AVIGNON by Marianne Calmann

23 11 2014

Avignon coverThis is a strange book. There are so many different characters and so many different things going on that it reads more like a soap opera than a novel. But then the same might be said for that greatest of all historical novels “War and Peace”. We jump from Cardinal le Gor with his page and his moral problem (his relationship with his page) to Pope Clement with his sister and his health problems and his moral problem (he had feelings of guilt about what others called “his spendthrift ways”; for instance he had spent billions trying to make Avignon and the Palais des Papes more beautiful and impressive than anything in Rome); to Thoros Bonivassin, the Jewish physician who is summoned one night to the Pope’s bedside then disappears; to Blanchette, Thoros’ beautiful sister-in-law, who is in love with him, not Astruc, her husband, Thoros’ brother; to the high official in the Pope’s household who is obsessed with a Jewish woman (that same femme fatale, Blanchette) and fathers a son on her, then undergoes a terrible penance for this “sin”. And many, many more.

The scene switches from one to the other and back again as we follow their lives and get to know them all and to feel at home in Avignon (and especially in the Papal Palace and the Jewish ghetto known as the Street) during 1347-8, the year leading up to the arrival via Marseilles of the Black Death. The last third of the book shows how they respond in their various different ways to this catastrophe. Should Thoros, the physician, go into Avignon or remain in the Street (which will be sealed off). Should they flee the Street and Avignon?

Great history if not great art (though I’m not too sure about that distinction), well written and, as I say, full of people. Highly recommended to those who feel curious about medieval Avignon, and life (especially life for Jews) under the French popes. After reading this, you would feel at home there.

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