Historical Novel Society, Indie Review by Steve Donaghue, Editor’s Choice Award
In Martha Kennedy’s quiet, intensely moving novel Martin of Gfenn, the title character is given at a young age by his father to the Augustine Canons of St. Martin in thirteenth-century Zurich. The boy quickly demonstrates a talent for art, which the Augustinians encourage with formal training. At the threshold of his adult life, Martin contracts one of the scourges of the Middle Ages, leprosy (the disease is described with a rhetoric that borders on the poetic and a degree of detail that’s almost clinical), but he initially believes it will remain in remission. He achieves some public success as a painter in the following years, but eventually his symptoms return and accelerate; his life is derailed and he ends up at the Knights of St. Lazarus sanctuary in the village of Gfenn.
Kennedy invests this grim story with a great deal of pathos and a surprising amount of resigned optimism; her characters are richly textured, none more so than Martin himself, who gropes toward self-knowledge and a kind of acceptance even as his nightmarishly worsening physical condition makes it harder and harder for him to exercise his artistic talent. The research behind Martin of Gfenn, both sociological and biological, is evident, but the novel’s true genius lies in its insight into the fragile nature of hope itself.
An outstanding work, highly recommended.
Because the story told in Martin of Gfenn has intrinsic interest to people living in the village of Gfenn north of Zürich, I sent copies of the novel along with press releases to four local area papers. It was exciting for me to interview for these papers and inspiring and humbling to read the articles. Here are the reviews — in German, of course.
Article in the Die Gfänner
“American Falls in Love with the Lazarite Church”
Von Jan Lüthi. Aktualisiert am 11.01.2013
Die Gfenner Lazariterkirche inspirierte US-Autorin Martha Kennedy zu einem historischen Roman. Nach einer Entwicklungszeit von über einem Jahrzehnt ist das Werk nun vollendet. Ein lokaler Historiker half ihr dabei.
Die US-Autorin Martha Kennedy ist fasziniert von der Gfenner Lazariterkirche, die sie während eines Besuchs in Dübendorf entdeckte. Als sie das Bauwerk das erste Mal betrat, sah sie den Stoff für eine Erzählung förmlich vor sich ausgebreitet. Derart inspiriert, legt Kennedy nun ihren Roman «Martin of Gfenn» vor. Dieser handelt vom leprakranken Künstler Martin, der, dem Sterben nahe, an den Wandmalereien arbeitet, die heute das Kircheninnere zieren. Um den historischen Rahmen der fiktiven Handlung exakt schildern zu können, liess sich Kennedy von einem lokalen Historiker beraten.
Lesen Sie mehr dazu im ZO/AvU vom Samstag, 12. Januar.
Gfenn Set Among the Palms — Interview (translated)
by Manuela Moser, Glattaler, Friday, October 26, 2012
You live in California, in the mountains east of San Diego, and have written a book about a tiny chapel (Lazariterkirche im Gfenn) in Gfenn, a almost unknown place in Switzerland. How come?
I know that does sound sort of crazy, but when I visited the chapel for the first time I found it very beautiful. Reading about it in the brochure, I was stunned by its history. That experience planted the seed of inspiration and curiosity.
You once said the visit to Gfenn has changed your life. How come? I have always been a writer, but I didn’t have a story. When I walked through the doors of the Lazariterkirche, I walked into my story.
Who is the main character, Martin of Gfenn? Martin is a young painter who grew up in the Augustine Canons of St. Martin, contracted leprosy somehow, and ends up at Gfenn. He’s imaginary, though it’s not impossible that a person like him existed.
How did you have the idea for the story? The story told itself to me. When I first visited the Lazariterkirche, I was impressed by the paintings, particularly the paintings around the window and the fragment on the wall of Christ being scourged. I imagined the artist and how he would be surprised to see his paintings there now. I began to wonder; what if he had been a leper artist, who’d lost every possibility to paint in the big world, and ended up painting murals in a leper church?
Is it a true story? The story is fiction.
The historical details are very accurate? How come?
I cared very much that the story be credible to Swiss people which meant I had to learn about the 1200’s. I grew up in the US and we have no “medieval past.” What we might have brought with us as immigrants is minimal. I had to become a medievalist historian to write the novel.
In the meantime, I was not the only person in the world examining and studying such things as leprosy in the middle ages. That was fortunate for me because, as I was putting together the puzzle pieces of the life of a medieval leper, scientists were reaching conclusions similar to those I was reaching by studying the literature of the time.
I could draw a fairly accurate general view of Zürich in the 1200’s, but at a certain point I became worried about details. That was when I contacted Rainer Hugener. I learned so much from him, many interesting details that I could not have found on my own, such as where in the city of Zürich the very poor would have lived at the time and the existence of the cloister in which I have Martin grow up. Mr. Hugener also validated the conjectures I’d made on my own. I reached a point where I felt that I was inept and failing. I expressed this to Rainer Hugener when we met and he said, “No. You just reached the end. We do not have much to go on from that time.” I was very insecure about my research because this was not my “field of study” — though now it might be.
Did you undertake a lot of research? I did — I read everything I could find on the 1200‘s, discussions of the basic values of people in the middle ages before the 1300’s, as well as the works of St. Augustine and everything available on the attitude toward lepers at the time. I had to learn about the conventions of the Catholic church in the 1200’s, what the mass was at the time, how the Knights of St. Lazarus were organized and operated throughout Europe. I had to read everything I could find — and I prefer reading primary texts when possible — that had been written about lepers, leprosy and treatment in the 1200’s. It pushed my language abilities as far as they can go — I can read French and Latin adequately (not great) but German, no. Of course, all the important religious texts of the time have been translated into English and I benefited a great deal from the fact that medieval people traveled, shared a common language for business and with certain important cultural variations, the Church and the military orders together created a certain homogeneity. Studies of the organization of a Lazarite compound in England would tell me something about one in Zürich. My research opened a beautiful strange world to me and I loved it.
When I visited Zürich in 2005, Mr. Hugener suggested I visit the Ritterhaus in Bubikon and I had a wonderful experience there, a private tour of a community that would not have been very different from Martin’s.
I studied medieval fresco and even went to LA to a four day workshop on fresco painting — and painted a fresco. I spent a month in Verona studying Italian and pre-renaissance frescoes (Martin’s teacher is from Verona) and learned of Cennino Cennini’s work, The Craftsman’s Handbook which is a guide for artists written in the 1400’s, still, it gives very detailed instructions for making pigments, painting on plaster and so on that could have been true for the 1200’s. Again, in the meantime, science has made it possible to accurately determine the chemical composition and history of pigments used on very old frescoes, and because I had to stop working on the novel and return to it three years later, I was able to take advantage of that research, too.
Can you find a lot of information about Gfenn? There is not a lot of information about Gfenn. Fortunately I was able to find Rainer Hugener who is certainly the world expert on Gfenn. 🙂
Are you yourself religious? Do you believe in God (big question!) I am not religious, that is, I don’t go to church, and I don’t subscribe to any organized religions. I was raised Protestant, and my family was historically “Reformed,” actual followers of Zwingli’s doctrine. My grandmother grew up in a “Reformed” community in Iowa and raised her children in that faith. Naturally, I grew up believing that the Catholic church was evil. While writing Martin of Gfenn, I went to my first mass (I’ve now been to three — once in Milan, in the Basilica of St. Ambrose to honor St. Augustine). I really loved the masses I have attended.
I believe there is beauty and truth in all religions, but my personal faith is probably best described as Pantheist. In my novel, Martin attends “my” church during the time he lives on the Zürichberg. It is the religion of, “Wow.” I believe the creative impulse in humans is a manifestation of the divine nature of the universe, so, when Martin paints the chapel at Gfenn, he is, in truth, at prayer. In old English “God” and “Good” are the same word. That works for me. I believe that kindness is the best “religion.”
And why is this chapel also for you so sacred? On my first visit, I was enchanted by the window which makes the body of Christ and it plays a major part in my novel. It was a beautiful symbol to me since Christ represents the “…light of the world,” his compassion a window through which humanity can find hope, a light in the darkness. I was also moved by the persistence of the chapel itself, and the persistence of the paintings, through all the changes the building has seen and endured. I felt almost as if it were waiting for me, across all the centuries, to tell me a story. In a way, Martin is the chapel.
What is Lepra a metaphor for? What touches you about it most? Leprosy is a metaphor for life. In the 1200’s the perception of a leper was somewhat complicated, but generally a leper provided the opportunity for others to demonstrate compassion.
It was also generally believed that we are all lepers in the sense that our souls are diseased and in need of healing, redemption, which can come only through the compassion of Christ. For medieval people objective reality (where we live) was less “real” than the spiritual reality. Objective reality was a flawed version of divine reality, and our lives but an allegorical representation of the MORE real (the spiritual reality). For them, leprosy was a metaphor for the general sickness of the soul. All humans were lepers and the person who had leprosy was just a little closer to God having the opportunity to begin the purgation of sin before death. This doesn’t mean that people didn’t fear lepers, but not with the terror with which they were portrayed in literature in succeeding centuries. I think it’s the same for us now, though our world view is different. Every one of us is challenged to fulfill our potential and realize our dreams. Thousands of obstacles and doubts jump in our way, we lose faith, we lose heart, we have periods of darkness and despair, we lose loved ones, we doubt, we become ill, we hurt others, we are repudiated by some, loved by others — everything. I believe that what “saves” us is the same thing that “saves” Martin, and that is our human will to realize ourselves, faith in beauty and goodness, the will to be who we are, the willingness to share what little bit of something we have, to offer and accept forgiveness, to put our painting on the wall of our moment.
Who is your audience, who could be interested in the book?
I think the book should reach a general audience. It’s not difficult to read, and though some of the ideas are fairly abstract and it does have a religious theme, it’s not at all dogmatic. I imagine there are two things about it that could turn readers off. One is its religious theme (though Martin isn’t particularly religious nor is the book’s message) and the other is that it isn’t a “happy” story in the normal sense of happy.
What, if someone speaks not English and wants to read your book. Is there a German copy available?
There is no German version of Martin of Gfenn. It has been out less than a year, so I’m not sure anyone who has the ability to do that kind of translation has read it. It would make me very happy to see the book in German.
The “Glattaler” has portrayed you already in 2005. How come? In 2005 I met Rainer Hugener online. I wanted to find someone who could help me verify the historical facts of my book. I actually “Googled” “Swiss medievalist historians, Zürich” or something like that. I found Mr. Hugener. We began corresponding and I emailed him the novel. We corresponded a lot, and I decided to spend my Spring Break in Zürich so we could meet. He was writing for the Glattaller at the time and the “interview” was, for me, a very wonderful day wandering in “Martin’s” world. Just like you, Manuela, he found it kind of amazing that someone in California would write about such a small spot on the Swiss map. His article is an interview, but also a record of what we talked about that day. It looked then that the novel would be coming out within the next year. It didn’t.
It was written there, the book would come out in the following year. Finally it appeared in 2011. How come the delay?
When have you been in Switzerland the last time? Do you plan to come back soon? The last time I was in Switzerland was March 2005. I want very much to return, and I’ve looked at the possibility of either coming over during my winter break or at the end of school in May.
Why do you not promote your book in Zürich/Switzerland a little more? Why do you not read in Gfenn? This has been on my mind since you first contacted me, Manuela, and asked about that. It would mean a great deal to me to read from my book at Gfenn. I am right now trying to figure out how.
Article in the Glattaller from 2005