Once again in its long life, the Book of Hours was in danger. And Alphaios had put it there…
While recreating a resplendent fifteenth century Book of Hours as a gift for the pope, Brother Alphaios and archivist Inaki Arriaga discover ancient shreds of parchment thrust into its covers. Though warned away by a visibly shaken Prior Bartholomew, they pursue the few haunting words that remain only to stumble on a dark secret that undercuts one of the very pillars of Catholicism. They find themselves in a battle between the Church, which wants to destroy the parchment or bury it forever, and its owner, real estate mogul Salton Motice, who wants to use it for nefarious purposes.
Meanwhile, the brothers of St. Ambrose learn that Motice intends to buy their mid-town cloister and replace it with a skyscraper. The monks will be displaced from their home of nearly two centuries with no certainty at all about their future.
Wandering the city, Alphaios finds a strange young woman obsessed with painting enormous replicas of master artworks under one of the city’s great bridges, and a couple who, decades later, are still coping with having to flee from… Continue reading
More interesting to me than the little book of Latin abbreviations was the story of Father Robert’s life, both because his early years were so similar to those of my character Brother Alphaios, but more-so for its trajectory, much of which was quite remarkable in mid-twentieth century America. In short, he was born in 1932. Entered a Trappist, cloistered monastery when he was seventeen. Professed as a monk some five years later and then as priest. Choirmaster for his brothers. Left the cloister after some eighteen years. Fell in love with the principal clarinetist of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Resigned his collar and was dispensed from his vows by Pope Paul VI. Wedded the woman he loved and fathered a child. Became an instructor of calligraphy at Reed College. Was widowed only eighteen years into marriage. Petitioned the Church to return to the cloth. Was given papal dispensation, and once more became a seminarian and once more a priest. When retired, continued to serve numerous parishes when their clerics were ill or away. Passed away in February of 2016 at the age of eighty-three.
I would have liked to spend more afternoons with him, learned much more about his nature,… Continue reading
Yes, dear reader, we are in the midst of a serial blogpost…
Father Palladino, as I now knew him to be, invited me to his home (a small farm several miles southeast of Portland) and we settled on a time and date. I asked for his address so I could MapQuest it, but he said he didn’t do computers; he’d mail me an address and map. I decided not to tell him about Siri.
Several days later an envelope arrived, my name and address written in an elegant, oversized script. Calligraphy, done by a master of his craft. The manner of it, the beauty of it, elevated my day. Inside the envelope was a letter of welcome, warm in its content and beautifully penned in the same letterform as the envelope. Also enclosed was a hand-drawn map. Gentlemanly manners at their very best.
Wending my way through an evergreen forest and down and across the Sandy River, I arrived to find Father Palladino waiting for me at a gate alongside the road. He swung it open, closed it behind me and guided me down a curving,… Continue reading
And so we continue…
Just a few months before, I’d had the pleasure of attending a series of seminars on ancient sacred texts—including illuminated books—at St. Martin’s University just up the road in Lacey. They were given by an international panel of scholars of the Dead Sea scrolls and other ancient manuscripts. They were paleographers, all four of them: experts in early languages, writings and religions. Unfortunately for me, none of them had directly addressed the part of the craft I now needed to understand. Even so, I called St. Martin’s and explained my problem. No one here with that expertise, they said, and suggested that perhaps only Harvard University or Oxford might be able to help.
Daunted by that prospect, and preferring to meet with someone in person, I Googled “paleographer” and added the modifier “northwest United States”. Nothing. Deciding that the expertise I needed was more about the forms of scripts rather than their history, I typed in the words “calligraphy, northwest”. Down in the weeds I found a reference to Reed College in Portland (some forty miles south), and an undated press release. In the last couple… Continue reading
It’s not often that a Google search is as productive as this one…
The principal character in my BOOK OF HOURS novels is Brother Alphaios, born into a poor village in Greece. He entered a monastery as a young man as his only means to an education. There he became a monk—a cloistered monk, one who lives entirely behind monastery walls. He showed considerable artistic talent, and was transferred to a cloister in Italy where he became a master painter and restorer of medieval books. Now, in contemporary time, he has been brought to a metropolis in the United States—New York City. Here, along with Inaki Arriaga, historian and archivist, he is recreating a large and magnificent but severely damaged Book of Hours from the fourteen hundreds. Together they oversee the work of two scribes who are duplicating the medieval text, its errors and anomalies included. When done, it is to be gift for the pope, a gift for the ages.
I note above that Brother Alphaios is cloistered, which is only mostly true. He has lived behind monastery walls virtually all his adult life, and has taken vows of strict prayer and obedience.… Continue reading
If you’re drawn to stories of the art world (and who isn’t?), the beauty and the money and the chicanery, you might have considered picking up the following books. For me, aspiring writer that I am, they illustrated some of the differences between rather ordinary storytelling and the remarkable. I didn’t set out to make such a comparison, but the rather startling weaknesses of the first were all the more apparent upon reading the second.
The Art Forger is a debut novel by B.A. Shapiro (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013). Glossy and sexy, the cover is clearly intended to draw the attention of what I’ll call the airport patron: quick choice, disposable, and full of positive reviews (“engaging”, “addictive”, “ingenious and skillful”, “blazingly good”, etc.). It was the subject matter, though, that drew this reader.
It’s a twist upon a twist in the art forgery sub-genre: Is the stolen, now-recovered Degas the original work or a forgery? If the latter, is making a forgery of a forgery a crime? It’s an interesting concept, and in more sure hands it might have been pulled off.
For me, the term “insouciance” came to mind. (I can’t tell you quite… Continue reading
One of the reasons I’m convinced of its sublimity is that I’m really not keen on poetry, and in fact don’t care for anything else Eliot ever wrote.
But this particular poem encompasses, encapsulates, the entirety of human existence, in a way no other type of writing could. A novel would make all the subtext into text, and rob it of its nuance; a play would make it mundane and common by forcing the words to be spoken by mere mortals; setting it to music would limit and trivialize it. It has a solemn, tragic beauty that would be diminished in any other form.
The poem isn’t flawless (“I should have been a pair of ragged claws …” is a tad goofy), but the missteps add to the poem’s overall perfection, the way a slightly “off” feature on a beautiful face makes it even more beautiful.
This is my favorite stanza:
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail… Continue reading
It was mountains of sound—vast parapets and promontories and cliffs of sound. The deep bass notes were born of thunder, or the roar of a great fire, or the eruption of a volcano. They filled the space completely, as thoroughly as the air, as densely as water.
Somewhere in the interstitial spaces between the notes, the trills of the higher ranges could be heard flitting overhead. It was as if the very songs of the birds had been captured for the pleasure of the composer.
It was the last few bars of the benedictory song being played one ordinary Sunday morning on the great pipe organ of New York’s Trinity Church.
It shook the air.
It was the roar of an immense waterfall. A roar of booms. It was primordial, as if left over from some great cataclysm. Or beginning.
It shook the air and vibrated the body and the soul.
It was sublime.
Though it was one of my mother’s great joys to finally obtain a Hammond for our small town church, I’ve never been enamored by the sound architecture of the ordinary organ. And though my favorite aunt Marian sang… Continue reading
I have suggested in a previous post (June 19, 2014) that George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue may reach that pinnacle of human accomplishment which is incomparable, transcendent, even sublime; that it is a composition—a musical invention—beyond the possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation. That it is an accomplishment of the human spirit which moves us to a place of great visceral, intellectual, emotional or spiritual wonderment.
Following is how Brother Alphaios (Al-fay-us) hears this amazing piece. He’s a cloistered monk and the protagonist in BOOK OF HOURS: The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios, a novel written by this author and available to you at the click of a link.
Today, Alphaios was especially happy to escape the confines of the monastery. The morning had been spent in a dull chapter meeting that Brother Richard, possessed of a good heart but small mind, had stretched out interminably. And lunch had been uninspired even by monastery standards.
It was a false spring day. More rain and cold would come before winter released its grip on the city, but today he would enjoy the contrast of warm sun and chilled air. The… Continue reading
It was a more innocent time.
The grounds were not unlike a small college: a circle drive in front of the administration building; two rows of two-story, red brick residence halls; spacious lawns and great leafy trees rising above it all. But in this instance the halls were wards, and the grounds those of the Idaho State School and Hospital—the state’s institution for the mentally retarded. Residing there were six hundred and twenty-seven developmentally disabled children and adults, all of them requiring twenty-four-hour assistance and supervision. Another couple hundred people worked on staff.
A member of administration (in a vaporous position somewhere in the loose space between administrative assistant and assistant superintendent), I had drawn manager duty on that Saturday. It was breezy, jacket-and-scarf cold, and the trees were bare of leaves. It was a weekend day and an inside day.
I was walking from the hospital building to administration (almost certainly with my best hand-carved pipe only just lit) when I saw him. A man I did not know was standing nearly at the center of the campus, two… Continue reading