I SUSPECT that it will be some time yet before we read a truly convincing novel about the current pandemic. It is, I think, of the nature of world-shaking events — whether that be war, economic upheaval, pandemic, or some combination of the above — that the passage of time brings forth the richest reflections.
Certainly, while there will always be works that, though written in medias res, as it were, speak powerfully into catastrophe (Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire, written in the trenches in 1916, is a notable example), my hunch is that time and space away from disaster lend a wider perspective. Unprecedented times require time to find a proper articulation.
If we’re not quite ready to speak richly and reflexively of our own calamity, perhaps the historical novel offers another route. James Meek’s To Calais, In Ordinary Time is that most remarkable book: a novel that, through its intense determination to focus on a single distant historical period, seemingly alien to our own, speaks potently into present problems and questions.
Meek’s absorption in a lost medieval world of privilege and vulnerability, gender and class, as well as emerging disaster and the collapse of established cultural and religious assumptions, invites his reader to interrogate the assumptions of our times; for To Calais is set in south-west England in 1348. One does not need to be a historian to appreciate the significance of that date. The action of the novel takes place on the cusp of the great medieval catastrophe, an earlier generation’s version of “unprecedented” — the Black Death.
At the centre of the story are three people, each motivated by a private need to get to Calais. Will is a naïve young ploughman who longs for freedom as he sets out as a volunteer with a company of archers; Thomas is a Scots proctor and failed scholar, trying to get back to the seat of papal power in Avignon; and Bernadine, known as Berna, is a gentlewoman who flees an odious arranged marriage.
As their lives, and the lives of a motley band of archers, nobles, and servants, intersect on the road to France, secrets, dreams, and fears are disclosed. If, for each, in their own way, the road represents hope and promise, it also draws them ever closer to catastrophe.
Initially, some of the book’s characters doubt the reality of the disease (or “qualm”), while others sense the closeness of the end of the world. Each character in To Calais tries to make sense of the barely believable news issuing from the Continent. When members of the travelling party begin to fall ill, there is a palpable sense not only of fear, but of a whole way of life beginning to fall apart. For us, as readers, there is an awareness that, for every step that the characters take towards the coast, the closer they draw to doom. The sense of unfolding tragedy is made more moving by our experiences of pandemic.
This novel is not an easy read, although it is profoundly rewarding, and often laugh-out-loud funny and outrageous, as well as ultimately optimistic. Part of what makes To Calais challenging are Meek’s structural decision-making and his extraordinary use of language. The book is divided into four parts: Outen Green (the Gloucestershire village from which Will and Berna hail); the World; the End of the World, and the New World. Beyond that, there are no chapters, only sections.
© Marzena PogorsalyThe author, James Meek: an award-winning British novelist and journalist
Meek uses sigils to mark which section represents whom among the main characters: a sickle for Will, a quill for Thomas, and a rose for Berna. In addition to the sigils, Meek assigns a different dialect of English for each voice: a Saxon-inflected version for Will, a Latin version for Thomas, and a Norman-French inflected version for Berna.
I suspect that some readers will be put off by these literary devices. I suggest: persist and relax into the language. There is something genuinely exhilarating rather than arch about these devices. Thomas’s mock-Latin flourishes, for example, are so tortured they become funny, while Berna’s Norman-inflected speech matches her obsessions with troubadour stories. Will’s gritty Saxon is often very naughty indeed.
Unsurprisingly, God and religion are important elements in the story. To Calais begins with an epigraph from the famous medieval text Piers Plowman: “God is deaf nowadays.” Meek captures an age when religious practice was part of the everyday, and there was, among the common folk, an absolute awe in the presence of the Host. In Outen Green, some of the villagers yell at the priest during mass, asking him to hold “our Maker” higher in the air so that they can better see him. Yet there is also a sense that religion is not adequate to the catastrophe. This is a world in which one of the archers, damaged by war, has cut a rood into his forehead. Trinkets and charms for protection abound.
Ultimately, To Calais is a novel of innocence and experience. If few of its characters are destined to survive the journey to Calais, those who do survive glimpse a new world, however fleetingly, in which fixed ideas of class, gender, faith, and sexuality are loosened. If this is a glimpse of a richer world, the cost of getting there will be immense. The work of the Kingdom, I guess, was ever thus.
Canon Rachel Mann is Area Dean of Bury and Rossendale, Assistant Curate of St Mary’s, Bury, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.
To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek is published by Canongate at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-78689-677-3.
Listen to the author, James Meek, in conversation with Rachel Mann in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a new monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature.
Tickets are now on sale for the 2023 Festival of Faith and Literature next February at the University of Winchester and Winchester Cathedral. faithandliterature.hymnsam.co.uk
TO CALAIS, IN ORDINARY TIME — SOME QUESTIONS
- Will’s journey from guileless farmer to a man of the world includes several humiliations and challenges. What is it about him that enables him to grow through these trials?
- Characters such as Madlen and Berna play with gender roles and identity. How surprised or challenged are you to see such behaviour in a novel set in the Middle Ages? Why?
- What pictures of the institutional Church and its legal officers, such as Thomas, emerge as the novel unfolds?
- To what extent does Berna reveal the risks of reading medieval romance? Or does it provide her with the spur to claim her own destiny?
- Towards the end of the novel, Will says to Madlen: “You said it made you bold to know all must die soon.” To what extent do unprecedented times legitimise the behaviour of the characters?
- The Middle Ages are sometimes presented as a grim and violent time. How does Meek both write in accordance with and subvert this image? What are the intersections and differences between Meek’s picture of medieval England and our own time?
IN OUR next Book Club page on 4 November, we will print extra information about our next book, The Day That Went Missing: A family tragedy by Richard Beard. It is published by Vintage at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-1-78470-314-1.
The Day That Went Missing is a memoir covering Richard Beard’s search for what happened on the day when his younger brother Nicky did not return from their swim off the coast of Cornwall in 1978. The author was 11 years old at the time. In the aftermath, the event was never discussed by his family, and he didn’t attend his brother’s funeral. In the following years at boarding school, where he was taught to maintain a stiff upper lip, the pain remained suppressed. Forty years later, after an unlocking of memories and a search for the facts, his trauma is laid bare.
Richard Beard has written six novels, and his memoir The Day That Went Missing won the 2018 PEN/Ackerley Award for literary autobiography. He is also a contributor to The Guardian, the TLS, and The Times. He started his career as a PE teacher before becoming director of the National Academy of Writing, in London, a Visiting Professor at the University of Tokyo, and a Creative Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia. Sport continues to play a significant part in his life. He is an opening batsman for both the Clifton Hampden Cricket Club and the Authors XI cricket team.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
December: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
January: The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land by Omer Friedlander