Edward Rutherfurd's first novel is published today, its first run consisting of 193,000 copies, and his earnest striving agent, Andrew K. Martin, was telling me just this week that "Sarum" is a masterpiece of its kind.
"You mean it's not just another crappy little novel?" I inquired, as I lack the fictive imagination myself and cannot imagine anybody writing sagas, let alone reading one, except maybe "The Red Badge of Courage," "Don Quixote," "Cranford," "A La Recherche du Temps Perdu," "Pride and Prejudice" or "Tuffy, an Heroic Basset Hound at Agincourt." Great novels, in other words, in which the heart is bared -- in which laughter rains down and tears well up.
"Not a crappy little book at all," said Martin. "A saga of England."
"Well, I know that," I went on, with an eye out for Rutherfurd, who was then in the men's washroom, probably having one hell of a time looking for the soap. Because of course you would not want him to hear your question or your adjective.
"It's sort of a running history of Salisbury Plain from Neanderthal to Thatcher, isn't it?"
"Oh, no," said Rutherfurd, who abruptly turned up, "it only starts about 5,000 years before Christ -- way after the Neanderthals."
We went to lunch where he had something wholesome and I was obliged to eat his triple-threat chocolate cake on the grounds it was already paid for and he doesn't eat desserts, apparently. Neither do I, as a rule, but waste I cannot endure.
"Many a poor lad in China would be very grateful for this nourishing cake," I pointed out with a slight rebuke in the tone, and of course one does one's duty to the poor.
Rutherfurd flung his arm over his eyes and cringed, having heard that line since the age of 3, when he first refused to eat his cauliflower.
He grew up in Salisbury, was christened in the cathedral, went to Cambridge (the real one), married an American and lives in New York, where he proposes to write at least five other books he has in mind.
The poor lads of China having brought us together, we got on like a house afire, I think. He started out studying English, but noticed this was thought rather a trite subject at Cambridge -- all very well as a hobby, in spare time, but surely a university is where you go for particle physics? He turned to history, as perhaps more respectable than English.
But now he has his revenge in this "Sarum" business, which goes on for about 900 pages and is subtitled "The Novel of England."
His enthusiasm is for medieval literature, pre-Chaucer stuff, on which he spoke engagingly for a time while I chomped through a salad (all I had, until I had to eat the cake), and I asked him to speak about his novel.
"It's not Chaucer," he said with the honest smile that leaves a man forever once he is 39 (Rutherfurd is 37) and I murmured condolence.
"Oh, don't worry about that," I told him. "Nobody expects it to be Chaucer. The great stuff was all over by 1670, wouldn't you say, and nobody expects anything much nowadays. It's the writer's burden, terrible when you are young, but once you get used to it it means you can write and sell practically anything, and nobody's going to think of Chaucer, or for that matter Crashaw or anybody else."
"I did love Crashaw," he said, with a touch of wist or wistfulness or whatever. "But 'Sarum' is commercial fiction."
I could see that Martin wishes he had not said that, having just got through assuring me the book was not crappy at all. Rutherfurd probably noticed my face at the mention of "commercial fiction," and doubtless realized he had a fellow on his hands who requires supreme work of a novelist. "Tuffy, an Heroic Basset at Agincourt," at the minimum.
"Have you, ah, read 'Sarum'?" he asked.
"I only got it two days ago," I said, "and dipped into Tep, the rat-faced savage, and Hwll, the good cave man, and then every few hundred pages I dipped in again. You know, as the centuries pass."
"You may not have liked it?" he said.
"Don't be absurd," I said. "Of course I liked it." (This on the grounds that one more lie is not going to add to the Hell bill, probably.) "And what earthly difference would it make if I hated it? No matter what you write, some people will like it and some won't. There are plenty of people who don't like 'King Lear,' but I doubt Shakespeare loses sleep over it. Besides, I know you go on about Stonehenge and the building of the great church at Salisbury, and many of your readers will be interested to learn about such things."
"You've been to Salisbury?" he asked.
"Yes. Marvelous place. A canon there has two Yorkshire terriers. They don't let dogs in the cathedral now, though they used to."
"Don't suppose they do anywhere, now," he said.
"Oh, yes, a lot of places dogs can go in. They run down the side aisles at Peterborough, for example. I saw a dog much interested in something back of the altar. I suspect the sacristan ate a sandwich back there."
"You like the cathedral at Salisbury?"
"Well," I temporized, "it's Early English, isn't it. I'm more a Norman type, myself. Norwich, Gloucester, you know. But I think Salisbury was considered, along with Lincoln, the greatest church in England in Victorian times. Which shows you how things change. Another century, it will again be thought a supreme church. You take those landscape painters that could not get enough of the Hudson River. People liked them for a while, then threw them out or gave them to a local institution too poor to refuse them. Then all of a sudden they are worth billions. In all the arts, things go up and down, wouldn't you say. The same with books."
Rutherfurd is a good-looking guy with grayish blue eyes. Has a brand new baby, named Edward, because he likes Saxon names.
"Can't beat Saxon names," I said, "especially ones like Edward that you can spell. So much better than some novelty name nobody ever heard of. But fashions come and go in names, too, don't they. Look at all those Sherrys sitting around."
"You can guess how old a girl is," he said, "if you know when her name was fashionable."
"Exactly. That's why you want Edward or Katherine or Henry. Good sound names for kids. Edward is particularly good," I said in the way of compliment.
"It was the Confessor's name," he said. "I have always been interested in religion. I don't think you can write historical novels without paying a lot of attention to religion." (His readers should know Edward the Confessor founded Westminster Abbey and was one of the last Saxon kings before the Normans conquered England. In 1066. By crossing the Channel in boats. In suits of mail, with swords, etc.)
"I think you also have to know a lot about food," he went on, "and I'm not much interested in food. I want to do a book someday about France, maybe the 14th century -- Burgundy, the background of modern France. I know nothing about their food then, and will have to do research."
"Grand idea. You can settle down in Burgundy and eat the truffles and drink the wine if there's any left and if you can afford it."
"And Provence," he said, with the Englishman's usual yearning in his eyes when he thinks of sun and garlic and wild white stallions and the gorgeous women of Arles and all the rest of it.
"Perfect place for research," I said. "You should make food tours. They don't know how to make a lousy supper anywhere in Provence."
And I winced. Had I offended him? Did I inadvertently remind him of suppers in England by praising those of France?
Rutherfurd is far more pleasant and agreeable than other writers I have met. After I got him on his way to the next town on his tour, I made it my business to read some reviews of his book in major American newspapers.
"He does a superb job of it," said one. "Memorable episodes. Not to be forgotten."
"It's the novel everyone is going to be talking about," says another.
"Oh, what history!" says a critic, signing off.
Well, I don't think it's "Tuffy, an Heroic Etc.," but if it's going to be the novel, you better check it out, maybe.