The Wolsenburg Clock

Prairie Fire Review of Books, Vol 11 #1, 2011

 The Wolsenburg Clock is a book at once human and spiritual, replete with colourful characters from three discrete historical periods (four, if we count the narrator’s own post–Second World War period) who act and react in ways that reflect then-current views of science and religion in eloquent and insightful passages of philosophical subtlety. On the barest level of plot, the novel is framed by a prologue and an epilogue and interspersed by an “Entr’act” and two “intermissions,” in which we hear the voice of a Canadian academic who happens to stay in a small town in Austria after agreeing to house-sit for a Jewish friend living in London following the Second World War

Between the speaker’s urbane account of his stay in Wolsenburg and his meeting of the modern curator of the local museum, Josias Stimmler (descendant of Jean-Auguste Stimmler, an influential figure in the clock’s renovation), we hear the medieval story of Wildrik Kiening, whose idea was responsible for the earliest model of the Wolsenburg Clock; the Renaissance story of the precocious Angeila, inspired by her Grandma Theurl (later denounced as a witch); and finally, the Enlightenment’s Jean-Auguste Stimmler, bastard son of Count Beust and an intellectual during this latter scientific age of opportunity. The narrator’s first meeting with Josias Stimmler sets the story going in what may be mistaken for accidental plan but (as the narrator attests) is providential. Not of the school that a handshake is a “competition” but, instead, an offering, the highly likeable narrator is shocked by his own strength when Josias’s hand, in being shaken, makes a noise “one might venture, as intricate as the clock’s dials and hinges for which he is the curator” (19-20). Telling the narrator not to worry, Josias explains that all his joints are similarly affected: In fact, he said that he forgot all about it when he was on his own and as a kind of illustration, he balled up his fists and shifted his shoulders to produce a horrible series of popping sounds like the noise of someone walking across a fire built of small twigs. (20)

After this character sketch worthy of the narrator’s expressed favourite novelist, Thomas Hardy, the narrator closes by acknowledging that it is the younger Stimmler of the cracking bones whom he has to thank for opening him to the “world of wonders” surrounding the Wolsenburg Clock and all it entails as a symbol of science and philosophy.

During the “Second Intermission,” the narrator confesses that doubt plagued him during his younger student years, and he was “Goethe’s Faust, tossing out for reason’s sake any and all faith in the divine, and replacing it with an unwavering belief in science and empiricism (104).” The narrator remarks that he considers the so-called Enlightenment as “reckless fanaticism” and, shortly after this admission, meets as if by divine design his love, Leesa Haspel, a puppeteer at the Botanischer Garten in Wolsenburg. As it turns out, Leesa is also “a believer in not knowing” (111), which translates as more than a free-thinker: I see now that it is possible to want to know, and yet to be satisfied, or no, to be thrilled by what I cannot know: the mystery of what happens when we die, why the cat’s purr is a gift, the wonder of Leesa welcoming me into her arms as I held her in my own. (111)

This passage is marked by the vital and tenacious knot of paradox worthy of a poet (Ruzesky, of course, is a poet, and this his first – outstanding, I might add — novel). For drama and knowledge of human character presented with irony, but with a goodwill that reflects the author’s wisdom, consider the scene in which the narrator has almost proved the authenticity of the Egger-Codex and has even raised the interest of Captain Möller, who has been following his studies with enthusiasm: I was naive. Möller poured the tea as usual, but rather than lean forward in his seat like a student anxious for wisdom, he reclined in his armchair and crossed his legs in a gesture of insouciance while he stirred his tea and said, “You will leave these materials with me. A scholar at the University of Leipzig has taken an interest in your work and wishes to verify the codex for himself. I’m sure you understand.” (106)

The narrator’s reaction, knocking his teacup against the saucer “with such shocked conviction that the handle of the cup broke off like a piece of icicle coming away from an eave” captures through its delicate distraction the human comedy of the situation while not diminishing our appreciation of what must be the narrator’s indignation and sense of injustice. That “providence” had been responsible for this disturbance of his life’s work, however, suggests an acceptance that remains in keeping with a “believer in not knowing.”

While The Wolsenburg Clock may be said to have the detached and scattered feel of a postmodern piece of literature, its structure has something in common with the clock image at its centre (that has a more modernist feel): the book-end frame and intermissions are pinioned by the narrator’s voice, rife with understatement and irony, and the author’s voice – amidst the sparse and poetic prose – is never far away. As smaller wheels within the clock, the historic triptych of stories run their courses within the cogs of the more contemporary scene.

The cover features an image of a thoughtful young androgynous face, capped by symbols reminiscent of the astrolabe and ancient celestial maps, which led me to believe that the novel might be intended for young adults. However, it is a book of maturity and multiple ironies, not to mention a depth of philosophy that I fear might be lost on that younger targeted audience.— Gillian Harding-Russell

Gillian Harding-Russell lives, reviews, edits, teaches and writes in Regina. Her latest collection of poetry is I forgot to tell you (Thistledown Press, 2007).

Victoria Times Colonist, March 14, 2010
In his debut novel, The Wolsenburg Clock, Vancouver Island poet Jay Ruzesky sets out to tell the multi-century history of an astronomical clock in a small Austrian city. The clock is a mechanical marvel for its time, viewed in much the same way as we treat current 3-D wonders like Avatar. As the hours and minutes tick by other dials make the movement of the planets and special events are marked by clockwork figures.

Opening during the early days of the Second World War, Ruzesky wraps the 600-year history of the clock around the reflections of a Canadian professor who eventually becomes its caretaker. From here, he moves back in time to tell of the construction of the clock beginning in 1378, a period when few actually knew what a clock was, and through two major restorations in 1585 and 1809.

Ruzesky focuses on those charged with building (or rebuilding) the clock and the toll it takes on their lives. Working with what would be cutting-edge technology for their day, and during the Renaissance portion the mystical elements of alchemy, each clockmaker toils to add not only function but entertainment, building in automata features that may only spring to life once every decade or more and working stories and histories into the ornate carvings and decoration of the clock itself. The Wolsenburg Clock draws to a close as a crowd gathers to see what is in store to mark the new millennium.

Writers moving from poetry to prose have a tendency to go overboard with flowery language and extraneous descriptions; as if they feel they need to remind readers they are also poets with a great command of language. Ruzesky avoids this trap as he weaves a tale that flows almost seamlessly through four vastly different time periods. His storytelling shifts in subtle ways as he moves from medieval times toward the present — and the reader is quickly given a sense of time and place.

Ruzesky develops rich characters in the span of a few pages and supplies the vivid imagery needed for readers to share the wonder of the complicated machinery being built. Enough backstory is built into the separate time periods for the reader to connect with the new characters, and Ruzesky does a good job offering a sense of closure as each section comes to an end.
The descriptions of the clock itself are fascinating and are likely to send readers to their computers for real-life examples. Ruzesky has anticipated this and has been kind enough to list a number of resources in his acknowledgements at the end of the book.

The only disappointment with The Wolsenburg Clock is that the end comes so soon, Ruzesky tells his story in a mere 170 pages. Any of the historical sections of The Wolsenburg Clock could have made a fascinating novel on their own; let us hope in his next outing Ruzesky will spend more time with his readers. — Colin Holt

Colin Holt is a Victoria bookseller and writer. His reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including Quill & Quire and the Vancouver Sun.
© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist
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SPG Book Reviews
BC poet-turned-novelist Jay Ruzesky’s The Wolsenburg Clock is an admirable book, and I recommend you take time to read it. It’s often riotous. It’s impeccably researched. And its passionate characters offer minute-by-minute fun. Best of all, it made me recall the singular experience of being swept up in a good, old-fashioned fable. Yes, the years wound back as I read this book, and I felt a child’s delight again.

The story unspools at a civilized pace, in a way reminiscent of novels of an earlier era. This is most fitting, as the novel traces the conception, building, and rebuilding of an astronomical clock through the Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Modern periods of history, and it delivers us into the hearts and minds of the brilliant engineers who understood and added to the clock’s magic. Think carved stone; copper; dials; statues; a model of the universe; crowing cocks; blossoming flowers; and automatons so realistic and advanced, they play musical instruments, walk tightropes, and “juggle whining kittens.”

In the prologue we meet an academic on sabbatical in the small Austrian city of Wolsenburg. The narrator’s enraptured by the ornate 60′ clock, housed in the city’s cathedral, and when the clock’s keeper offers to share its workings, he gives the man “the chance to look into the mind of God”.

This is no ordinary clock: it tracks “celestial motion and astronomical events,” and “measure[s] the world and predict[s] the future.” In Medieval times, astronomical clocks symbolized “God’s perfect order in the universe and of [parishioners] role in that order,” and throughout the book Ruzesky humourously hints at the centuries’ old courtly dance between science and religion.

The clock’s first engineer, Wildrik, tells the cardinal that he’ll create a clock that “will make the irreverent devout,” but he must first conceive of a way to deal with the inaccuracies created by the Julian calendar.

Part of the book’s charm is that the author convincingly recreates historical periods through specific details, ie: “Some children ran by engaged at hoodman’s blind, and a crowd was gathered at the top of the square betting on cockfights.” The characters’ authentic diction is on the mark, but Ruzesky also has great fun with his cast, ie: during a long, formal ceremony in the cathedral, one man says: “Is this going to go on much longer? . . . My feet are killing me” — it’s like the author is winking at us.

But “wonder” is the book’s bottom line. The characters are “starving with curiousity,” and what results for readers is delicious. I was mesmerized by the child-geniuses and grandmother alchemist; laughed along with lovers’ witty repartee; and as the clock became ever more magical, I devoured its details like the proverbial kid in a candy store.
Do you still possess a sense of wonder? Have you lost yours and need an infusion? Read The Wolsenburg Clock and like the narrator, you, too, may “wonder again at the world.” — Shelley A. Leedahl

BC Bookworld, Summer 2010
Jay Ruzesky’s first novel, The Wolsenburg Clock is an ambitious work that explores the private lives of individuals over the centuries who have built and refurbished variations of a remarkable, 625-year-old astronomical clock that also charts celestial motions.

The clock is still operating in the Austrian city of Wolsenburg, near Italy. The narrator is the 20th century custodian of the clock that was first built by Wildrik Kiening for a cathedral in Wolsenburg, at the cusp of the 14th century.

“Perhaps,” the narrator writes, “what humans need more than anything is not atomic clocks that help us keep more and more precise track of time, but less complicated lives so the measurements would again matter less.”

Monday Magazine, 2009
As strange as it may seem in this era of nanoseconds and digital obsession, there was a time when minutes and hours mattered much less than they do today, when the means of marking time was often more important than its precision. Indeed, tourists today are still awed by the famed medieval clocks of Prague, Strasbourg or Venice. Such is the case with the fictional Austrian town of Wolsenburg, where debut novelist Jay Ruzesky has created The Wolsenburg Clock — part divine intervention, part mechanical marvel and an altogether engaging, if somewhat puzzling, piece of historical fiction.

Set amidst WWII—although the war really plays no part here beyond providing the initial set-up and setting — Wolsenburg is a very consciously structured short novel, wherein an unnamed central narrator’s growing fascination for a neglected medieval clock provides the temporal framing device for three loosely connected tales spanning the clock’s construction: the medieval era (1378), a Renaissance period (1585) and the Age of Enlightenment (1809). But where other historical novelists — Edward Rutherford, say — would spill hundreds of pages of intricately plotted and specifically detailed ink on each mechanical innovation and revolutionary advancement, Ruzesky instead goes for broader strokes, offering us impressions of these periods; we share moments when the lives of these passing characters intersect with the Black Plague, meet the Inquisition, face the rising class structure. And while the story is simply told, the characters are cleverly constructed — an early scientist challenging the preconception of God, an alchemist child prodigy, a shunned bastard genius of aristocracy — and all play an essential part in the creation and continuation of the clock’s legacy.

Wolsenburg is a curious novel and it’s tempting to put its problems, such as they are, down to Ruzesky’s primary career as a poet; indeed, there’s even a moment early on when the narrator seems to echo the author’s own fears: “Would that I could write like Thomas Hardy and represent those people with all their human strengths and human flaws.” And while Ruzesky’s talent at capturing and describing a historical moment clearly rises above his use of dialogue and character development, there’s something undeniably compelling about Wolsenburg; if anything, my main complaint is with its length — there’s simply not enough here. Having gone to all the trouble of creating a clock and cathedral vivid enough that one has to check the internet to see if it really exists (it doesn’t), I wanted more from these characters and periods; but again, for a writer more familiar with the poetic form, and on his first novel, perhaps that is to be expected, or at least excused.

While not an instant classic, The Wolsenburg Clock will appeal to readers of more formal historical fiction, and for those who, like the narrator, feel that, “Perhaps what humans need more than anything is not atomic clocks that help us keep more and more precise track of time, but less complicated lives so the measurements would again matter less.” — John Threlfall