing press development; I would have preferred to have been spared some of this fine detail. I thought I was immune to the lure of romance until I found myself suddenly more engaged when, almost halfway through, Peter started courting. Indeed, there’s a wealth of human emotion in the story but, in the early chapters, I felt forced to peer too closely at the spaces between the printed letters to find it.
Guttenberg’s Apprentice is published today by Headline Review; thanks to them for my Bookbridgr advance proof copy. If you’re interested in the social history of the late Middle Ages and the interplay of human frailties and organisational structure under the shadow of the church, this might well be a novel for you. Your comments are welcome on any aspect of this post.