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The Weight of Ink

August 11, 2020

IMG_4129 (1)I started reading The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish, around the same time I got a copy of a sequel I’d been looking forward to and ended up having to finish reading The Weight of Ink before I picked up the other book. You might not think a novel that goes back and forth between scenes of London in the last half of the seventeenth century and London in the first years of the twenty-first would be such a page-turner, but it definitely is.

The Weight of Ink is about two historians who find a bundle of old papers hidden under a staircase in a seventeenth-century house situated in a suburb of modern London. The papers turn out to be a mixed-up pile of everyday accounts and letters from the London household of a Jewish rabbi from Portugal who was blinded by the Inquisition. The historians, Aaron and Helen, get interested in the person transcribing the rabbi’s letters.

Gradually we see that Helen and Aaron are piecing together the story that we are reading in the alternate chapters, the story of a Portuguese Jewish scholar, Ester Valesquez. In the process, we get some of Helen’s and Aaron’s own stories and get interested in the various balancing acts scholars can manage for their love of knowledge, their ambition, and their need for bodily sustenance and human love.

What creates the suspense is how everything fits together–the mystery of the papers, the observations about human nature, and the wants and needs of the three main characters, Helen, Aaron, and Ester. When they first see the papers, after an electrician has moved aside a locked panel, Aaron wonders why it has been unopened so long: “three hundred and fifty years, and no one thought to jimmy the lock?” Helen’s reply is “how closely do you look at what’s right in front of you?”

Readers eventually realize that much of the mystery of what happened to Ester and what is happening to Aaron and Helen as they piece together her story resulted from the events of a single evening at the theater when Ester saw a woman in a Shakespeare play and met some of the actors. The decision Ester makes that evening gives her the courage to deceive her friend and teacher, the Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, so that she may continue to read and write, both for his benefit and her own. We see that her motive is not only to continue her studies–which mean more to her than anything else in life but have been routinely forbidden by father, teacher, and prospective husband–but also to help the rabbi because “without any to help him study he might as well be in irons.” Ester tells the rabbi that he has received a letter, although since the time he has forbidden her to work as his scribe he has not received any correspondence. Her fictional letter does the trick of getting him interested in something and allowing her to read and write again.

But Ester’s fictional letter poses a thorny problem, a potential Jewish schism.  The rabbi cannot resist replying, no more than the rival historians who have gained access to the papers discovered by Aaron and Helen can resist prematurely publishing their finding of this “schism” before uncovering the whole story.

Female readers, in particular, will sympathize with Ester’s plight, the plight of a young, unmarried seventeenth-century woman with no means to pursue her interests or support herself outside of marriage:
“Her nature, it seemed, was unnatural. What she wished—she could not help it, the wish persisted darkly inside her—was to be part of the swelling wave she felt in the words of the books and pamphlets lining the tables outside St. Paul’s, the piles of fresh-bound quires at the bindery. What she wished was to struggle with all her force to urge that wave along, so that she might herself sweep and be swept in its furious progress—driving against the shore to smash some edifice of thought that stood guard over the land, throw herself against it and watch it crumble. For some new truth lay beyond it, she was sure of it. A continent awaiting discovery.
How to explain to all the world that her own vanity—her pretension at philosophical thought, which a man like Manuel HaLevy would trample—was more valuable to her than the safety he offered?”

Living through a time of plague and unrest might give today’s readers insight into Ester’s thoughts about suffering:
“The folly of those who cling to notions of divine intervention is evident every instant, for the babe born deformed did not merit the life of pain that awaits it, nor do those who dedicate their lives to purity merit the tormet and suffering they are so often meted. Therefore it must either be that God cares naught for suffering, or that God lacks the power to provide more tenderly for creation. Unless immortality exist to balance these equations after man’s death, they remain unbalanced. And as I endeavor to discuss all for which I can locate no proof, and as I have yet located no proof of life after death, then these thoughts must lead me toward either a theism in which the divine possesses power without mercy or justice, as though a vast infant ruled over the universe dispensing decrees at whim; or rather toward the thought that the force commanding the universe possesses will but no power, for which notion I might be charged with atheism.”

The fascination of Kadish’s novel comes from the way she interplays seventeenth-century thought, both philosophical and personal, with the professional and personal thoughts of the modern characters. At the point when Aaron has discovered just enough of Ester’s story to be misled about where it is going he realizes “that he’d been counting on Ester’s story not to fizzle out in some trivial, humdrum ending….he’d wanted Ester’s story to serve up something staggering: some triumphal parade showcasing the very qualities Aaron wished to see in his own reflection. He’d wished Ester to be independent, clever, indomitable, rebellious. He’d expected her story to serve as something unseemly: his own coronation. But in fact history was indifferent to him. It didn’t matter what he wanted. The world had simply closed over Ester Velasquez’s head. And it could just as easily close over Aaron’s.”

Finding out that the world did not simply close over Ester’s head makes it possible for Aaron to make a difference in the world, and by extension, for any modern scholar. The work of a scholar can be difficult and lonely; everyone has moments when they feel, as Aaron does, that “some candle inside him was dangerously close to guttering.” This novel shows how doing the routine, everyday work of scholarship can sometimes produce a new understanding, not just for the discoverer, but for the larger world.

That’s an idea that anyone who loves books will appreciate in these days of uncertainty about the value of expertise and the future of education.

 

13 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2020 7:32 am

    DAMMIT JEANNE ahahahaha here I had promised myself that I was done chasing that Arcadia high and trying to find a book that does this type of plot well, and then you come along with this review and I OBViously cannot resist this book. I’ve put a hold on it at my library!

    • August 11, 2020 7:53 am

      This is exactly the reaction I hoped for!
      Just to reinforce my point, the sequel that I put aside is Harrow the Ninth.

  2. magpiemusing permalink
    August 11, 2020 9:54 am

    Sounds good! The pile to take to the beach is growing.

    • August 13, 2020 10:10 am

      For vacation piles, your eyes should always be bigger than your mouth!

  3. August 11, 2020 12:35 pm

    “Therefore it must either be that God cares naught for suffering, or that God lacks the power to provide more tenderly for creation.”

    To use an informal contemporary expression…

    THIS.

    Hoo boy, do I have THOUGHTS on this. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking for a while. The continued existence of evil and pain and injustice in the world suggests that, if there is a Creator, then either (A) They are choosing to allow it (a) for some supposedly worthy Greater Plan or (b) because the Creator is simply an inventor who created the universe and then left it to run itself…

    OR (B) the Creator does care but is not as omnipotent as we’ve made Them out to be. And all the good things that happen in the world are meant to balance the suffering (I LOVE that line about immortality being the ultimate way to balance a lifetime of pain).

    Honestly? I can relate better to a Creator who’s imperfect but cares, rather than some paradoxical perfect Being who *chooses* to cause or allow evil for some reason we’re just supposed to accept is Ultimately Right.

    Which…as a writer…I do see the inherent hypocrisy in my choice to inflict conflicts on my own characters. If I think about that for too long, my head starts to hurt.

    • August 13, 2020 10:12 am

      Yes, the paradoxes are headache-inspiring. I liked that this novel included just enough of her thinking to show the seriousness of her decisions.
      Also what you say about inflicting conflicts on your own characters, as a writer, makes me think of the current season of the tv show Supernatural, in which God the writer is pictured manipulating the characters we’ve loved for 15 seasons to amuse himself.

      • August 13, 2020 10:56 am

        Oh…oh dear…do you mean like an It Was All A Dream ending, or a meta joke about It Was All A Dream Endings?

        • August 13, 2020 10:57 am

          No, it’s quite literal–God is a character. The series hasn’t ended yet, and there are some “parallel universes,” but I think they’re going to end it with some characteristic metacommentary on storytelling.

  4. Mae Sander permalink
    August 13, 2020 2:50 am

    Interesting review.

    Sometimes it seems as though there are more fictional Jews in 17th century England than there ever were in the real place. I wonder why.

    be well… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

    • August 13, 2020 10:14 am

      I guess it depends on what you read? I read a lot of post-English-civil-war literature as a young scholar and beginning teacher and never dipped into Jewish thought.

  5. August 18, 2020 1:14 pm

    This has been on my tbr for too long. I will move it up the list.

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