“Before there was Zuckerberg, there was Gutenberg!” screams the clever promotional material for Alix Christie’s finely atmospheric debut novel. As the world of hard copy crumbles beneath our feet, it can be easy to forget that print culture has been with us for only a few centuries. If “Gutenberg’s Apprentice” isn’t quite to the printing press what “The Social Network” is to Facebook, perhaps that’s a good thing. Only a historical novel is capable of reconstructing this earlier media transformation with the full complexity it deserves.
Johannes Gutenberg is often imagined as a lone Renaissance genius who singlehandedly invented the technology of movable type. “Gutenberg’s Apprentice” tells a messier, more satisfying story. Here, the printing press emerges from within a grinding milieu of smoke, metals and labor that shaped a medieval revolution of the word with great relevance to our own moment.
Christie, a journalist and critic who lives in London, is a devotee of letterpress printing, and she supplements her hands-on experience with a thorough grounding in the most recent scholarship on the early history of the medium. Yet “Gutenberg’s Apprentice” wears its erudition elegantly, as in a description of “regal dyes — the purple of the popes and kings, crushed out of Adriatic snails” or of the making of carmine ink: “oil of linseed boiled to varnish, mixed with powdered copper, cinnabar, some carbonate of lead.”
Such details are the grist of historical fiction, of course, and in Christie’s hands they feed a paper mill that extends even to the design of the book’s pages, which feature lined borders and elaborately drawn initials, as if to model the flourishes in an early printed book. (You won’t get this on your Kindle, folks!)
The novel’s story begins with a frame narrative that follows the deaths of both Johanns: Gutenberg himself and Johann Fust, Gutenberg’s partner and financier and the foster father of Peter Schoeffer, our protagonist. A local boy made good, Peter is a highly trained scrivener, an anti-Bartleby of sorts, who would prefer to continue his careerist climb through the scribal ranks of Paris, where the rector of the university has tapped him for advancement.
Instead, as Peter’s story begins, he is summoned home to his native Mainz, a dreary, repressive city emptied of its wealthy class in the wake of an uprising years before. Unwillingly apprenticed to Gutenberg, Peter is torn between the loving labor of script and the mechanical allure of print. At first, he regards the printed page as “a crude and ugly copy of the best that men can do.” The story of his transformation is closely tied to the success of Gutenberg’s enterprise, as well as Peter’s own adeptness at negotiating the politics of city, guild and church to surpass his master and emerge as the most successful printer of his generation.
Gutenberg remains something of an enigma here, despite Christie’s noble efforts to put flesh on this elusive historical figure. A tyrant in his workshop, the master exhorts, cajoles and threatens his laborers until he gets the precise result he wants, even while leaving room for their own ingenuities and skills to develop within the closely guarded confines of the Mainz workshop. Christie’s tensely claustrophobic narrative relates the tragedy of a fruitful and promising collaboration threatened by the self-interest and vanity of its partners.
The real hero of “Gutenberg’s Apprentice” is the press itself, this horrifying, beautiful machine capable of throwing out “a boundless net of shining letters.” Near the middle of Christie’s novel, Gutenberg and Fust hit on the momentous idea of printing the Latin Bible in its entirety. As Peter prepares the initial type, he summons those “words that brought a new world into being,” the opening verse of Genesis: “Peter set them flush against a nothingness; hard against a nonexistent margin he arranged them, floating like the world itself in the great void.”
It’s a beautiful image, rendering the printing press as a medium of ethereal transcendence that depends, nevertheless, on those gnarly chunks of metal poured and etched in the workshop over months and years of sweaty toil. One thinks of Donna Tartt’s obsessive accounts of furniture restoration at the heart of Theo Decker’s story in “The Goldfinch,” or even Philip Roth’s lovingly twisted empathy with glovemaker Swede Levov in “American Pastoral.” Such novels of craft and specialization take a writerly delight in the most intricate details of a particular trade while spinning rich prose out of its mysterious threads.
Christie’s novel is a worthy tribute to the technological revolution it reimagines, as well as a haunting elegy to the culture of print.
Holsinger’s second novel, “The Invention of Fire,” will be published by William Morrow in April.
By Alix Christie
Harper. 405 pp. $27.99