14 January, 2012

Thorn, by Michael Dean. Book review

Bluemoose Books 2011. ISBN 978-0-9566876-4-7. 252 pages.

Set in Amsterdam in 1656, Thorn centres on the (fictional) friendship between the philosopher Spinoza and the painter Rembrandt. All the major characters are historical figures, although in many cases their personalities as portrayed in the novel are imaginary.

Benedict, or Baruch, Spinoza is twenty-four, a Jew of Portuguese descent living in Amsterdam, where the Jews are accepted because of their trading skills. In theory, Spinoza is the majority shareholder in his deceased father’s trading company, but his passion is for philosophy (and for his nubile Latin teacher, Clara Maria van den Enden). A chance meeting introduces him to the great painter Rembrandt van Rijn, and despite their disparate backgrounds the two men strike up an unlikely friendship. Each is a giant in his own field, Rembrandt already acknowledged as a genius, Spinoza just at the start of his career. Each places the demands of his calling higher than any other consideration – including the need to fit in with the rest of the world. Their refusal to compromise brings them into conflict with just about everybody who matters in mid-seventeenth-century Amsterdam – the Jews, the Calvinists and the city authorities.

Thorn is a witty, intelligent black comedy, funny and sharp by turns. It is narrated throughout in first-person by Spinoza, in a racy and humorous style that makes it seem as though he is talking directly to the reader. I could almost hear his voice. The name Spinoza means ‘thorn’ (hence the book title), and it suits the character down to the ground. Witty, sarcastic and intellectually brilliant, Spinoza is also utterly clueless on a social level. He is sufficiently self-aware to recognise this in himself – he says to his sister, “The universe is so much simpler to me than any person in it” – but he can’t seem to stop himself causing trouble and even pain for other people. He never means to hurt anyone, but his breathtaking insensitivity made me both laugh and cringe. Watching Spinoza clomp his way through delicate situations – a tricky business negotiation, family relationships, courtship and a proposal of marriage – blissfully oblivious to the trail of disaster in his wake, is both funny and poignant. Spinoza as created here is an engaging character, but cannot have been easy to live with!

The other characters are also vividly drawn. Rembrandt is the character we see most of, after Spinoza (who naturally dominates the novel). Rough, honest and warm-hearted, Rembrandt places his art above all other considerations and, like Spinoza, is impatient with those who don’t share his opinions. The secondary characters are a colourful collection of eccentrics. Seen entirely through Spinoza’s eyes, their human foibles are magnified – demanding relatives, arrogant physicians, pompous burghers, thuggish businessmen. Rembrandt’s kind mistress Hendrickje and competent son Titus are the most sensible and well-balanced people in the book; just as well for Rembrandt and Spinoza, for whom things would have been much harder without their support.

In their different ways, both Rembrandt and Spinoza reject the hypocrisy and religious intolerance of contemporary society (though, to be fair, both of them can exhibit a fair degree of intolerance themselves to people they disagree with). Spinoza pursues his philosophy even though it marks him as a heretic and threatens his brother’s business. Rembrandt refuses to paint flattering portraits of self-important burghers. Both men stick to their honesty and integrity even though this earns them powerful enemies, who can – and do – make their lives very difficult indeed. Yet both are also flawed characters who bring many of their difficulties on themselves, Rembrandt through his financial recklessness, Spinoza through his social ineptitude and capacity to alienate people.

As well as its characterisation and humour, Thorn also has a lot of convincing background detail about life in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, from the political situation of the Jews to details of domestic life to a memorable description of a public dissection. I’m not familiar with the period, so almost all of this was new to me; hence I can’t comment on the accuracy, but I can say that it felt authentic.

A helpful Author’s Note at the end outlines the underlying history and the fictional interpolations that make up the story, and provides a list of further reading for those who would like to explore the period in more detail.

Witty, intelligent black comedy exploring religious and social intolerance, centred on the (fictional) friendship between Rembrandt and Spinoza in Amsterdam at the height of the Dutch Golden Age.


Rick said...

Interesting story hook! Like you I don't know much about the period, but I imagine it is fairly well documented.

Does the author say whether there's any evidence that the principals met at all? In some respects I imagine that sophisticated Dutch circles were a rather small world.

Carla said...

The author covers that in the historical note. He says there is no evidence that Rembrandt and Spinoza met. However, they did live round the corner from each other in Amsterdam, and they did know many of the same people. As you observe (the author says the same) intellectual and artistic circles in Amsterdam were a fairly small world, so he says his feeling is that it would have been remarkable if they had not met.