Justification of Johann Gutenberg
By Blake Morrison
Published by William Morrow & Co
October 2002; 0-0662-1088-7; 256 pages
I was born in Mainz on ... But let me not trot the usual river-bank path. Honest though I am pledged to be, I may surely be granted this omission -- whether it springs from vanity or a fading memory I leave to you. For neatness' sake, I could offer 1400, so my birth and the century's are joined. To add a flourish, I might give a saint's day, John the Baptist's, June twenty-fourth. But those are games for chroniclers. I am past threescore but less than seventy. You have an abacus to work it out. Closer than that I will not come.
My first years were spent ... Can I ride straight past them, too? Since I have kept few impressions of infancy, better that page of life stay blank. Only a single early memory will I own. It is dusk in the kitchen, and I am lying contented in my crib. Overhead, clothes are drying from a rack. By the hearth, my mother is telling the maid how to sew britches and nagging the cook to add more pepper to the stew. Beyond the door, a horse clops by, carrying some bearded wool-trader from market. The click of hooves without, the clank of pans within, the drift of woodsmoke in the rafters, the murmur of women absorbed in homely tasks -- I feel at peace among them, as though still wombed or cauled. Suddenly, at the side of the cradle, a moon rises -- my brother Friele smiling palely down. Pleased to have his attention for once, I smile back. Next thing my smile is wider still, for at the other side of the cradle a second planet has risen, the shining crimson of my sister Else. Sun and moon, sister and brother: how blessed I am to live beneath their playful orbit! Soon my cradle, which had been stirring only gently before, as from a breeze, begins to sway this way and that, like a boat moored on the Rhine. And as I laugh to be thus swayed between my siblings, so their eyes shining down at me gleam a little more sharply, and the swaying becomes a rocking, and the rocking becomes a bucking, and the bucking becomes a gale, and the gale a storm, and the storm a tempest, till the wooden vessel I am encribbed in is being tossed wildly to and fro. Now my content has turned to panic, and my laughter to fear. Too shocked to find my voice, I am at first a silent howl of rage, until my screams break open and drive the planets from the sky. Stirred to action, my mother hastens over, snatches me from the waves and takes me to the harbour of her bosom: 'Oh, Henne, poor little Henne,' she croons. Through my sobs and tears, I cannot find her nipple at first, but soon I am feeding and content again -- my little voyage happily concluded in a lapping haven. Or so it should be. But in my memory there is more to come. The maid pricks her finger with a needle. The cook upsets a pot and scalds her hand. My mother, rushing to help, parts me from her breast and I am thrust half-fed back in the cradle -- where I sob and bawl at being so rudely cast out. When my eyes clear from weeping, what I see is Friele and Else come back again -- not to taunt me, but to take up residence at my mother's breasts, one to each teat, she (between scolding the maid and bandaging the cook) calmly allowing it. And so night falls in the kitchen.
With what clarity that episode is printed on my memory! Even now the impression returns unwilled whenever I see a starlit sky, as though the galaxies were the profligate spray and scatter of all the milk intended for me but given to my siblings instead. And yet, in all honesty, I distrust the recollection. No infant can see back to the cradle. Friele and Else must by then have been long past weaning. And surely my mother, however distracted, would not have missed their roughness with me nor forgiven it so easily. No, that this is the sole picture retrieved from my first five years on earth suggests to me, when I study it cold, not a real event but a sentiment which infected my childhood -- the feeling that I, as the third-born, came last in my mother's affection.
Best call it not a memory but a dream -- though one dreamt for good reason, since in dreams lie the achings of the soul. Whatever the truth of that episode, from it was formed this firm resolve: that since I came last in the family, I would be first at something else.
As for the rest of my infancy, it is a passing lantern-show of swaddling bands, sore gums, wooden rattles, tops, hoops, rods, whips, tears, tantrums, messed underclothes, pulled hair, grazed knees, teeth left under pillows, burning candlewax, stone flags, water-rats, whiskery old aunts, causeless laughter and unreined grief. I do not mourn the loss of such detail as would make these phantoms live again in all their vigour. Once his forelife has been closed off from the mind, a man becomes free to pursue more profitable meditations. To recollect infancy would be to dwell perpetually in its foetid prison. Since it prefers to forget itself, I choose to forget it too.
What did I get at my mother's bosom? I am tempted to say nothing of sustenance, but that would be unjust.
Letters and numbers: she taught me those. Writing, too. We had a goosequill in the house, and an inkwell to draw from, and she inducted me in the art: which angle to hold a pen at so the ink flows freely from the nib; how I should bend and raise my wrist so as not to smudge the script ...
He has been called the most influential man of the last millennium, he launched a communications revolution, and he changed the written word forever. This is his tale, and the story behind his heretical invention.
Reading between the lines of history, Blake Morrison has woven a stunning novel around the few facts known about the life and work of Johann Gensfleisch, aka Gutenberg, master printer, charmer, con man and visionary -- the man who invented "artificial writing" and printed the "Gutenberg" Bible, putting thousands of monks out of work.
In a first novel that is both dazzling in its artistry and pure enchantment for the reader, Morrison gives Gutenberg's final testament: a justification and apologia dictated, ironically enough, to the kind of pretty young scribes whom his invention of movable metal type made redundant. Through the eyes of the ageing narrator, the Middle Ages are seen in a strange and vivid new light. The Plague, craft guilds, religious wars, chivalric love, sexual politics, scientific invention, the rise of capitalism -- all are here, but the human dramas they give rise to seem anything but "historical" or remote. What Morrison captures is a moment of cultural transition as dramatic and immediate as the communications revolution of today.
But, above all, there is the exasperating, endearing and finally haunting figure of Gutenberg himself a man who gambled everything -- money, honour, friendship and a woman's love -- on the greatest invention of the last millennium.
Blake Morrison was born in Skipton, Yorkshire, in 1950. He was educated at the University of Nottingham and University College, London. He worked for the Times Literary Supplement between 1978 and 1981 and was then literary editor for both The Observer and the Independent on Sunday. He is Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a former Chairman of the Poetry Book Society and council member of the Poetry Society, a member of the Literature Panel of the Arts Council of England and Vice-Chairman of English PEN.
Blake is a literary journalist, poet, essayist, playwright, and novelist. His non-fiction books And When Did You Last See Your Father? -- an honest and moving account of his father's life and death -- won the J. R. Ackerley Prize and the Esquire/Volvo/Waterstone's Non-Fiction Book Award.
Morrison lives in London, England.