Ragged revolutionary

<i>The Justification of Johann Gutenberg</i> by Blake Morrison (Chatto &amp; Windus, &pound;14.99, 259pp)
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The Independent Culture

The history novel as faux-autobiography is currently a popular sub-genre. Pick a significant figure from the past and have him or her, in old age, spill it all out. Strategies present themselves like a team of trained flunkies. If little of your subject's personal life is known, you can make it up: paint a spicy backcloth, put in some bodice-ripping and, while we know that the central character changed the course of history, make him fed up because contemporaries ignored him.

The history novel as faux-autobiography is currently a popular sub-genre. Pick a significant figure from the past and have him or her, in old age, spill it all out. Strategies present themselves like a team of trained flunkies. If little of your subject's personal life is known, you can make it up: paint a spicy backcloth, put in some bodice-ripping and, while we know that the central character changed the course of history, make him fed up because contemporaries ignored him.

Since he is justifying himself (the pun is somewhat unnecessarily explained in this novel), he will be an unreliable narrator, thus making space for the ironies that flatter the knowing reader. No wonder that such strategies have calcified over the years into conventions, the living muscle becoming machinery.

All this is in The Justification of Johann Gutenberg. Fortunately, there is a lot more - more than enough to justify Blake Morrison's first novel. The largely invented story of reversals in fortune, of wheelings and dealings, of a love affair blighted and hints of bisexuality, is a rollicking tale. Its significance is subtly pointed with some forward-looking jokes. They carry weight as they bring home how our present informs the past as much as the past informs our present - though the idea of remaindered copies of the Bible at the Frankfurt Book Fair would have sat easier in Shakespeare in Love.

Morrison is a good poet and he writes like a master jeweller, choosing and matching words as if they were gems, often using printing terms, but never showily. He does not descend to the cyber-baroque of younger writers, nor the mandarin banality of older ones. In short, there are very few Englishpersons around who can write as well as he does.

What he does really well is simple, sensuous description. A fox marauding in a monastery garden so lives that it becomes a metaphor, while the sadness of a riverside walk with the girl Gutenberg rejects becomes weighted with tears through the description of the scene.

But it is with the processes of printing, and of Gutenberg's 20-years slog, that The Justification most comes to life. Morrison cannot contain his grateful wonder, and it spills on to the page, whether he is telling us how Gutenberg played creditors off against one another, or discussing the right alloy to use for print, the consistency of ink or the rival merits of vellum and paper. Truly, the future lives in the tumultuous noise of five presses, the metal poured into moulds, the furnaces stoked, a dozen men slaving together in the world's first print-shop. It's all compounded by the Promethean hubris of undertaking a 1,200-page Bible as Gutenberg's first major project.

One minor grumble. Inventions such as movable type do not spring fully formed from their creators' thighs. Gutenberg was not alone; if he had not got there first, allegedly, someone else would. Perhaps Morrison should have made more of this. One last word of praise: I found no typos at all. Gutenberg would have been pleased about that. The Justification of Johann Gutenberg is a very good read, which - considering its subject- is as it should be.

Julian Rathbone's latest historical novel is 'Kings of Albion' (Little, Brown)

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