I’ve been reading books now for roughly thirtyfive years. Sometimes I’ve read a couple a week and in other times I didn’t even managed to read one a month. But always since these last three and a half decades was I underway in a book.
You can imagine how many authors have passed my eyes. So it is with some hesitation and perhaps even guilt that I present here my all time top 10 of authors that I hold in the highest possible
esteem. Hesitation, because every list is arbitrary the moment it is published – just like words that try to express a truth are doomed to fail the moment they are uttered. And guilt because I
revere all writers (with very few exceptions) that have accomplished the creation of a world of their own in written word, and it is therefore not fair towards the many that remain unnamed on
Why then such a list? Because a recent revelation made me add one name to this list, and this list is a way to express my appreciation for her effort. Before I delve into that, let’s show you the list. I would like to stress that the order in which these writers are mentioned is arbitrary. The number One and Two stand firm, but after that the line-up is pretty random.
1. William Horwood (mainly because of The Stonor Eagles & Skallagrigg)
2. Jeroen Brouwers (Dutch, with only one book translated into English: Sunken Red)
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Gustave Flaubert (mainly because of his letters)
A new name
The name added to the list is ofcourse Ki Longfellow. After reading The Secret Magdalene last March, I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer depth of the story she presented to me. Not just the depth of the story, but also the beauty of her language, the solid composition of the book thrilled me.
Having read her latest novel, Flow Down Like Silver, Hypatia of Alexandria, I know that The Secret Magdalene was not a one-time high. This lady – I’m referring to the author now – contains gold and I can only hope that she’s given the perseverance and the time to share more of her artistic wealth with us.
As in The Secret Magdalene gnosis plays a major role in Flow Down Like Silver, although it is not as much on the surface as in Magdalene. Silver relates the story of the last 24 years of the 4th-5th century scientist Hypatia of Alexandria, as told through the eyes of different characters. We learn how Hypatia has grown up, as if she were a son to her father. Being left with only daughters by his wife, who died in childbirth from the third child, he chooses Hypatia, the middle one, to follow in his footsteps as a teacher of mathematics, philosophy, science, music and so on. Her older sister, Lais, is a mysterious and introvert character. She seems to understand life, its meaning or is content with the fact that it just lacks all meaning. There is something acquiescent about her.
She and Hypatia love each other very much, as the latter in the beginning of the book says: “my sister, more precious than the beating of my own heart.” (2) Her younger sister, Jone, is
not loved by her father. In his eyes she caused the death of his wife and for this he ignores her and with that branding her for life. She is the most tragic of the three sisters. One of the main
characters in the book, Minkah the Egyptian summarizes: ‘Hypatia is all mind, Lais all spirit, Jone all bodily emotion.’ (40)
A new religion
The novel starts in the year 391. In Roman Egypt the ‘new’ religion, christianity, is on the rise. These christians are raiding the libraries of the city and are burning books that in their eyes are superfluous. Throughout the story it becomes painfully clear that the actions of many so-called christians have nothing whatsoever to do with the intentions of the one they claim to follow: Jesus. Lais is the neutral observer, free of judgment or any urge to evangelize her point of view. But the young Hypatia is furious about the way the christians burn books. Then Lais says this: ‘What they love is not this life (…), but the one that follows. If you were they: poor, ignorant, suffering, without privilege of any earthly kind, might you too not listen to this new faith which promises so much after death?’
At this Hypatia marvels: ‘My sister is theodidactos; God-taught’. (12/13)
This book is filled with allusions to or direct descriptions of alchemy (even the Atalanta Fugiens appears very briefly), Hermes Trismegistus and all that goes up and comes down with gnosis. (The table Hypatia inherits from her mother ‘made of stone as green as emeralds’ might be in fact the Emerald Tablet, that is said to reveal the secret of primordial substance and how life as we know it came into being.) In Magdalene the whole journey towards gnosis, is stronger interwoven into the story. In Silver I find it is more hidden between the lines, although hard to miss for an interested reader. Lais knows gnosis, she intuitively knows THE ALL. Hypatia has to make a long and arduous journey, but at an early age she understands the bliss that surrounds Lais: ‘I think if I desire anything, I desire this: to know what Lais knows.’ (20) Hypatia repeatedly asks herself who she is and what is her contribution to mankind.
Occasionally the reader is confronted with the real backgrounds of the christian faith and its rites and symbols with the cults of Mithras, Isis and Osiris and much more that justifies the question of how original the christian faith is. More than once does Hypatia question her contribution or her being: ‘I am only what I am, a thing of the mind (…) questioning constantly all it sees and all it hears. I believe nothing, not even what my senses assure me is so, for fear that by holding to one belief I lose the possibility of another.’ (93)
For Hypatia asking questions is a way of life, a way of constantly checking if her reality is still her home. It is the way of the scientist that is continuously seeking proof of what his senses tell him. After a fierce discussion on religion with a christian she realizes: ‘One who believes is like a lover; he would hear nothing ill of his beloved.’ (97) Or later on: ‘I ask christians: where are your questions? Where are your great doubters, those who lead us all to discovery?’ (157)
During a visit to Constantinople, Hypatia shows courage by questioning Atticus, the Bishop of this Byzantine capital. As he rambles on about the low place the woman has, Hypatia speaks up.
‘(…) to hear the ignorant speak out with authority is a great evil. (…) You repeat what you have heard. You question nothing. You expect no one to question you.’ (215)
Shocks of recognition
Again I underlined very much in this book. Sentences that struck me as pure poetry (‘a man whose brain would not threaten a cow’ (227)), parts that delivered me insight or that rare shock of recognition. As shown above, there is a lot of questioning about the christian faith. One of the things that I for instance have always wondered about is the strong rules that Islam, or Jewry, or Christianity enforce regarding the human body. The many dietary rules, the cloaking of the female body to extremes, circumcision. Ki Longfellow lets Hypatia say it thus: ‘If God (…) created the world and all that is in the world, how then can anything made by His Hand be impure?’ (110) A very just question.
Hypatia has hidden many of the forbidden books, that she saved from the raiding and arsonist christians, in a cave in the desert. After the early death of her beloved sister Lais, her poetry is added to this secret library. Later on Hypatia comes across Gnostic gospels that had lain hidden under an old temple for hundreds of years. This find, with the gospel of Mary Magdalene among them, prompts Hypatia to write her own path to glory: The book of Impossible Truth. Names that we know from Magdalene come forth, like Seth of Damascus. And once again the subjection of women is condemned strongly. ‘(…) man has come to fear woman’s sexual power before which he is helpless, so turns it back on her, making her the one who is helpless.’ (232)
At the very end of her life – when it has become clear to her that the end of science and therewith of her part in the world of her time is very near – she hides these books in the same cave. (The Nag Hammadi Scrolls that were found in 1945, are located about 350 miles to the south of Alexandria. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to believe that there is still a place somewhere near Alexandria, where in a cave are many jars containing not only Gnostic gospels, but also many of the lost books from the ancient library of Alexandria.) It is a long walk through the cave, and she loses her way. Lost in the utter darkness she realizes that this may very well be the end. It is one of the most impressive parts of the novel, filled with highly insightful phrases.
Again Hypatia wonders what the meaning of her life is. ‘What did it serve? (…) All I have done is learn only to learn this one last true thing. I know nothing.’ (281) Even though this truth breaks her heart, she gradually accepts this. She undergoes the alchemical process of death and being reborn. ‘I am snatched away from me and suddenly I fall out of myself, and then I fall into myself – completely.’ (282)
In this scene she finally finds gnosis. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose I’ve ever read on the core of gnosis, and coming very close to finally catching this what is beyond words in words nevertheless. The reader who knows, can almost feel the transition.
Incredibly beautiful also are the final words of Minkah the Egyptian, when he’s on the verge of his death. He is the great love in life of Hypatia and she is his. I’ll not repeat them here, for I’ve quoted more than enough from this superb novel. The best review would be to hand over the book itself and urge the receiver to ‘please, please, read it’.
Ki Longfellow is working on the sequel of The Secret Magdalene. With every book she publishes it becomes more clear to me that she is one of my ten most favorite authors. I know, it’s
just a list from one reader amongst many thousands, millions. But still… perhaps there is a splinter of meaning hidden there. To all you questioners, searchers and lovers of beauty in words out
there: please, please, read Flow down Like Silver, Hypatia of Alexandria!
Gelezen: December 2009