John Threlfall's Review in this week's Monday Magazine
As strange as it may seem in this era of nanoseconds and digital obsession, there was a time when minutes and hours mattered much less than they do today, when the means of marking time was often more important than its precision. Indeed, tourists today are still awed by the famed medieval clocks of Prague, Strasbourg or Venice. Such is the case with the fictional Austrian town of Wolsenburg, where debut novelist Jay Ruzesky has created The Wolsenburg Clock—part divine intervention, part mechanical marvel and an altogether engaging, if somewhat puzzling, piece of historical fiction.
Set amidst WWII—although the war really plays no part here beyond providing the initial set-up and setting—Wolsenburg is a very consciously structured short novel, wherein an unnamed central narrator’s growing fascination for a neglected medieval clock provides the temporal framing device for three loosely connected tales spanning the clock’s construction: the medieval era (1378), a Renaissance period (1585) and the Age of Enlightenment (1809). But where other historical novelists—Edward Rutherford, say—would spill hundreds of pages of intricately plotted and specifically detailed ink on each mechanical innovation and revolutionary advancement, Ruzesky instead goes for broader strokes, offering us impressions of these periods; we share moments when the lives of these passing characters intersect with the Black Plague, meet the Inquisition, face the rising class structure. And while the story is simply told, the characters are cleverly constructed—an early scientist challenging the preconception of God, an alchemist child prodigy, a shunned bastard genius of aristocracy—and all play an essential part in the creation and continuation of the clock’s legacy.
Wolsenburg is a curious novel and it’s tempting to put its problems, such as they are, down to Ruzesky’s primary career as a poet; indeed, there’s even a moment early on when the narrator seems to echo the author’s own fears: “Would that I could write like Thomas Hardy and represent those people with all their human strengths and human flaws.” And while Ruzesky’s talent at capturing and describing a historical moment clearly rises above his use of dialogue and character development, there’s something undeniably compelling about Wolsenburg; if anything, my main complaint is with its length—there’s simply not enough here. Having gone to all the trouble of creating a clock and cathedral vivid enough that one has to check the internet to see if it really exists (it doesn’t), I wanted more from these characters and periods; but again, for a writer more familiar with the poetic form, and on his first novel, perhaps that is to be expected, or at least excused.
While not an instant classic, The Wolsenburg Clock will appeal to readers of more formal historical fiction, and for those who, like the narrator, feel that, “Perhaps what humans need more than anything is not atomic clocks that help us keep more and more precise track of time, but less complicated lives so the measurements would again matter less.” M
The Wolsenburg Clock
By Jay Ruzesky
172 pages, $18.95