Culture

Holy Fools

Review: Christopher Buckley, ‘The Relic Master: A Novel’

Christopher Buckley / Wikimedia Commons

There’s a line about satire you sometimes hear—a line how all truly great satire, the hilariously brutal stuff, is written by conservatives. Or, at least, a line about how all the best satirists end up expressing deeply conservative ideas.

It’s not exactly true, of course. The claim was born, I think, not so much from an idea about the universal form of satire but from the particularities of the 20th century’s tangled literary politics. When a kind of high liberalism is overwhelmingly dominant, as it has been in English-language cultures for over a hundred years, what other direction is there but conservatism for comic contrariness?

So, for example, Evelyn Waugh started out as the most vicious satirist of his generation, and he certainly ended up a profound conservative. The underrated Tom Sharpe began by writing satires of apartheid South Africa, and he would go on to write stuff as openly hostile to modern Britain as his jaw-droppingly funny 1978 book, The Throwback. Christopher Buckley, for yet another example, would begin his 10-novel romp through the fields of comedy with satires of the presidency in his 1986 The White House Mess and the tobacco industry in his 1994 Thank You for Smoking. And now Buckley has given us a satire set in a place and time as distant from the modern political world as he could find—looking for comedy in late medieval Europe with his new book, The Relic Master.

Technically, that should be The Relic Master: A Novel, but I can’t tell whether Buckley actually intends the subtitle. I’m hoping he means it as a parody of the recent publishing trend that insists on giving every novel the subtitle A Novel—to prevent our mistaking it for a jar of bread-and-butter pickles or an Electrolux vacuum cleaner, presumably.

Anyway, I suppose we could defend the idea that satire is an inherently conservative literary form by noting that the best satire is always at least a little mean-spirited, and conservatives are, you know, mean. But a more grown-up version of the argument would point out that satire has to have in mind an ideal. The mocking of hypocrisy requires low behavior, yes, but also a high principle that the hypocrites are failing to reach. And the less immediately topical the subject being mocked, the more the mockery has to appeal to universals in human nature.

It’s in this way that Mark Twain weakens his work whenever he wanders off into the airier reaches of the dark philosophy he sometimes espoused, insisting on the non-existence of God, human goodness, and genuine morality. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, for example, starts out as a light satire of all the silly things believed by everyone who isn’t a 19th-century Yankee with a mechanical turn of mind. But trapped by his own plot, Twain can’t finish his novel without allowing Merlin to use the magic that the book has spent two-hundred pages mocking as pure superstition.

Just as Twain looked back to the Middle Ages in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, so Buckley turns there for the subject of his satire in The Relic Master, and a comparison of the books seems inevitable. Of course, the period Buckley covers comes some thousand years after Twain’s King Arthur. For that matter, Twain put little effort into getting the details of his history right, while Buckley has actually done quite a bit of research. And except for the portion required by the sheer act of writing satire, Twain didn’t have much conservatism in him, while Buckley is—well, what is Christopher Buckley?

One has to start with the fact that he is a wonderful writer, with a supple prose that can be fast and furious enough for the comedy of such books as Florence of Arabia and Supreme Courtship, or sentimental and serious enough for Losing Mum and Pup, his 2009 memoir of famous parents. His time as a speechwriter in the White House confirmed him in his talent for sharp phrasing, and his time as an editor at Esquire taught him how to pare a work back to its key elements. He doesn’t always have perfect taste—but, then, satirists aren’t usually judged on the perfection of their taste, and as a satirist, we don’t have anyone who can match Buckley writing today.

In The Relic Master, Buckley travels back to 1517 to follow across Europe a finder (and sometimes faker) of holy relics: the bones of saints, slivers of the Cross, and all the rest. Dismas is mostly just trying to keep his head above water, dog-paddling his way through a medieval world already awash with the modern tides that would sweep away all the old world. The Renaissance has created a sense of art in Italy, Martin Luther has set Protestantism loose in Germany, and the Dutch bankers are inventing new systems of financial exchange. Dismas navigates all this as a hard-headed, middle-man entrepreneur, in the modern economic sense—even while he’s conveying the old objects of naive piety.

One of his patrons (if we’re being medieval) or clients (if we’re being modern) is Frederick of Saxony, a ruler who has assembled a vast collection of relics, while another is Albrecht, a churchman looking to finance a run at higher office in the Catholic Church. Unable to keep up with the demand for relics, Dismas settles on fraud with his friend, the German painter Albrecht Dürer (nicknamed Nars, a shortening of Narcissus). Together, they attempt to fake the shroud in which Christ was entombed.

They’re caught in their forgery, and they end up having to travel to the French town of Chambéry, which modern readers may recognize as a place once famous for hosting a burial shroud. (It was moved in 1578 to northern Italy to become better known as the Shroud of Turin.) Accompanied by German soldiers named Cunrat, Nutker, and Unks, the duo of Dismas and Albrecht encounter along the way the beautiful young Magda—a student of the apothecary and magician Paracelsus. And before Buckley draws the story to its close, these unlikely travelers, pilgrims of a strange sort, will have to outwit lecherous noblemen, odd strangers, and agents of the pope.

After reading The Relic Master, will the reader conclude that Buckley is a conservative—or that satire itself is an inherently conservative endeavor? It doesn’t matter, of course, and the relentless politicizing of everything, including fiction, is one of the most dismal features of our time. Still, since Christopher Buckley is still bemoaned in conservative circles for his 2008 announcement of support for Barack Obama—the son of William F. Buckley Jr., voting for a leftist presidential candidate!—it might be worth noting that a sense of the human and the humane percolates through The Relic Master.

In other words, even while that 1517 moment between the medieval and the modern offers Buckley opportunities to mock both the fading past and the coming future, he feels the presence of a kindness and moral center to human existence. You can see it in the time that Dismas and Magda share, and even in some of the silly, simple faith that elevates the value of the relics Dismas collects. There aren’t many saints in Christopher Buckley’s world, but there are at least a few redeemable sinners.