I first read this one when it was new, and was inspired to go back to it for a couple of reasons; first, Docx has a new book out (Self Help) which brought him to the forefront of my mind again, and second, The Calligrapher is a story intertwined with John Donne's sonnets. And those have obviously been on my mind lately! The Donne connection is carried further in the name of the main character: Jasper Jackson (Jasper was also the name of one of John Donne's uncles).
This could be classed as "lad lit"; Jasper is the kind of man the never-do-well heroines of chick lit would fall for. He's bright, fairly charming even if cynical, eternally unable to commit, and yet strangely able to attract whatever woman he sets eyes on. Really, quite a lot to put you off, but he is an engaging narrator. Jasper is a freelance calligrapher, rare but they do exist. At the beginning of his story he invokes the patron demon of calligraphers, Titivillus.
I might as well confess up front that I am in league with the Devil. It's not a big deal -- a stint of social nihilism here, a stretch of marital sabotage there -- and I'm afraid it goes with the job. Seek for long enough and you will find that most human pursuits have a patron saint, but of all the arts in the world, only calligraphy has a patron demon. His name is Titivillus. And he is a malicious little bastard.
Jasper is currently working on transcribing and illuminating Donne's "Songs and Sonnets" for a rich American patron, but alongside this arcane and highly intellectual pursuit, Jasper follows some of Donne's other predilictions, namely, womanizing. In the novel's opening pages, he picks up a skanky French woman while at a gallery WITH his long-suffering girlfriend, Lucy. A few days later she catches him out, and they break up. Jasper then espies a gorgeous blonde from the window of his calligraphy studio, and begins a new relationship, one in which he starts to fall hard. He always feels there is something slightly odd about this new girl, and we discover just what that is in the end. Sadly, the conclusion of the book is rushed and a bit over the top; it doesn't really seem to fit with the rest of the book. Perhaps because in most books of this sort, there is character growth throughout, and the main character changes in some essential way, leading us to a natural conclusion. Jasper, however, does not change. Despite all his asinine behaviour, we get the feeling that he doesn't actually think he's all that bad. With no self-knowledge revealed, the author has painted himself into a corner, and thus the ending feels a bit out of place and redolent with movie-like wackiness. Also, the revenge plot hatched by Lucy & friends seems a bit byzantine, and really, would an ex of someone like Jasper really go to such lengths considering what they'd lost? Ah, well, a good first novel anyway.
What I really liked about it was:
1. Each chapter is set alongside a poem by Donne, and the description of calligraphic technique is lovely. Also, Docx is well-versed in Donne's poetry and gives us an explanation of each piece, allowing the chapter's action to follow the verses, which provide the structure. This could be why some of the events feel a bit forced, but overall it is very interesting to follow.
2. Despite all the reasons not to like Jasper, he is a great narrator. Snobby, Oxfordian, misanthropic, but nevertheless entertaining to listen to.