Jonathan Levi writes wildly ambitious novels that blend ancient history, current events, and religion to create rollicking epics. His previous novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, was widely praised for its playful erudition.
Levi — who was born in New York and lives in Rome — is a founding editor of Granta magazine and a prolific journalist and book reviewer. He has also written plays and opera libretti that have been performed worldwide. His latest novel, Septimania (Overlook), is a highly original picaresque epic.
Levi answered questions from The National.
Q: Septimania once existed in history, in a region of what is now France, and you’ve imagined it as a contemporary place. Would you say that your novel Septimania is historical or fantasy?
A: As Spinal Tap might have said, it’s such a fine line between history and fantasy. While I’m not denying that certain historical facts exist (e.g. Donald Trump has been married three times and has filed for bankruptcy four times), the history of the 8th century Kingdom of Septimania, given by Charlemagne to the Jews of the region, has come down to us via a school chum of Charlemagne named Einhard and a Benedictine monk born a generation later named Nottker the Stammerer. Twelve hundred years later, how many of their historical facts can we verify? In our age of “citizen journalists” it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between history and fantasy—just look at the Brexit vote and the American presidential campaigns.
Q: So, what would you say to the bookseller deciding which shelf it would best fit on?
A: I once found my 1992 novel A Guide for the Perplexed in the self-help section of a Berkeley bookstore, which was fine with me! I think every author would like to think her novel should be shelved in a section all its own. But given that difficulty, I’d love to find a bookseller with imagination who shelves novels not by category but by sympathy. Septimania would be very comfortable on a shelf next to Arabian Nights, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth.
Q: While Septimania of 1,200 years ago existed as a place, much of Septimania the novel takes place in the late 1970s. How did you forge a path for your story-telling?
A: I first heard about the Kingdom of Septimania at a high-energy dinner party hosted by a grad student writing his Ph.D. on Isaac Newton when I was a student at Cambridge University in the late 1970s. The two years I spent there were not only supremely memorable, but had their own historical importance. 1978 was a year of three popes in Rome, the time of the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof Gang, of Elvis Costello and Jimmy Carter. Over the years, my memories of my personal history with the political history of Europe and the United States have mixed with the more obscure flavors of Septimania and Newton. So I didn’t so much forge a path as shake a cocktail.
Q: An important part of Septimania is the relationship between Malory, an organ-tuning, socially awkward student and a dyslexic math genius named Louiza who disappears. What came first for you – the characters or the story of Malory’s search for Louiza?
A: That high-energy dinner party was at the home of the guy who served as the early model for Malory. I was there because one of his lodgers was my girlfriend, whom I plundered for Louiza. My Malory was helping some friends investigate a story that later became the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail—the first place that I read of the Kingdom of Septimania. So I knew who my heroes were and where I wanted them to wander. The story—well, that took a little more work.
Q: In many ways, Septimania resembles the winding stories of The Arabian Nights. Was this an influence for you?
A: The Arabian Nights is one of those treasures that pleases not only when you read it, but when you dream about it, awake and asleep. Its hero, the Caliph Haroun al Rashid, appears in Septimania since he was also a historical figure and a contemporary and a correspondent of Charlemagne’s. Imagine what a high-energy dinner party the two of them might have had!
Q: Septimania—the novel—dives into Newton and the Grand Unified Field Theory, mathematical concepts, Jewish history, 9/11 bombers, and 8th century France. Did you keep adding elements to the novel, or did they congeal simultaneously?
A: My hero Malory becomes occupied, for various reasons, with his own monomania—finding the one scientific rule that guides the universe, perhaps the one god, certainly the one girl. Mathematicians like Newton who have sought to find the one true rule in alchemy or quantum mechanics, or ecclesiastics like Charlemagne or the 9/11 bombers who fought under the banner of their vision of one true god, all live—at least in my mind—in the same obsessive corner of left field. So why shouldn’t they all turn up in the same novel?
Q: Cambridge and Rome figure so prominently in the novel, and you’ve lived in both places. How does living in a particular place influence your fiction?
A: Writing a work of fiction means making visible a city of your imagination. I studied in Cambridge for two years and have lived in Rome for twelve. They tattooed my life in different ways, both indelible. So that when it came time for me to create the universe for the historical and fantastical romance of Malory and Louiza, I didn’t even have to peek at those designs on my back and biceps—the maps drew themselves.
Q: The novel opens to a photograph of an elephant, with its trunk stretching to its rump. The book closes with a photograph of the rump. Please explain!
A: The elephant, carved by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1667 (another important year in Septimania incidentally) stands in the Piazza in front of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. “Sopra” means “on top of,” and the Dominican church of Santa Maria was built exactly on top of the Roman temple dedicated to Minerva, the goddess of Wisdom. Bernini’s elephant—the animal of wisdom—was the artist’s way of nodding at that ancient history, the way that each new civilization, in its search for the one true rule, sits itself down on top of the old. My photo of the rump of il pulcino della Minerva—“Minerva’s chick” as the Romans call it—is only to suggest that wisdom, like all good stories, has an end.