Thursday, June 13, 2013

The audacity of revenge

Scott G. F. Bailey, The Astrologer (Moses Lake, Wash.: Rhemalda, 2013). 253 pages.

Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer who was among the great figures of the Renaissance, died suddenly in Prague on October 24, 1601. Scott G. F. Bailey’s premise in this nimble debut novel is that Brahe was poisoned on orders from Christian IV, the king of Denmark. The Astrologer might be described as a historical thriller in which scientific knowledge seeks retribution against political power, only to discover that love scorned is the fiercer enemy.

Tycho Brahe
Soren Andersmann, Bailey’s title character, has sworn revenge for Brahe’s murder by assassinating Christian. The son of a stone mason but “small and sickly as a youth,” lacking the “physique to earn a living with [his] hands,” he was educated at Wittenberg and then installed at court as tutor to the crown prince, who is also named Christian. A self-proclaimed disciple of Brahe, Soren is without talent for mathematics, and so he becomes the court astrologer rather than Brahe’s successor as royal astronomer. He is an articulate spokesman for the new scientific knowledge, or what would now be called a popularizer:Philosophers do not murder each other. Priests, princes, popes, and kings keep at the slaughter because they have no habit of intellectual inquiry. They are no better than the pagans whom God drowned in the Flood. . . . I place my faith in the Ark of knowledge, and I believe that science will save man from his innate depravity. Thus have I ever bent my knee to the great men of philosophy, alchemy, astronomy, and astrology. Thus did I thrive at university and thus did I crave employment with Tycho Brahe. . . .In addition to murdering Brahe, the king has also banned Soren’s book Nunc Scio Mysterium (“Now I Know the Mystery”). The book’s argument is that “what we can see is to be more trusted than what we are told without evidence,” but the crown prince warns that some men “will read it more broadly, as a political commentary.” Soren’s position at court is tenuous, although the queen seems to favor him; he is anxious about his future, although no warnings are made explicit. He draws up favorable horoscopes for the king in battle, no matter what the stars portend. All in all, Soren would feel better off if Christian IV were dead.

If you are going to kill the king, the old adage has it, you had better not miss; but Soren misses twice, in ghastly comic fashion. His assassination plots are elaborate Rube Goldberg machines—a box of poisonous snakes left open in the royal bedchamber, a poisoned bottle of wine shared with the king by a nobleman who had sworn off drink—and Soren is caught in the act by the king’s Swiss guard. With one hundred and fifty pages yet to go, the question naturally arises how the book’s narrator will get out of this pickle. “You are not the man to do this deed, astrologer,” the captain of the guard says, shocking Soren and the reader. “You will need our help.” Bailey has recovered the lost art of the cliffhanger!

He also gets many of the period details right, especially about the king’s mistress Vibeke Kruse (whom Bailey portrays as an addled but fetching girl impregnated by Christian) and about Brahe’s castle and underground observatory on the island of Hven. Sent there by the king to salvage Brahe’s instruments from the ruins, Soren learns instead about a different Brahe altogether—not the man of truth, but a tyrant who treated the residents of Hven with a cruelty worse than Pharoah’s. “If I believed all I heard of Tycho in my visit to the island,” Soren reflects toward the end of his visit there, “he was no great man at all, but an indifferent knave like so many others.” This is not a truth that Soren, the proud disciple of truth, wishes to know. “To believe this,” he says, “to deny Tycho, was to deny myself.”

Soren never appreciates the irony that he has no real self to deny. The man who claims to live by Brahe’s motto (“by looking at Heaven I see the Earth”) and then falsifies horoscopes to reassure the king is a man who contributes his own share to a world in which nothing is quite as it seems—in which we can no more trust what we see than what we are told. Soren is a familiar persona in Renaissance drama, the hanger-on at court, the angler for royal favor and position, the self-important man of learning whose learning consists almost entirely of “bug’s words,” sycophancy, and received wisdom. He is a little like Rosenkrantz (or Guildenstern). Come to think of it, he is a lot like Rosenkrantz (or Guildenstern). As the glancing allusions to Hamlet pile up—the names of the Swiss guards, the slightly anachronistic reference to tennis at the 17th-century Danish court, The Murder of Gonzago, which the crown prince acts out on the beach at Hven, Vibeke’s performance as a double for Ophelia, driven mad with grief over her father’s murder at the prince’s hands as well as the king’s erotic betrayal—it gradually becomes clear that Bailey is up to something very different in The Astrologer from run-of-the-creative-writing-mill fiction.

In the end, Vibeke burns down the castle at Kronberg, taking the lives of both Christians four decades before either man actually died. And Bailey’s secret is thus revealed. Despite its historical setting, The Astrologer is not really a historical novel at all. It is a self-concealing but ambitious attempt to resuscitate the revenge tragedy. The delight of reading it lies in the discovery and tracing of Bailey’s scheme. If his prose is adequate to the task and nothing more, if there is no larger message than the implicit rap at the shallow repetitiveness of contemporary fiction, then the sheer audacity of “reworking” Shakespeare in the 21st century—and without misstep—will be more than enough for most readers of The Astrologer.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I was surprised somewhere around the same point, the failed assassination schemes - hey, this book is actually a thriller! An effective one.

It could make a good movie. Or at least a studio should pay Bailey for the rights.

Shelley said...

And there's just something about that name. Tycho Brahe: has there ever been a name to match it?