The Big Idea: Kari Sperring
A list of books on a wall led author Kari Sperring on a literary adventure that took her from 17th century French satire to the world of her latest novel, The Grass King’s Concubine. How did she get from one to the other? Read on.
About ten years ago, my partner and I spent a weekend in the Belgian city of Antwerp. And one of the places we visited while we were there was the Plantin Moretus Museum, which is devoted to the history of printing and includes the original premises of Plantin Press, which remains in its original 17th century state.
Posted on the wall in the shop part of the business is a list of books that have been banned officially, in this instance by the Christian church. These were books that it was illegal to print, to sell, to distribute, to own. The banned works included science, philosophy, satire, theology, memoirs.
I knew about these lists but I’d never seen an original one before. It was neat and unshowy, in black and white on the bookshop wall. There was nothing dramatic or violent or imposing to it. It was miles away from the book-burning images of Fahrenheit 451 or BBC dramas about Galileo. It was just there, a fact of seventeenth century daily life.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I was commissioned to write a book about the background and history to Alexandre Dumas’ famous The Three Musketeers. One of Dumas’ sources for that book was Mémoirs de M. d’Artagnan, a pseudo-autobiography by one Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras. I knew the book: I’d picked up a copy as an undergraduate, and I knew that Courtilz de Sandras was a professional satirist of the late 17th century, but I’d never done any research into him or the wider context of French pseudo-memoirs, court satires and secular banned books. I read Robert Darnton’s The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, and I remembered that list on the wall of the Plantin Press. In the back of my head, in the mulch where my writing lives, something went click (or, possibly, squelch). I knew a lot about why governments and religious bodies, kings and school boards, took it upon themselves to ban books. I knew where I stood on that issue, too – the idea of banning a book on ideological, moral, religious or just plain crazy grounds struck me then and still strikes me as deeply wrong. But I knew far less about the writers behind these books.
Courtilz de Sandras was no Galileo or Rousseau. He had no breakthroughs to share, no strong political, social or religious views to promote. He was a professional: he wrote what would sell, and satires on court life, dressed up as eye-witness accounts, sold well. They were risky: he spent long periods in the Bastille, having offended the king and the court, but they paid, and he went on writing. (He had a lot in common with Dumas, in fact, though Dumas never managed to get himself arrested, and the Bastille was long gone.) I found I kept thinking about him, and the whole issue of banned and proscribed books long after my research was done. There was something here I wanted to explore.
That mulch at the back of my brain produced a character named Marcellan. He’s a traveller, an explorer, a jobbing printer and, above all, a writer. His driving force is his need to learn knew things and make them available to as many others as possible. His actions and their consequences set up the plot of The Grass King’s Concubine: his hunger for knowledge reshapes one world and is creating conflict in another. One half of the book follows him in WorldBelow, a realm of non-human creatures ruled by the titular Grass King, whose very shape and way of life were partially created by one of his works. Captured by the Grass King’s bodyguard, the Cadre, he teaches one of them first about printing and then about ways of measuring time. The outcome is… messy. And when two of the Grass King’s subjects, the ferret-sisters Yelena and Julana, try and practice a kind of magic to help Marcellan, the trouble spreads both in WorldBelow and the human world (WorldAbove).
In WorldAbove, Marcellan’s books cause a young woman, Aude, to start questioning her society, its inequities and her place in things. She sets out in search of the origins of her family’s wealth and status. When she too finds herself in WorldBelow, she has to discover what Marcellan has done and find a solution for at least some of the consequences.
My thinking about banned books and their authors took me to some very strange places. It was important to me, throughout, that I stayed positive about that core idea about shared knowledge, and the positive effects of books. And yet my reading showed me that books could have some very strange effects on societies, as new knowledge emerged. We could all name books that have been revolutionary, from the Principia Mathematica to Das Kapital. But not every revolutionary book has a positive effect in every circumstance. Marcellan’s political works influence Aude into thinking critically about the assumptions she makes about class and power and money. But his knowledge of water clocks has negative effects on WorldBelow. Sometimes things are used inappropriately.
These are big themes for a midlist author. I often felt, writing Grass King, that the book was too big for me and that I should go away and write about something easier, like toast. But I wanted to write it, I wanted to talk about what books can do. Have I succeeded? I don’t know. I hope I’ve done the best I can with the skills I have. And I got to write about ferrets and water clocks, underworld portals and carnivorous mud. I read a lot of very very good books along the way. I learned a lot. (I can now bore for Britain on those water clocks.) In the end, the book took me about nine years to get into shape.
It started with a four-hundred-year-old list on a wall in Antwerp.