Jonathan Levi is the author of the critically acclaimed A Guide For the Perplexed, 1992, and a founding editor of Granta magazine alonside Bill Buford. Septimania is the name of an ancient kingdom, now lost, gifted to the Jews in the eighth century by Charlemagne. In Levi’s latest novel, Septimania becomes a figure for the infinite relatedness of history and the arbitrariness of the forces that shape our knowledge of the world. Septimania the novel reaches back to the seventeenth century, retells Isaac Newton’s formulation of the laws of gravity, and interweaves this narrative with the more contemporary setting of Europe and America during the emergence of international terrorism from the 1970s through to 9/11. Picaresque, epic, romantic, and with more than a few traces of magical realism, Levi’s novel undertakes an archeological re-telling of history through the fables of the Arabian Nights, the history of science, biblical myth, multiculturalism in Europe, and the darker side of anti-communist America. The two protagonists, Malory and Louiza, deduce love through mathematical formula, but are driven apart through a strange series of events that defy logical proof or numerical possibility. The miraculous forces that direct the plot of Septimania from quantum theory to a case of cryptic identity, from love-making in an organ loft to the safe-houses of the secret services, are treated with wry humour, dexterity and erudition. Here, we speak to the author about Septimania’s preoccupation with terror, the rewriting of science and history, and the saving state of exile.
interview by Eleanor Careless
I’m interested in the closeness that you imply between the 9/11 attackers and the protagonists of Septimania. Is there an element of contamination here?
What brought me to that closeness was very personal — my best friend, a hugely creative Romanian who was the inspiration for Tibor, committed suicide two days before 9/11. I always thought that if he lasted only two more days life would have been so fascinating he couldn’t possibly have taken his own life. So that’s the biographical thing that really got that going, but at the centre of Septimania is this theoretical question of monomania versus multiplicity. There’s a mono view of life, a commitment to single origins and a single answer to everything, and the question of whether if you believe that you become like the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Centre. Or, there is the belief that life is more complex and there are more answers and more questions and more ways to do things. Does that multiplicity make things any safer or does that lead in fact to death as well? I wanted to confront that.
Why did you decide to make Isaac Newton, as a figure and a theorist, so central to Septimania?
Back when I was at Cambridge in 1977-79, I was good friends with a historian of science, Simon Schaffer, now extremely well known. Simon is a serious Newton scholar, and we used to have these raucous dinner parties at his house, with a lot of Hungarians and expats. At that time Simon was working on a documentary about a crazy French society which wanted to rebuild the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and reinstate the Merovingian Kings. And it listed Isaac Newton as its president back in the mid seventeenth century. For that reason, Simon was involved in the research for this secret society. And so one night we’re there drinking a lot of wine and Simon gets a phone call, and he picks up the phone and says yes? Oui? …Oui? Oui. And he hangs up the phone and we all ask, well, what was that about?And he says, I don’t know, but somebody just told me (in French) to stop working on this project or else. That was when I first started thinking about Septimania. I wanted to raise the notion that science is as imperfect a science as anything else — and mathematics can’t quite come up with a single concise theory that accounts for everything.
Is the Newton of your novel the real Newton?
Well, this is part of that central question: how exact is science, how exact is mathematics, and how exact is historical research? The history of Charlemagne, for instance, was written by two people. One was a contemporary, a Saxon monk named Einhard, and one was somebody who lived 50 years later named Notker the stammerer. Those are the only historical accounts of Charlemagne. The way we really know Charlemagne is through the Song of Roland, which is a poem. It’s fiction. With Newton all we really know is he went to his mother’s garden during the year of the plague, 1666-67, and that he discovered these three huge theories. And there were no cameras, no CNN, no CCTV — so how do we actually know Newton was there? How do we know he didn’t go to Rome? We don’t. I’m not saying that Septimania’s retelling should supplant the history of Newton, but it keeps things open and suggests that these alternative versions are possible. I’m not contradicting history outright — I don’t say the twin towers weren’t bombed — I don’t say Charlemagne wasn’t crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the 800AD elections. There are certain things that we accept as being certain set dates, and other things that we do not know. Newton spent a huge amount of time trying to turn lead into gold, practicing alchemy, and trying to calculate the end of time based on the Book of Revelations and other biblical sources. We tend to read these preoccupations as a sideline — but what if alchemy was the main subject? What if looking for the end of time was the main subject, and calculus and optics were just something that he threw off between teatime and dinner?
What led you to imagine the Orlando-esque transformation of the King of Septimania?
Sometimes turning these things upside down works. I spoke to a philosopher who knows a lot about Newton and is also working on Enlightenment women philosophers who are slowly being uncovered. And, according to this philosopher, there was a woman who was key to Leibniz’s development of the calculus, and Leibniz was accused of filching that from Newton. As things become discovered, as we’re rethinking history, and discovering people we haven’t looked for before, who knows what we’re going to find.
Is Malory, the protagonist of Septimania, your Hamlet?
I think if you speak to actors who play Hamlet, they would argue that they’re very busy trying to figure out what to do — and that not acting is as difficult as acting. And I think the secret — having worked in theatre — is that in order to teach someone to ignore someone on stage, you first have to pay attention to them. And then you can ignore them. In terms of not acting you first have to act. Malory doesn’t know quite what to do once events take over. I’d be delighted if he went down as my Hamlet. In Septimania, I’m suggesting we’re asking the wrong questions. When we look back to find the origins of life, a single cause, a single set of rules — that is backward looking. And we get too caught up in these questions of origin — who are our fathers, who are our mothers. And that keeps us from acting.
What does Septimania, set as it is between turbulent 1970s Rome and 9/11, have to do with questions of security and threat?
The issue of security is raised in Hamlet; you can think of Hamlet as being a play about security. There’s questions of power, of a threat to the state – and Shakespeare wasn’t the first one to do that. If we look at religion, at Christianity, we see that fear is used to enforce security. Upon the Aventine, where I imagined the villa of Septimania, is the Church of Santa Sabina. On top is the oldest known version of Christ on the cross, from the fourth century. Before that Christ was depicted holding a lamb, as a shepherd, a more peaceful image. Politically that didn’t go very far. Fear was important. It’s been the hunger games for a long time. One hates to to talk very much about contemporary politics but if you look at the Brexit elections here or what’s going on in the US, security is the buzzword, and the only way security works is if you don’t really know, if you just raise implications. That’s the case with Louiza and the security apparatus that surrounds her.
Although Septimania is often epic in its reach, parts of the novel are deeply immersed in the life of the mind, and the story is told through internal monologue – mainly Malory’s, but also Louiza’s and Ottavia’s. Why did you decide to vary the source of these streams of consciousness?
I felt that to make the novel all Malory was not only not going to be interesting enough but was not really what I was after. There was something about investigating this holy family from the inside. There’s only one point at which I showed things from the point of view of Tibor, even though Tibor’s a very important character. I thought that to get inside the mind of [Louiza], a woman who sees the word through mathematics, through negative numbers and imaginary numbers and unimaginable numbers, would be fascinating to show. She exists as a woman unto herself, but she is also the obscure object of desire for Malory.
Interleaving as it does Isaac Newton’s story with the 1970s, is Septimania an archeological project?
Do you remember that in the book there are three amateur photos and one of them is of a walled up arch? Rome is full of walled up arches. I suggest throughout the book that Rome is a city of layers. If you walk on the streets of Rome, there is one church, San Clemente, where you can go down five levels from street level until you get to the Mithraic temple where they used to sacrifice bulls down at the bottom. I’ve lived in Rome now off and on for a dozen years and the fascinating part of it is seeing those layers and trying to imagine what life was like.
Every character in the book ends up being an exile, living in a country which is not their own — what is the significance of this exiled state?
I wrote another novel back in 1992, A Guide for the Perplexed, and exile is very much a part of that. It opens up with a paraphrase of one of my favourite quotes that I first read through Edward Said, from a thirteenth century Saxon monk, Hugo of St Victor, who said that the man who loves his country is a mere beginner. The man who thinks of all countries as his own is on his way. But the man who has extinguished the love for all countries — he is the perfect man. There is something about the state of exile, of being outside, that in A Guide for the Perplexed is much more about Jewishness. I argue that nationalism is a bad thing, and the state of being in exile is not only the true state of the Jews but a good thing, a positive. So there’s a kind of obsession with exile and defending exile.
What is the state of novel, do you think, in 2016? Is the epic novel on the rise?
I was the fiction reviewer for the LA Times fifteen years ago, reading every week a novel for five years. Luckily I was able to chose my books but still, I thought the mass of books out there were fairly navel gazing. Which is fine. But the sense in which novels take on the world, and not just the world as we see it in the newspapers, but the imaginative world, seems to be more prevalent amongst non-English writers. I find it much more in European writers, in South American writers — although that could be because so few get translated into English. Nowadays I think you see more and that’s because more are being translated — and I’m really pleased about that. Those are still the novels I’m drawn to — those that are epic.