Book review: Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

As an author, journalist and printer, Alix Christie has had a long fascination with the Gutenberg Bible, the 15th century book that kick-started a print revolution.

By Pam Norfolk
Monday, 13th October 2014, 10:00 am
Gutenbergs Apprentice by Alix Christie
Gutenbergs Apprentice by Alix Christie

So when she and her German husband moved to Berlin over seven years ago, it seemed to be her ‘divine fate’ to unearth the workshop mysteries of the famously irascible Johann Gutenberg, creator of the first printed Bibles.

The result is Gutenberg’s Apprentice, a captivating and impressive debut novel which breathes new life and understanding into printing’s founding fathers and recreates one of the key moments in Western literary history.

The Gutenberg Bible, printed from a press with movable hot metal type, changed the way the West read and assimilated books, allowing ordinary people to becoming the world’s first reading consumers.

In a society used to Bibles produced only by scribes employing magnificent illuminated script on high quality vellum in monastic writing rooms where ‘God’s word flowed from hand to parchment,’ printing presses were seen by many as the work of the Devil.

And it is this notion of religious blasphemy, distrust and menace which forms the backdrop to a gloriously atmospheric and enlightening tale of creative power and madness, rivalry, love, ruthless ambition and artistic triumph.

In 1450, 25-year-old scribe Peter Schoeffer is instructed by his foster father, the financier Johann Fust, to abandon his beloved profession of illuminating texts in Paris and return to the family home in Mainz in Germany.

Armed with the tools of his trade – a sealed horn of ink, quills, reeds, bone and chalk, and a chamois – Peter arrives back in a city insulated from the winds of change sweeping through Europe, a city still controlled by merchants, moneylenders, bureaucrats and priests.

Peter is horrified to learn that he is to be apprenticed to Johann Gutenberg, a wild-eyed, ‘burning, brutal genius’ and entrepreneur who is working on a new process for producing books – the printing press.

Labouring in conditions of extreme secrecy because of blasphemy fears, the men employed by Gutenberg face new challenges both artistic and physical as they strive to create the new books to the standard required by their demanding master.

‘This is the miracle the Lord has been preparing for us all along,’ declares Fust who is financing the covert operation.

Gutenberg is relentless in pursuing his dream and wooing the powerful religious leaders whose support is critical, and as Peter’s resistance to the project slowly dissolves he begins to see their work as ‘a miracle’ of pure mechanics…

Christie is an exciting writer, carving out the momentous journey of three driven men as they toil amidst heated coals, a jumble of words and the throbbing clatter of a filthy workshop to give birth to the first printed Bibles.

In Peter Schoeffer, she gives us the ‘middle man,’ the intellectual, God-fearing scribe who, through a baptism of burning metal, is transformed from resentful, suspicious technological disbeliever to devoted follower of a new order of book production.

His professional ambitions and obsessions are cleverly offset by the gentle unfolding of his courtship of wife Anna and a storyline which allows Schoeffer to look back on his success through the prism of time and events.

But Gutenberg’s Apprentice is so much more than just an account of the printing revolution. By placing the trials and triumphs of the principal players in a palpably real medieval landscape of religious tensions, deadly plague, political turmoil and vested interests, Christie provides context and atmosphere to her stunning story.

An evocative, immaculately researched and superbly imagined novel…

(Headline Review, trade paperback, £13.99)