It wasn’t just that the novel’s prologue seems to feature Sir Isaac Newton in a romantic liaison with a young Italian man that caught my attention.
Since his last published novel, Jonathan Levi has co-founded a high school in New York City, rearranged the elementary school libraries of New York City, written a major piece for The Nation about Lori Berenson the American who was convicted of terrorism in Peru (and been threatened with a legal suit for it), founded the SummerScape music festival at Bard College in upstate New York, founded the Zaubersee music festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, co-founded a cultural journalism summer program in Cartagena, Colombia, directed and toured with the musical production of Dante’s “Inferno” he commissioned Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky to adapt from Pinsky’s own text, as well as moving to Rome and writing a handful of musical productions for theater himself.
All of which is to note that this co-founder of Granta is not someone who is satisfied with leaving the life of the mind in the realm of the abstract. Also that it’s been 24 years since his last novel. Also, though he loves the actual existing Jewish state, as he told me over breakfast on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he thinks “the happiest nature of the Jewish people is the sense of being in exile everywhere.” These facts are worth bearing in mind in a philosophical novel with a 23 year jump in it that features a sovereign Jewish state.
For some American Jewish college students in the early ‘90s Levi’s “A Guide for the Perplexed” was required reading. Described by The New York Times as “a first novel of monumental ambition and striving imagination,” it is a fantastical romp across continents and history. Breezing together Muslim, Jewish and Christian history, “Guide” was a book to read and insistently pass on. As, in different eras, John Fowles’s “The Magus,” Alex Garland’s “The Beach” or Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” had been read and then pressed as compulsory reading into friends’ hands, so reading the “Guide” — with its fanciful melding of New World cultures and old — marked a niche rite of passage into thoughtful adult culture.
The craziness of the novel’s events and histories was belied by its surprising intellectual coherence. A magical picaresque in contemporary Spain featuring two strong, but somewhat bemused, female protagonists reveals a series of unlikely stories and histories (including how the expulsion from Spain led to a Jewish baseball playing boy discovering and marrying into pre-Columbian Florida natives). For readers, hanging onto the connections between the many strange adventures pays off. Not just because it is fun, but because it’s an entry into non-canonical American Jewish culture.
“Septimania” has a similar breadth of canvas to “Guide.” It starts with what appears to be a tryst between Newton and an unnamed Italian Jew who, it transpires, may be the rightful ruler of the country of Septimania, from which the novel takes its name. Newton, though he never married (and had an intense relationship with the Swiss mathematician Nicolas Fatio de Duillier), was not thought gay but was, rather, famous for having died a virgin. Voltaire, visiting London at the time of Newton’s funeral in 1726, wrote in his “Letters on England” that Newton “was never sensible to any passion, was not subject to the common frailties of mankind, nor had any commerce with women.”
The novel begins well before Newton’s death, and curls through 500 years of history in Cambridge, Rome and upstate New York, from the Great Fire of London in 1666 up to and beyond 9/11. As it does so, it brings into question the monism that was at the heart of Newton’s alchemical work.
“Fuck the Trinity,” Levi has Newton say in the opening excerpt and from that moment on the book oscillates between on the one hand characters and events that look for what, when I met with him, Levi referred to as “the unified field theory of life” and, on the other, those which hold out for the possibility of multiple, simultaneous answers.
Roughly speaking, Newton — who never actually publicly disavowed the orthodox Christian idea of the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Ghost — is the champion and symbol of the singular in the book. Later in the fictional diary excerpted in the prologue, Newton is quoted as saying, “I have found the One True Rule… That guides the Universe.”
In opposition to this monism stands art and the creative impulse, including the novel itself (which has a mania for sevens — a “septi-mania”). The realm of the imagination champions the plural while the province of political power tends to the singular. There are numerous examples played out in the book, sometimes deeply philosophical, sometimes simply carnal.
Let’s take two examples of the latter. Malory, the remarkably gormless English protagonist, holds out for unity. In 1978 when the novel proper begins, he is an organ tuner to make pocket money (tuning all church organs to the same scale) while he finishes his doctoral dissertation (on Newton, that he never finishes). He loves one person only — Louiza, another character who seems to lack most normal agency — refusing to admit that he could love another. He fails to either fish or cut bait in his pursuit of what he sees as his singular love interest, almost growing old and dying a virgin like his idol. This is in direct contradistinction to Tibor, the bohemian Romanian dramatic director who befriends Malory and makes him Dante in an ad hoc Roman production of “The Inferno.”
Tibor, though eventually married to the beautiful, accomplished Cristina whom he loves, is committed to the dramatic and carnal principle of promiscuity. For Tibor, monism smacks of totalitarianism.
“But the five or ten Dantes,” Malory said. “Aren’t they confused? Isn’t a single Dante, one actor, one face, one personality better?” And he told Dora and a few others in the front seat about Isaac Newton, about Newton’s discovery written in the margin of a Chapbook, about the search for the One True Rule that guides the universe. “You really believe in this Newton?” Dora asked him, resting a narrow chin on his shoulder. “Well…” Malory began. “What he believes” — Tibor stuck his beard through a rear window into the middle of Malory’s lecture — ”is in the number one. Not just one Dante, but one rule, one girl, one god.” “Why not?” Radu said. “One is a good number. At least it’s a start.” “So…” Tibor said. “My poor friends. You have learned nothing from your childhoods on the dark side of the moon.” “He means Rumania,” Dora whispered up at Malory, her chin still uncomfortably present. “Ceaušescu, our beloved president, thought he was the only One.” “But I’m not talking about politics,” Malory whispered back. “Then why talk about girls?” Tibor roared. “One girl! One girl! This sacred search for One! Why not two girls, why not twenty-two?” “Or seven?” It was Sasha, innocent and inquiring, standing outside in the grass. How had he picked the number seven? ”I like One.” Dora breathed garlic into a cloud around Malory, who knew that she meant something else.
We understand viscerally and socially the opposition between the effectively impotent Malory always searching for the one true love and the promiscuous Tibor with a constant bevy of lovers. We have other, less charitable explanations for people like Tibor, even as we pity people like Malory. The context of the novel gives Malory less sympathy and Tibor more credence.
Another example comes after the novel jumps forward 23 years, from 1978 to 2001. A young woman called Ottavia — finally a character, a young woman, even, with agency — arrives on the scene. Irrespective of Ottavia’s actions she is fascinating because she is quite possibly the simultaneous child of all four of the above mentioned characters. Her parentage doesn’t quite make sense, in practice, but artistically, philosophically and in context of the novel it has power. As, post 9/11, we are fastened into ideological strait jackets even more tightly laced than the Cold War, Ottavia is all of our children trying to escape this rigidity.
Two conceits underpin the novel’s embrace of possibilities. One is Louiza’s special talent for using “unimaginable” numbers to found a new branch of mathematics. The other is Septimania itself. It’s a deeply unlikely country but one nevertheless with some basis in fact. In a little-known historical treatise from 1972 — like something out of Borges — Arthur Zuckerman, asserted that, despite the scarcity of evidence, there may have been a Jewish state in the French Midi, around Narbonne, during the 8th and 9th centuries, formed when the Jews sold out the Moors to King Pepin of France. And, further, that the Jewish king may have had other significance, either religious (maybe of messianic descent) or secular (maybe a descendant of the caliphs or the Holy Roman Emperor, or both). Others have written about the country and its king but none have constructed a philosophical novel around it, almost in disregard to its verifiable history. Its existence seems not to matter to the character except insofar as it shapes what former Cornell professor Benedict Anderson called our “imagined communities.” Even in the realm of the imagination, communities can be remarkably powerful, this community isolates and insulates Malory for his adult life.
Although Louiza’s talent is profoundly abstract — understanding, intuitively, new types of infinity that are created through division by zero — she is effectively kidnapped by an American government agency that understands how to make instrumental use of her powers. Even on the other side of the rainbow that her system devises, a rainbow of diversity remains. Though hers is a universe of barely conceivable mathematics it appears to her (and, fantastically, to others) as a girl group. For me the group seemed like the Spice Girls, for Levi, when I questioned him, The Runaways.
“It was a group. Not a Galois Group, or a Langlands Group, or any of the groups of higher mathematics she had played with in Cambridge that looked only like Greek letters and played only a tune of pencil scratching on paper. But a group of human performers, four of them, standing around the table — four girls. They were Una and Dodo, Terri and Quatro — their names were as clear as their costumes. Una wore a jasmine PVC mini-dirndl over a black-and-white, horizontal- striped rugby shirt topped by a Funkadelic corduroy cap, and she played a Gibson Flying V electric guitar in shades of cardamom and curry. Terri was more conservative — pinstriped Carnaby Street suit (flared trousers, of course) with a ruffled cream shirt open past her cleavage, just above her left-handed McCartney bass. Quatro was the schoolgirl, which meant she kicked her bass drum and tickled her cymbals in a no-nonsense, Scottish-knee-sock-and-tartan-skirt kind of a way, light years from Japanese anime porn. And then there was Dodo. From the start, Dodo was Louiza’s favorite. Dodo was the lead singer of the group, camouflaged to the nines in bulletproof Gore-Tex, seven-league boots, and a Kiwi Ranger’s hat that disguised a meter-long plait of raven hair bound up in a double-helix with a jackknife and a bungee stick. “
So the opposition to monism, totalitarianism and, in general, the opposition to singular answers, is a retro-styled girl band. Which is odd, but (though underplayed), kind of the point. An artist’s response to political retrenchment should not necessarily be a political argument. Historical traumas make people choose sides but Levi’s point (or one of them) is that choosing sides is, in itself, a dangerous move. As he made the point to me, “9/11 in many ways for me… was a time when people reacted to an event and figured which side of the divide they were on. It didn’t mean they were fundamentalists.” In “Septimania” he takes it on himself to complicate the divide.
Divides aren’t just formed from global traumas like 9/11. Different events have different effects on different constituencies. Levi mentioned the fatwa on Salman Rushdie had the effect of making writers choose allegiance and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s “also pushed Jews into taking sides.” For, when discussing Septimania, Israel is always partly imagined.
The joy of Israel is its creativity and achievements, its ability to allow us to be part of the family of nations. The danger of Israel to the Jewish people is that it can force us into a monism when our historical strength has been the opposite. For the Jewish people faced with possible existential threats it can feel like Israel, our state, or nothing. In Israel itself, the question is being posed, “What’s more important, our survival or the survival of democracy?” As a creative people imbued with the wisdom of two millennia of diaspora thinking, Levi pointed out to me, “Israelis should be able to hold both ideas in mind at once.”
In his first novel, “A Guide for the Perplexed,” Levi paraphrases Edward Said’s favored quotation of Hugo of St. Victor in which a man who loves his homeland ventures into the world and finds friends everywhere so much that the idea of homeland seems passé.
I returned to my country once to find that our old enemies to the North and South had moved south and north. Strangers were living in my town, in my house. They greeted me with open arms.
In “Septimania” characters seem, often, to be in exile from themselves. And when they are, they lose agency — they cease to have an effect on the world. But, as Levi told me, Jews revel in “being in exile everywhere. That’s a good thing.” But that’s not simply what the book tells us. Because it’s more complicated than that. And that is what the book tells us.
After all, as Levi noted, “Writers don’t come up with answers, they puzzle through obsessions.”
Dan Friedman is the director of content and communications at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Formerly the executive editor and whisky correspondent of the Forward, he is the author of an illuminating (and excellent value) book about Tears for Fears, the 80s emo rock band.