Chaucer Playing Tetris: Archival Interview with Lev Grossman
BLOGGER’S NOTE: Lev Grossman has a new novel coming out (it’s called The Magicians, and it’s wonderful), and I have decided to mark the occasion by dusting off this conversation we had when Codex was first released. Among the many, many author interviews I have conducted, this one stands out as a favorite. I love Codex, Grossman was a lot of fun to talk to, and—if I do say so myself—this is a fine example of literary interrogation: It enriches the reader’s experience of the book, and both interviewer and interviewer come off as pretty smart.
I did this interview while I was working for Borders, so there’s one thing I couldn’t say then—back when Dan Brown was basically signing my paychecks—that I’d like to add now: Every positive comment you’ve ever heard or read about The Da Vinci Code—e.g., favorable comparisons to The Name of the Rose—that are patently untrue of that work are probably true of Codex.
Interview conducted in 2004
Investment banker Edward Wozny is on vacation when his firm assigns him the task of helping a powerful, enigmatic client organize a personal library. This mildly irritating and seemingly innocuous job lures Edward out of his mundane existence and into a strange universe of rare books, medieval mysticism, and aristocratic intrigue.
Codex is Edward’s story. It’s also the story of a missing manuscript—a strange and beguiling text that may or may not have been written by a 14th-century historian—and of a particularly hypnotic computer game. Lev Grossman weaves these imaginative artifacts into an utterly absorbing mystery.
What part of this novel came to you first—the manuscript, the game, or the main character?
Lev Grossman: Oddly enough, the title came to me first. I can vividly remember walking down a hill near where I was living at the time—in some crappy grad-student apartment—and thinking, “Codex: That’s a snappy title. I think I’ll write a book about it.” But the book really came out of the summer of ’95… You know, I’ve spent a really long time writing this book. Anyway, that summer I was working in the rare books library at Yale—it’s called the Beinecke. I was immersed in an incredibly weird and seductive world of extremely rare and valuable of books. It’s a real Willy Wonka moment, when you get to go behind the circulation desk, where they keep all the <i>really</i> good stuff that nobody else gets to see. Suddenly you’re fondling letters written by Joyce and Tennyson. I felt like this was something I had to know more about, and something I wanted to write about.
I’m guessing from your use of the word "fondling" that you had an affection for books before you worked in the rare-books library?
LG: I was already a book lover, definitely. But I don’t think I lapsed into full-on bibliophilia until I worked at the Beinecke. I don’t know that I’ve ever been in contact with something that felt so much like a sacred object as some of the texts I encountered at that library. My first day, when I was going through these letters written by William Beckford—who I happened to be reading for a course at the time—and my tiny mind was just simply blown by it.
There are other novels about the search for a text—The Name of the Rose and Possession come to mind immediately. In both those stories the protagonists are obsessed with books from the start. The labyrinthine, sometimes dangerous, situations in which they find themselves are the result of a pre-existing condition. But your hero, Edward, isn’t particularly interested in books before he embarks on his adventure. His experiences in bibliomania are a weird, secret, otherworldly interlude in an otherwise very normal life.
LG: I wanted Edward to begin the book as a philistine, but also a sort of latent bibliophile. He’s a very crass, not unintelligent, but very ordinary bloke. I wanted him to feel the dreamlike rush of being plunged into a strange new world, and to discover in himself these desires and obsessions that he had never known before. I didn’t want him to be an insufferable pedant—because I’m an insufferable pedant and I know how unpleasant that is. I wanted to see him go all the way from being an ordinary fellow to being something that he’d never thought he would become.
Your book is, in an oblique way, a parable about the dangers of reading.
LG: I’d never known about the concept of dangerous reading until I took a course on Chaucer, which I was forced to take. I was a modernist. I was interested in Joyce and Hemingway, and I hadn’t read the fine print on my acceptance letter to grad school, which said I had to take two courses on literature written before the year 1600. So, I just took the first one that came along, which happened to be Chaucer. We read everything but The Canterbury Tales.
The first thing we read was a poem that almost nobody reads called “The Book of the Duchess.” It opens with this scene—and I’ll just tell you about it because nobody ever reads “The Book of the Duchess”—in which this guy is sitting in bed and he’s got all these books around him and he’s thinking, “I’m really depressed, so I’m going to take down a book and read.” The professor pointed out that this was very odd. Nothing could seem more normal to us, but for somebody to sit down by himself and read a secular tale for his own amusement was considered very eccentric at that time. It was sort of frowned upon. It’s kind of wonderful to think of reading as taboo, as forbidden. We’ve forgotten the risks and dangers of that kind of reading.
It wasn’t even until, like, the 10th or 11th century that people realized that you could read, silently, to yourself. Before that, they would pick up a book and automatically start reading words aloud, because reading was a public event.
The manuscript you created in your novel is an amazing creation, really compelling and really disturbing. I wish it actually existed so that I could read it.
LG: It was the funnest part of the book to write—no question about that. If you’ve ever read Thomas Malory, or some of the Chaucer’s minor works, or any of the romances of the 14th and 15th centuries… They’re very weird, all these myths about people getting various parts of them cut off and having mystical adventures and being subjected to the whims of an angry, inscrutable God—lots of strange things going on in there. Those stories are truly weird and chilling. You know, reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as an undergraduate was probably the first time I felt like my mind was really making contact with somebody else’s mind, the mind of a totally different time. That book is just so screwed up.
The manuscript is one half of Edward’s adventure. The other is the computer game. Where did that come from?
LG: Well, I got into that through my twin brother, who, for much of his life, has been a professional designer of video games. I’ve become kind of interested in them myself… There’s something repellent about them, but at the same, something kind of fascinating. It’s not every day that you can sit around and watch the birth of an entirely new medium, and that’s what’s happening right now. People made up video games in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, and they’ve already grown into an industry that’s larger than the movie industry. I think it’s really fascinating to watch and explore.
There’s a great passage in “The House of Fame”—another of those minor Chaucer works I was forced to read—where Chaucer’s making fun of himself for reading. Everybody thought it was so weird: He’s just sitting there with his book, completely spaced out. He’s silent and he’s staring at this thing and his mouth is open and his eyes are glazed. It sounds just like a person playing a video game. And you suddenly realize, the way we look at people who play games now must have been something like the way they looked at people reading novels back then.
Chaucer was totally playing Tetris on his Game Boy.
LG: [Laugh.] He totally was. It took a long time for literature to become an interesting, complicated means of expressing important ideas. And it will be kind of interesting to see whether games go that same route.