04 August 2010

Mosedale’s ‘The Church of Shakespeare’

Charm in fiction is an elusive quality that yields particular pleasures to the reader. I’m still trying to figure out how to achieve charm in my own prose, yet I’m convinced already of this: the reader’s pleasure is con­nected to the writer’s. If the novelist is enjoying himself, the odds are greater that the reader will, too. Few people have ever derived more pleasure from Shakespeare than John Mosedale did, from reading and watching his plays, from talking and thinking about him. And so it is that his novel, The Church of Shakespeare, is not only pleasurable to read, it’s charming.

The premise is simple: young Bix Baxter’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare threatens his otherwise happy marriage. His wife, Etta, has given him five years to get the Bard out of his system, whereupon she insists that he resume his place in the workaday world. Bix acts and directs, he reads and recites … and he misses the deadline. A deadline is serious business to a lifelong journalist such as John Mosedale, and it’s serious to Etta, too. She walks out. But instead of eschewing Shakespeare, Bix immerses himself even further, first with an amateur staging of all three Henry VI plays (precisely because they’re obscure), and then with the creation of the Church of Shakespeare. Perhaps needless to say, the success of the church only jeopardizes further Bix and Etta’s marriage.

The Flower Portrait
Now known to be a fake, it makes an appearance in the novel.

While reading, I was reminded of Mark Twain’s policy that a good story be like a plank with knotholes to be plugged with anecdotes and digressions: for great portions of the novel, John is scarcely bothered with plot, but he gives us in recompense witty observations on New York life, from the mechanics of gentrification to the influence of the Times, as well as thoughtful meditations on love and on Shakespeare’s art. The dialogue is brisk and credible even when stylized (a few sound like Damon Runyon, another of John’s pet subjects), and John crowds his stage with eccentrics, misfits, and outcasts — for the Church of Shakespeare, like any church, attracts lost souls, whom John depicts with sympathy and humor.

Foremost among the lost is Bix himself, who on occasion seems much older than the thirty years John ascribes to him. The sympathy of writer for protagonist is so strong, and — let’s face it — very few thirty-year-old New Yorkers share Bix’s nostalgia for civility and his distaste for cell phones. To my knowledge, John’s love of Shakespeare never threatened to wreck his own marriage, yet a slight blurring between author and subject contributes to our sense that we’re reading something personal, and that John is sharing with us the things that please him.

While it seems fanciful at first, no suspension of disbelief is needed to accept the concept of a Church of Shakespeare or the redemptive power that the characters find in the plays. John doesn’t even stoop to the easy defense that the King James Bible is nearly contemporary to Shake­speare, and besides, neither John nor Bix proposes that the playwright be made a religion. Insofar as the plays represent a philosophy, it is one of embracing the multiplicities of experience. We’re often reminded that Shakespeare doesn’t take sides, and John doesn’t, either. Every char­ac­ter has his own motivation, to be respected if not always under­stood or shared.

The reader isn’t required to have memorized Shakespeare (though several of the novel’s characters have done so); when I began reading, I pulled down the Collected Works I’d brought to France, sure that I’d need to consult it. I haven’t read the Henry VI plays in about ten years — alas, they’re not included in my Collected Works. (Which turns out to be merely the Collected Major Works, a sort of Top 20 Greatest Hits.) Yet John sets up his story so beautifully that I didn’t need to cross-reference. Even when — rather obstinately — John goes on about Lesser Works such as King John and Titus Andronicus, he provides enough background to ensure our understanding, and more importantly, he’s careful to make utterly clear why his characters respond to each play as they do.

John and Betty Mosedale, Together at the Theater
Jude Law’s Hamlet was the next-to-last Shakespeare performance that John attended.
Photo courtesy of the Mosedale Family

Though he also gives us riffs on such well-known plays as Richard III and Hamlet, I wouldn’t be surprised if John weren’t trying to tempt some of us to read (or re-read) the Lesser Works, such was his mission­ary zeal. Surely his enthusiasm for Love’s Labours Lost and Henry VI is so great that I wish John were here to discuss them with me; he makes a compelling case for reexamination, though he didn’t quite win me over. Throughout the novel, even random lines and chapter head­ings inspired me to pick up the Major Works, just to sustain the flavor of the words. I could practically feel John’s approval, each time I did so.

Ultimately, The Church of Shakespeare is a pastoral romance set in the urban jungle, a light entertainment, yet it isn’t insubstantial. It’s the work of a grand old man who does not hoard his treasures, but plays with them, holds them up to the twilight to watch their sparkles — then passes them on to us. Even if you never knew John Mosedale, you’ll enjoy this book; once you’ve read it, you’ll wish you had known him. And in a way, you will have.

NOTE: The Mosedale family were eager to see the book in John’s hands, so they published it with Lulu.com. Given the state of conven­tion­al American publishing today, I have no idea how the book would fare when shopped around to skittish editors: even charm may repre­sent risk, which is anathema in today’s climate. I’m glad John didn’t have to endure the process. The finished book is a “trade” paperback of good quality, and bargain-priced. It’s also available in an electronic edition, though I’m not sure Bix would approve of that.

1 comment:

A Man of Constant Leisure said...

I loved this review and I'm pretty sure my dad would have loved it, too.