Thursday, October 6, 2016

Charlie Lovett's The Bookman's Tale ... an antiquarian bookseller, a painting, and Shakespeare

Charlie Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale (2013) is one of the most satisfying and enjoyable bibliothrillers that I had read in recent times.  I had written about the bibliothrillers that I had already read in my 4-part series on the topic, and in the fourth part I had mentioned some novels whose names I had come across, but hadn’t read and The Bookman’s Tale was one of them.  I read some comments and descriptions of the novel and decided to buy it along with two other bibliothrillers that were on my list, Sheridan Hay’s The Secret of Lost Things and Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club.

The Bookman’s Tale opens with Peter Byerly, an American antiquarian bookseller temporarily residing in England, opening a book on Shakespearean forgeries written in 1796 in a rare book shop at Hay-on-Wye, and finding a four-inches square painting of his wife Amanda.  The trouble was Amanda was dead and buried in America and the woman in the painting couldn’t have been his wife.  The painting had the initials B. B. and nothing much.  A rather dramatic opening and I was hooked.       

The story moves from this ‘present’ to the past where Peter is a shy and introverted freshman at Ridgefield University at North Carolina.  He feels at home in the Robert Ridgefield Library and secures a work-study position in the library and books become his refuge.  It is here that he becomes interested in rare books.  He meets Amanda at the University.  Charlie Lovett narrates their story of falling in love and their love for books at a leisurely pace and it is the most enchanting part of the novel.  There is an interesting back story to Amanda that shapes their future life among books – as rare book lovers and later as antiquarian booksellers.  The lookalike portrait of his wife makes Peter restless and he wants to find out who the woman in the portrait is and the identity of the painter.  This leads him to the ‘book’ and the chase. 

The book is Robert Greene’s Pandosto, whose plot inspired Shakespeare to write The Winter’s Tale.  The book in question is the actual copy given to Shakespeare and on which he wrote his comments and notes for his use.  This copy was later returned to the ‘bookseller’ who had given it to Shakespeare to make something out of an obscure book.  And we are taken back to Elizabethan England to see the literary scene there.  We see The Bard and the University Wits and the unscrupulous ‘booksellers’ and agents.  We also get to see lots of carousing and conversations among the Wits in taverns.  Old Bill is clearly not ‘one among them’ for the Wits.  This is the second bibliothriller that I have read after Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows that takes the reader back to Elizabethan England to meet The Bard.

The copy of Pandosto which Shakespeare used and marked has survived and its discovery in the 20th century would put to rest all doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship of ‘his’ plays.  On the periphery are Stratfordians and Anti-Stratfordians, 20th century literary agents, and literary historians who enliven Peter’s quest for Pandosto.  That copy of Pandosto would also provide a closure to Peter Byerly’s search for the identity of the face in the painting that unexpectedly floats down from a book on Shakespeare’s forgeries written in 1796.

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