Gateway to Elizabeth Macdonald on The Reading Life
A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth MacDonald,2019
Sometimes writers pass from being subjects of my posts to very valued contributors to The Reading Life. Since i began posting on her work in May of 2013 Elizabeth MacDonald has kindly done three guests posts. One on a short story by the great Irish writer Maeve Brennan. (Like Michael Scott, the central figure in A Matter of Interpretation and MacDonald herself, Brennan left her home country to live in exile.). She also contributed an article on Language and Gender and the interplay between language and culture as well as a fascinating essay “Journey of the Imagination: A Locus of Transformation”. Additionally she allowed me to publish one of her short stories. She also very generously participated in a wide ranging Q and A session I am quite proud to have on The Reading Life.
Here are my thoughts on her collection of short stories,A House of Cards:
“I first encountered the work of Elizabeth MacDonald in May of 2012 when I read and posted on her dazzling collection of short stories, The House of Cards. It was listed for the Frank O'Connor Prize in 2007. It is a beautiful work set mostly in the Tuscany region of Italy. Tuscany is one of the most beautiful places in the world and a strong feeling for this comes through in the stories. It is almost a Keatsian reflection on the nature of beauty, with Tuscany as a deeply pervasive backdrop. These stories do not just talk about the beauty of Tuscany, but rather they also create a beauty of their own worthy of their setting. They are about being Irish and living in Italy. In closing out my post I said, "I really love this collection and I totally endorse it to all devotees of the art of the short story. The prose is of the highest quality. There are fragments that stunned me with their beauty."”
Needless to say I was delighted when I was able to read her already highly reviewed debut novel, A Matter of Interpretation.
A Matter of Interpretation is set in the period from 1183 to 1230. Michael Scot, a historical figure, is the central person in the narrative. He was a high ranking Catholic cleric, tutor to Frederick II when he was child. Later he would become his physician and astrologer. MacDonald made me feel i was in room with Scot.
The story line is both linear and circular. It begins and ends in Scotland in 1230. Along with Scot we travel over much of Southern Europe. At age 17 he goes to Paris to be receive an education grounding him in the classics, science and medicine, mixed in with a heavy dose of Church doctrine. In 1201 he
given the position of tutor to a six year old who will one day become Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor. This position will shape his life for better and worse.
MacDonald very vividly makes clear the power struggles and treachery of court life. We learn how intertwinded Church and Court politics were.
From 1201 to 1210 he remains in Palermo, attached to the court, as Frederick’s tutor. He reads deeply in Aristotle and commentaries. This is kind of a grey area in Papal doctrine. Living in intrevals in Rome, Toledo and Cordobo he begins, with help of a young Jewish scholar to translate Arabic commentaries on Aristotle into Latin. He is fascinated, as was I, by then Muslim Spain,a very exotic place for a boy from the Scottish Hills. He also studies medical treatises in Arabic, astrology and occult practices. Lots of exciting things happen
to him. MacDonald does a very good job building the relationship between Scot and his assistant. There Is an interesting subplot I really enjoyed about the career and matrimonial aspirations of his helper. I found their close relationship very touching.
Scot has enemies jealous of his relationship with Frederick II who try to suggest he may have begun to practice black magic. Perhaps he was converted to a Muslim.
There are a lot of intriguing events. We are there when Michael runs from a mob. MacDonald opens each new segment with masterful descriptions letting us see how his travels impacted Michael.
A Matter of Interpretation is a deeply researched work. The prose is elegant. This is historical fiction of the first order.
I found it fascinating. I think most would.
Below is. small sample of reaction to her work
The characters, setting and the issues at stake will all linger long after you’ve finished reading it.’ – Domitilla Campanile, Professor of History, University of Pisa
‘In lush historic prose, Elizabeth Mac Donald leads the reader on a complex journey, where all interactions are tinged with superstition and suspicion.’ – Nuala O’Connor, author of Becoming Belle
‘A Matter of Interpretation stages with mastery and verve the eternal conflict between knowledge and truth… A lesson for our own times.’ – Zrinka Stahuljak, Professor of Medieval Studies at UCLA
‘A fascinating sliver of history and a truly original book.’ – Alan Robert Clark, author of The Prince of Mirrors
‘Mac Donald’s style is crisp and captivating.’ – Biancamaria Rizzardi, Professor of English Literature, University of Pisa
‘This extraordinary novel ranges wide across the political and religious map of medieval Europe.‘ – Peter Sirr, Translator, Novelist and Award-Winning Poet
‘A book to read with a glass of port and a dagger nearby.’ – George Szirtes, poet and translator
From Fairlight Publishing
Born in Dublin, lives in Pisa. Writer, translator. Forthcoming novel ‘A Matter of Interpretation’ (Fairlight Books 2019). Teaches at the University of Pisa - from MacDonald’s twitter feed.
Take the time to browse the website of Fairlight books, they have a diverse collection of interesting works.
I hope to follow the work of Elizabeth MacDonald for many years.
Rome to Toledo and