Discovering Septimania


On an April evening in 1978, just climbing out of the sulfurous gray of an English winter, I found myself talking about Emanuel Swedenborg with a Hungarian at a long wooden table on Alpha Road. The table belonged to Simon, a PhD student at St. John’s College, Cambridge as did the house and much of the conversation. Looking back at that dinner party, I can’t remember why Istvan, a film student, and I were discussing Swedenborg. Nearly forty years later, all I know about the 18th century Swede is that he was a confused product of the Enlightenment who tried to make the scientific discoveries of Isaac Newton jibe with his own visions of seraphim and cherubim. But Simon, our host, was an authority on just about everything, and that gave license to improvise to the rest of our baker’s dozen of lost foreign students who had nowhere better to go on a Sunday evening. There was a medievalist from Princeton who was an expert on beast epics, a rugby player from Scotland, a couple of college actresses from a radical feminist collective called The Mummers, Istvan the filmmaker, and my girlfriend, the daughter of a gentleman farmer in Norfolk, who was studying to be a schoolteacher and flirting with the theater.

Simon was an expert on Isaac Newton. For several months, Simon had been helping a few chums at the BBC series Chronicle research a documentary about a French secret society. At one particularly raucous point in the dinner—Simon was telling us about a manuscript he’d discovered in which Newton had calculated the End of Time—the telephone rang. I can’t remember whether Simon quieted us down or whether we just saw his expression ashen—Simon was a small man but he had a beard that accented his change of complexion. I remember that he listened for a while, said oui a few times, and then hung up. When we asked him what that was all about, he told us that someone speaking in French and claiming to call from Paris had insisted, in no uncertain terms, that he stop working on the documentary—or else.

At the time, I had no idea that that phone call would spark a novel called Septimania. Writing was the last thing on my mind that night. I was going to be a jazz violinist, or the next Peter Brook. I was busy directing my girlfriend in a production of Chris Durang and Albert Innaurato’s The Idiots Karamazov. Later in the summer we joined the radical feminists of The Mummers for a two-week run of five shows a day at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and then took the train to Paris. I played my violin in the Metro long enough to buy us dinner at a one-star Michelin restaurant near the Opera. She threw up that night, and then followed Simon and his merry band the next morning, down to Rennes-le-Chateau in the Cathar Country of southern France to join his BBC chums in their investigation of this French secret society.

MontepulcianoI set off for Rome with my fiddle and a backpack, planning to busk as long as the tourists could stand it. It was September 1978, five months after my dinner with Simon. Italy was in a chaos of dust and protest. A few months earlier, former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, the Italian JFK, had been kidnapped and then killed by the Red Brigades. Pope Paul VI had died in early August.­­­

I never made it down to Rome. I was waylaid in the Tuscan town of Montepulciano, where the sight of a woman skinning a rabbit—I hadn’t eaten in forty-eight hours—led to three weeks of playing in an osteria in return for room, board, and a nightly spliff in front of the TV with the cook and her boyfriend as we watched dubbed re-runs of Roots. I returned to Cambridge. A few days later, the new pope, John Paul I, died of mysterious causes. It was quite a year.

Seventeen years later, I began to think of that night at Simon’s house on Alpha Road. I had published one novel, A Guide for the Perplexed. Buoyed by my perception of Guide’s success, I had written two more novels in quick succession based on my travels in South America in the early 1990s. It was while I was waiting to hear good news from my agent about those novels that I began to make notes about a new one. I began to imagine a hero named Malory, in homage to the 15th century compiler of Le Morte d’Arthur.

Like Simon at that dinner party on Alpha Road, my hero Malory was a graduate student obsessed with Isaac Newton. And like Simon, Malory surrounded himself with a round table of lost souls—Americans, Canadians, Continentals and Sub-Continentals. This Ur-Malory was not only a graduate student but also the Chairman of the Naga Society, a group dedicated to the discovery and ingestion of the hottest pepper on Earth. Malory led the Naga Society in song at a bevy of Cambridge curry houses. And when he discovered he had come into a mysterious inheritance, led his merry band across the Channel on a picaresque train ride to the South of France.

The hottest pepper on Earth?Malory and his Nagas were somewhere outside Toulouse when my agent called with bad news. No publisher wanted a South American novel by a writer named Levi. “If your name was García Levi,” he said. A few days later, the Director of the Poetry Center at New York’s 92nd Street Y rang with an offer. He knew of my parallel passion for theater and asked whether I’d be interested in producing a stage version of Dante’s Inferno. The new Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky had just translated the epic about a 14th century poet who conquered his mid-life crisis with a guided tour of Hell. I set Malory and his knights loose on vacation and took the job.

For the next three years, the Inferno took me around the US, from Boston and New York to Kansas City and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, before finishing at the Getty Center in LA. The journey was fascinating and Arthurian and satisfying in a certain way. By the end of the millennium, however, I was ready to return to Malory. But then another friend became Chancellor of the New York City Board of Education and asked me to join his team as the guy who would tell him when he was making a blunder, and keep an eye on arts and culture in my spare time. And when that gig ended, I was offered a project building and opening a performing arts center at Bard College. And then there was another project…

Ten years passed. In the meantime, a guy named Dan Brown published a book about Da Vinci that touched fairly heavily on many of the themes Simon had been warned against researching on that damp Cambridge evening back in 1978. I had written a few opera libretti, directed and produced a couple of productions. But collaboration, enabling other artists, fun as it was, was ultimately unsatisfying. At one such event at Harvard, I was seated next to a historian of science, who confided to me that, even though the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney was seated on her left, she’d much rather be across town listening to a famous expert on Newton who was visiting from the other Cambridge. Simon and I had both reached the middle of the road of life. But while he had survived threats from French secret societies to summit Mount Paradiso, I was stumbling around a dark wood, not far from where Pinsky had parked his Dante. I was fifty years old. Nel mezzo del cammin. The right road lost.

Le Morte D'ArthurIn the waning days of my contract at Bard, my wife and I wandered in jeans and sweatshirts into a performance of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera, just in time to hear the gods sing to a confused Aeneas—“Italy, Italy.” The Trojan shmuck had been dilly-dallying for far too long on the shores of Africa. Dump Dido, they whispered. Get your ass out of Carthage, they called to him in three-part harmony. It was a sign. “Italy, Italy,” my wife sang in my ear all the way home over the passacaglia of the Number 1 train.

Two months later, she and I moved to Italy with our children, to open our lives to a new language and culture. Malory moved with us to Rome, like one of the household gods Aeneas carted with him from Troy. Somewhere mid-ocean, Malory left his knights behind, dropped his Naga into the sea. Most importantly, he lost his collegiate arrogance, the smarminess of that first dinner party, Swedenborg.

The new Malory, like the old one, began as a graduate student, a virginal organ tuner, knowing everything about Newton, about organ pipes and stops, but unable to write or engage in life. As I began again in the Old World, this new Malory put on years quickly and joined me in middle age, wandering through the streets of Rome. We dug together into the hill of the Aventino, if not as deep as Virgil took Dante, then with the same winding direction, the circular motion of writing, discovery, rewriting. Together we founded the undiscovered country of Septimania, a kingdom that did not exist ten years ago, that could not have existed that night thirty years before when a telephone rang on Alpha Road.

Jonathan Levi is an American writer and producer, and author of A Guide for the Perplexed and most recently, Septimania. He is co-founder of Granta, and a former Los Angeles Times fiction critic. His short stories and articles have appeared in many magazines including Granta, Condé Nast Traveler, GQ, Terra Nova, The Nation and The New York Times. Born in New York, he currently lives in Rome, Italy. More from this author →