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Things I've Found 7 (It's Falkner, Not Faulkner)—11/29/2001

by Mark Rose

FOUND! There is something special in finding a hidden treasure, discovering a lost jewel of enthusiasm, revealing a bit of perfection in the pre-evolutionary primordial goo. The act of finding something that had been lost, perhaps if only to you, is a moment of complete, satisfying joy. And when the discovery comes by sheer happenstance, as it most often does, you are encouraged by the belief that there must still be other untold discoveries to be made, if only you allow yourself to look for them.

Thus, I stumbled upon John Meade Falkner’s The Nebuly Coat. The heralds on this e-zine list (and there is more than one) will realize why I plucked the title from an Island County bookshelf. But this is not really a novel of heraldry. It is more a novel of architecture, village church architecture and the architectural fabric of the people who live nearby.

Briefly, young Edward Westray is a builder and is ordered by his boss to supervise the restoration of the Cullerne Minster church. The church, while still the anchor point of the village, has suffered from years of neglect and lack of funds. Westray must make the church as sound as possible with little money. Until Lord Blandamer, he of the nebuly coat of arms, comes on the scene and offers Westray much needed financial assistance. It all seems to the good, but there is a dark, brooding thread that runs through the tale, and there is great suspense to be found by the reader in wondering just what is going to go wrong.

Generally classified as a mystery, and sporting some of the hallmarks of those dark moorland thrillers, it doesn’t really believe in the goals of most mysteries. It is much more a tale of atmosphere, characterization, and the study of small town villagers. Falkner’s genius lies in his phenomenally deft way with characters. In a paragraph, you immediately know each village resident, empathize with their beliefs and preconceptions, and marvel at the intricate relationships they possess with the novel’s other characters. Cullerne seems very real indeed.

Which is good, because the storyline can be a bit romantically outlandish. And there is some predictability as well. But the writing is strong, densely packed, and amazingly cinematic for a book published in 1903. It’s got a Masterpiece Theatre quality to it, and one could easily see Johnny Depp in the title role. I hate to compare books to movies but I want to pass along some concept of this book because it’s very hard to describe. E.M. Forster said it possessed “. . . the sense of weight — stone weight.” And it is that type of book. Since it was published in 1903, make sure to find a copy that has a gloss as there are quite a few Biblical and mythological allusions and obsolete vocabulary that can be frustrating. But present underneath the archaic architecture of words and sentences, is the soul of a beautiful novel that deserves to be better remembered than it is.

I’ve just ordered Falkner’s The Lost Stradivarius which is the only title of his still in print. You can also find some of his work available as free e-texts. If you want to find more out about Falkner, this site is a nice introduction:

http://www.rjbw.net/JMFalkner.html

Next issue, we return to the lighter fare with more links, brief commentary and other things I’ve found. Until then . . .