Paul West A Fifth of November

ISBN 13: 9780811216067

A Fifth of November

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9780811216067: A Fifth of November
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A suspenseful and uniquely literary look into Guy Fawkes and the English Gunpowder Plot of 1605, by one of America's most celebrated writers.

In A Fifth of November, Paul West describes the events surrounding the English Gunpowder Plot (1605). Instigated by thirteen Catholic conspirators, most famously Guy Fawkes, the Plot was a failed attempt to blow up the English Parliament and King James I. At the heart of West's novel are the trials of Father Henry Garnet, superior of the English Jesuits, who is hidden from the king's henchmen behind the walls of English mansions. Shielding him from harm is the melancholy noblewoman Anne Vaux, a Catholic sympathizer. A Fifth of November tells the tale of Garnet: it begins when he first hears of the plot the conspirators have confessed their plan to him, what is his responsibility?--to his imprisonment in the Tower of London. All along, the figures who partake of this historical moment are brightly, often horrifically, drawn. In A Fifth of November, West tackles through his rhapsodic language, brilliant characterizations, and historical precision that inevitable topic: human evil.

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About the Author:

Paul West was born in 1930 in England, and educated at Oxford and Columbia Universities. Besides 18 novels he is also the author of ten works of non-fiction. He has taught at Brown, Cornell, and Arizona. His honors include a 1993 Lannan Prize for Fiction, an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1996 the French government made him a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. He moved to the US in 1957, and presently resides in Ithaca, New York.

From The Washington Post:

Looming behind the sparklers and whirling Catherine wheels that cheered each dank Fifth of November of my childhood was the haunting presence of a man atop a bonfire. Flames would lick first at his boots and tease the cuffs of his borrowed suit before dancing up the seams of his threadbare coat. Then, with a woomph, they would engulf the hideous mask that was the man's face -- and a cheer would rise from the assembled revelers: "There goes the guy!"

This autumnal ritual, played out in back gardens and on village greens across England, is an annual celebration of treason averted -- and only narrowly so. Nearly four centuries ago, on Nov. 4, 1605, Guy Fawkes was discovered lurking in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament. He had assembled there 36 barrels of gunpowder, planning the next day, the state opening of Parliament, to light the fuse -- and up would go King James I, children and all!

Today the historical details surrounding the Gunpowder Plot are largely forgotten. Over the years, Guy Fawkes Night, as Nov. 5 is commonly called, inherited many of the primeval traditions of the season: "Bone fires," masks, spooky costumes and burning effigies have all served to distract attention from the persecution that provided Fawkes and his fellow conspirators with the kindling for their treason -- and Paul West with the inspiration for his brilliant new novel.

Through the meticulous historical research that has become his trademark, West reveals Fawkes to be a bit player in a drama that consumed Britain for years and whose myriad repercussions continue to wreak destruction around the world. A Fifth of November documents in detail the last few months in the life of a Jesuit priest, a victim of the king's vengeful hunt for Fawkes's accomplices, but the novel's message resonates through the immigrant ghettos of European capitals, along the redrawn borders of the former Yugoslavia and, most of all, in the modern Middle East. For West's compelling tale is about religious intolerance and our enduring proclivity for cruelty.

The ardent anti-Catholicism of 16th- and 17th-century Britain provides the factual backdrop, a time when severe penalties were imposed upon anyone who genuflected to papal authority; when Jesuits were exiled from England; and when offering shelter to priests was a capital offense. But the so-called Penal Laws that imposed these strictures were rarely fully administered -- until the failed Gunpowder Plot stoked the fires of anti-Catholicism.

Of that incendiary possibility, West's hero is acutely aware. Father Garnet doesn't encourage treason, much less take part in it. He's "a peacemaker, an affable easygoing person who has heard about the sharp remedies proposed by Papist rebels such as . . . Guy Fawkes, but deplores them in the interest of diplomacy." Garnet realizes, though, that he is ultimately doomed, for according to the lumpish logic of the day, "all Catholic priests were foreign secret agents committed to the overthrow of the royal monopoly."

Despite the new intensity of the manhunts prompted by Fawkes's arrest, the priest knows how to survive visits from the king's men: bent double in priests' holes sculpted out of double chimneys and inside faux paneling in the country houses of wealthy Catholic sympathizers. He also knows full well, as he contorts his body to fit his awkward hidey-holes, that an involuntary cough or burst of flatulence could sign his death warrant, and West documents with dark humor the messy priestly business of staying alive, of ingestion and egestion and of their attendant smells, both savory and sickening.

The true drama of West's story lies not in the external events it depicts, gripping though they are, but inside the protagonists' heads, in their reveries and rationalizations. Much of the action is reported, whispered through prison walls or scrawled in invisible orange-juice ink. In a tale that could exploit horror, West proves himself a master of understatement and dry wit. We hear Garnet's complex thoughts about his religion, about his feelings for Anne Vaux, the middle-aged woman who has risked her own well-being to shelter him, and about the conflict between his responsibilities as a citizen and as a priest who has heard about but not reported the plot. Garnet's crime is to have followed his calling by listening "to confession and confidence." The book's success lies in making readers understand the preoccupations of this decent man, whose beliefs are out of line with the prevailing orthodoxies.

Garnet's ultimate preoccupation, of course, is with whether he will be spared and exiled, or whether his head will end up like those of Fawkes and his 12 cronies -- impaled on stakes on London Bridge, a feast for the crows and for the eyes of the gawping crowds.

The image evokes our modern age of killings made public on the Internet, as does Fawkes's unquestioning confidence that "God is on our side." West thus forces us to focus on the unremitting scourge of religious hatred, eternally demanding new sacrifices on the altars of old injustices. But his novel also invites us to reflect on what has changed. I remember my Catholic cousin joining me, the descendant of Anglican clergy, one Fifth of November to watch costumed torch-bearers parading down the street. I remember the two of us raising the cheer "There goes the guy!" as the ragtag figure burst into flames. We thought little of it. Today's Fifth of November is above all a family affair, far more redolent of spirited paganism than anti-papism. Surely, 400 years on, that provides some small reason for celebration.

Reviewed by Frances Stead Sellers
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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