Review: Gutenberg’s Apprentice, Alix Christie

 Alix Christie’s début novel goes back to Mainz, 1450 and the birth of the printing press.  Johannes Gutenberg has been hailed for centuries as the genius who invented movable type which revolutionised the concept of the written word.  In this novel, Christie explores the notion that he did not work alone and that indeed there were an uncelebrated team behind him who worked to produce the first ever printed Bible.  Not for nothing does she include a quotation from Steve Job’s biography alongside one from the Bible – we realise from very early on that we are witnessing a paradigm-shifting moment in history.

Gutenberg may be the man who gained the fame but Christie’s hero is evidently Peter Schoeffer, adopted son of Johann Fust, one of Mainz’s merchants.  The story is framed by the elderly Schoeffer recounting the story of that first printing press to Abbot Trithemius ‘many years afterward.’  Peter protests that it was not his story to tell but the young Trithemius is certain that this is not an issue, that the act of ‘Creation is the Lord’s own province.’  And anyway, Peter and his adoptive father have have for years borne the weight of the slander that they ‘wrenched’ Gutenberg’s workshop from him and left him to die in poverty while their own printing press prospered.  So Peter begins to tell his story.

Peter Schoeffer

As a young man in his twenties, Peter had plans to be a scribe and has been enjoying his life in France, being summoned back to Mainz is, he hopes, merely a temporary inconvenience.  Fust however tells him firmly that he will not be returning to Paris because Fust plans for his son to enter a new apprenticeship, a secret one to Gutenberg.  Peter is going to become a printer.  Christie manages to capture very effectively just how revolutionary the concept printing was in the age of the scribe.  For Peter, a man who has grown to love and take pride in his art, the printed letters are ugly, repulsive and even blasphemous.

Peter is something of a fish out of water – he was the nephew of Fust’s first wife, meaning that he exists in Fust’s family in something of a state of grace.  Peter has no power of choice over his own destiny and in being given over to be apprenticed to Gutenberg, he becomes instantly that man’s property.  The youthful Peter seems petulant and peevish in his desperation to return to his life of a scribe; we, the reader, know that his father is quite right in telling him that a new age is dawning and his old profession will soon become obsolete but Peter takes his time to see the value of the press.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice examines the power of the written word from a very original standpoint.  Gutenberg emphasises repeatedly the importance of secrecy about their project yet he proves himself to be dangerously loose-tongued.  As they struggle to find a commission they eventually lock onto the idea of printing the Bible and so the famous Gutenberg Bible is born.  The notion of transmitting God’s divine word by a metal printing press takes them beyond a revolutionary technological development and into the realms of heresy.  What does it mean to write something down?  How can God’s word pass without a human to transmit the message?  Some characters shrink from what is happening, horrified at such blasphemy and Christie manages to put across just what a ground-breaking idea it was – after centuries of scribes transcribing from one book to another, what mind could be said to behind this new printed word?

Christie explores the power of words themselves; Peter considers the strong women who have shaped his own life and then contrasts them to the slandered women of myth and scripture – Eve, Pandora and Magdalene, ‘What had poor woman to be so calumnied?’  As he grows in his skills, Schoeffer comes to feel like Moses coming down from the mountain, preparing the scriptures to be transmitted to the masses.  Yet always there is the question of whether it will be best for the masses to receive the scripture and even as an old man, Peter is not sure that it was.  Would it have been better for the general public to have continued to hear it in church, with an educated intermediary to explain it to them?  Was it truly better for the word to pass out among the populace for them to make of it and misunderstand it as they would?


Gutenberg himself comes in for some considerable criticism in Christie’s novel; indeed he is one of the most unsympathetic characters in Peter’s story, but given that our information is being fed through Peter, I could not help but wonder how far we were to trust his narrative.  It is not hard to imagine though that Gutenberg had his own axe to grind, he is trying to play both sides in the increasingly antagonistic struggle between the guildsmen of Mainz and the Archbishop Dietrich and it is this central distrust that is ultimately so damaging to the relationship between Gutenberg and his patron Fust.  More importantly however, Gutenberg is portrayed as more of a paranoid megalomaniac, albeit a talented one, rather than a persecuted genius.  The parallels between him and Jobs are clear and through this his creative team’s struggles are easily imagined by a twenty-first century reader.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice is a well-researched and often thought-provoking piece of historical fiction.  Christie shows a depth of understanding about the time-period and her area of focus is highly original.  Nonetheless, the story takes its time to build up and certain of the characters felt under-developed.  Christie’s obvious love for the written word meant that her novel recalled certain themes of The Name of the Rose for me as well as other elements of Iain Pears’ Stone’s Fall in its excitement over technological advances.  However, more than anything this was just an inventive look at a key moment in our world’s history as the word and indeed The Word itself started to become accessible.  From that moment on, the rest is history.

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie
Published by Harper on September 23rd 2014
Genres: Alphabets & Writing Systems, Fiction, General, Historical
Pages: 416
ISBN: 0062336010

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