About The Memory Cathedral
The Memory Cathedral is the secret history of Leonardo da Vinci, adventurer, traveller, inventor, and lover of Lorenzo the Magnificent′s mistress.
Based on Leonardo′s own notebooks, this expansive, multi-layered novel is ostensibly about Leonardo′s flying machines. But it is really a magical exploration of the man, his drives, his loves, his friends, and fabulous inventions. It takes place in the Florence of Lorenzo de Medici and in the fabled, mythical east. Indeed, there is real evidence that Leonardo travelled to Egypt and Persia under the protection of the Devatdar of Syria, Lieutenant of the Sacred Sultan of Babylon.
Imagine what would happen if Leonardo de Vinci had been given the chance to put his fabulous inventions to use - his bombs and machine guns and submarines and tanks and flying machines. Imagine Leonardo and a young Niccolo Machiavelli flying in a balloon over Egypt. Imagine Leonardo′s closest friend Sandro Botticelli being exorcised in Florence and riding through deserts with the Caliph of Egypt. Imagine living in the dangerous day to day world of the Renaissance and knowing intimately the greatest personages of the age.
That is the experience of reading The Memory Cathedral.
About Jack Dann
Jack Dann is the author or editor of over forty books, including the novels Junction, Starhiker, The Man Who Melted and The Memory Cathedral. Dann′s work has been compared to Jorge Luis Borges, Roald Dahl, Lewis Carroll, Castaneda, J. G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick, author of the stories from which the films Blade Runner and Total Recall were made. Dick wrote that ′Junction is where Ursula Le Guin′s Lathe of Heaven and Tony Boucher′s ′The Quest for Saint Aquin′ meet . . . and yet it′s an entirely new novel . . . I may very well be basing some of my future work on Junction′. Bestselling author Marion Zimmer Bradley called Starhiker ′a superb book . . . it will not give up all its delights, all its perfections, on one reading′. Library Journal has called Dann ′ . . . a true poet who can create pictures with a few perfect words′. Roger Zelazny thought he was a reality magician and Best Sellers has said that ′Jack Dann is a mind-warlock whose magicks will confound, disorient, shock, and delight′. The Washington Post Book World compared his novel The Man Who Melted with Ingmar Bergman′s film The Seventh Seal, and Science Fiction Age called it one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time.
His short stories have appeared in Omni and Playboy and other major magazines and anthologies. He is the editor of the anthology Wandering Stars, one of the most acclaimed anthologies of the 1970s, and several other well-known anthologies such as More Wandering Stars. He also edits the multi-volume Magic Tales fantasy series with Gardner Dozois, the White Wolf Rediscovery Trios series with Pamela Sargent and George Zebrowski, and is a consulting editor for TOR Books. He has been a finalist for the Nebula Award eleven times and a World Fantasy Award finalist three times. He has also been a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award and is a recipient of the Aurealis Award, the Nebula Award and the Premios Gilgames de Narrativa Fantastica award.
Some Thoughts by Jack Dann about The Memory Cathedral
I′ve read a lot of period novels, and they really do read like costume dramas, as if you and I had dressed up in Renaissance clothes, gone to Florence, and read some interesting lines. The kind of absolute verisimilitude, the sense of experiencing real life, was missing from these books. I was determined that it was not going to be missing from mine! I was determined to turn my book into the stuff of experience! It took six years of research, for I believe that fiction that has its own life lives in its details, in the accretion of detail. And, indeed, my work has been called ′hallucinatory′ because its so layered that it ′feels′ like personal experience.
When I was a child, I used to believe that books were alive. When their covers were closed, they were asleep - and when you read them they woke up. There are certain books that become part of your experience, in the same way people do.
That′s the kind of response The Memory Cathedral has been getting. Writer Morgan Llwelyn said, ′I was swept away . . . We will never come any closer to knowing what Leonardo was really like than we will in the pages of this book. It shimmers, it glows, it throbs with vitality while unfolding a tale as subtle as the mind of its protagonist.′ At my last reading at Dixon Place in New York City, I read a chapter from The Memory Cathedral. This chapter was based on an actual event in the life of a seven foot tall red-haired Persian king who killed his favourite son. In The Memory Cathedral, Leonardo is told that he must kill the king′s son. As I read the chapter, I was once again enveloped by the sights and the sounds of the period. I was once again a ghost inside the mind of Leonardo; and I remember a perfect moment as I looked out at the audience and I could see and feel everyone in the room was completely caught up in the story, in the words - that they were living it as one does when one remembers.
I believe that the best fiction should be like memory. My goal was to give the reader his or her own experience, one that could be drawn on like personal memory.
If you were to ask me to describe this book in one line, I would say, ′It′s the story of the boy who learned better.′ Historians have called Leonardo a genius, the first modern man, and, indeed, he was; yet if you look at his sketches of machines of war, they seem to float on the page; they are serene, as if Leonardo had never considered that his carts festooned with threshing blades would kill real people, cause real agony. His dream was to become a military engineer: to create the weapons of his dreams. In The Memory Cathedral, I bought Leonardo′s dream to life. What would have happened if Leonardo could have created his machines of death? What would have happened if he could have seen the results of his dreams? Seen and smelled and heard the agonies on the battlefield?
My Leonardo did. And that experience changed him profoundly!
Every writer writes for his time. The Memory Cathedral is a modern book, a book written for us. Although it replicates the real world of Renaissance thought and experience, it speaks to us. It is about the joy of creativity and dreams - and their moral and physical implications.
But even as I write this, I feel conflicted, for in my heart of hearts, this is the real story of Leonardo. After all these years of studying him, of researching his time, I′ve dreamed a Leonardo who lives! And in fact, as I wrote this book, the characters often would not follow my plot; they went their own ways, pulling me along after them. I was often but a fretting typist trying to records events that were whizzing by far too fast. There is a fifty-page sequence depicting the exorcism of Sandro Botticelli. It was not intended. The characters demanded it! And the scene is based on an actual exorcism.
In the Renaissance, there were many cases of exorcisms performed on lovers who were possessed by love. It was considered a medical disease, a disease of the soul, which left the victim emaciated and eventually killed him. Only the eyes would remain luminous, for they were the windows of the soul. And the hallucinating victim was dying of a dream, possessed by the overwhelmingly beautiful vision of his lover′s soul.
The Memory Cathedral is a novel about the mindset of the Renaissance. People did not think then as we do now. They experienced the world very differently than we do. That′s what this novel conveys. It grabs the reader and throws him or her into a different way of experiencing the world; the reader thinks with Leonardo, and dreams with him.
Writing an historical novel is very much like writing science fiction. I′ve discussed this with other writers, and they all agree. In both forms of fiction, the place becomes a major character. The specific tools needed to write science fiction - extrapolating information, conveying information skilfully without ′narrative lumps′ - give the science fiction writer an edge when writing about the past. I have found the past to be as ′alien′ as the future; and in order to bring it to life - to make it ′alive′ - I extrapolated every detail, utilised all the skills of a futurist and science fiction writer.
Renaissance Italy was as alien a world as Phil Dick′s futuristic Blade Runner.
Allow me to tell you the question everyone asks me about this book:
′Where did you get the idea?′
This is how it happened: I was reading an old 1930s biography of Leonardo (I often read non fiction written before the age of television, for it′s often so much more descriptive and ′lived-in′) in the lounge of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. The Algonquin had been my hotel for twenty years; it used to be a real writers′ watering hole, a place to hang out, work, and do ′business′. Sadly, that has all changed in the last few years, although the lounge is refurbished and lovely - and there is still an ever-present Algonquin cat. Anyway (to stop digressing!), I was sitting in one of the couches, sipping a Drambuie, reading this lovely biography, doing what writers do best, when an image came to mind: I saw a fleet of Renaissance-looking airplanes flying over Florence. I saw them in detail, saw them flying over the gleaming Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio, saw the Arno from the flyers′ perspective . . . saw Leonardo hanging below the wings of the lead flying machine . . . and I knew then that I had to bring that image to life. It was an instant of overpowering beauty I had to capture.
It took six years and a thousand manuscript pages to do it. But that initial image became transformed on the page. It changed in ways I couldn′t have known.
I′ll leave it to the reader to discover how!
Questions for Discussion
The Memory Cathedral is subtitled ′a secret history′. Why?
The Memory Cathedral includes maps, interior plates, quotes, etc. Do you think these are an important part of the reading experience?
There is continuing public fascination with Leonardo da Vinci. Do you think this book extends our understanding of the artist and the man? Do you think we can learn what Leonardo might have really been like from novels such as this?
Leonardo is widely regarded as a gay icon. The Leonardo of this text is heterosexual. Why do you think that the author chose to portray Leonardo as heterosexual? Does Leonardo′s sexuality have an important role to play?
Jack Dann has said that he gave Leonardo his chance to build a flying machine. What is special about the combination of art and science in this novel?
The author has said that writing historical novels is like writing science fiction. Can you see any similarities between the genres?
Is The Memory Cathedral different from other historical novels?
There are some violent scenes in the novel. Do you feel they are justified?Jack Dann has described the Renaissance as a time of genius and madness. Is it really so different from our own time?
Would we consider the female protagonists such as Ginevra de Benci and Simenotta Vespucci ′liberated′ in a modern sense?
What is a ′memory cathedral′ and how does it affect the structure of the novel?
Critics have said that the sensation of reading The Memory Cathedral was almost hallucinatory. Does this match your own reading experience? If so, where do you think this effect comes from?
The author confessed that he adapted some of the more harrowing scenes, such as Sandro Botticelli′s exorcism, directly from documents of the period. What effect does the use of such source material have on the ′truthfulness′ of the novel?
The author also admits in the afterword that he ′nudged′ history a bit in the interests of dramatic fiction. Do you feel this was justified?
About Jack Dann