Mawer, Simon 1948-
MAWER, Simon 1948-
PERSONAL: Born 1948, in England; married; wife's name Connie; children: Matthew, Julia. Education: Attended Brasenose College, Oxford.
ADDRESSES: Home—Rome, Italy. Agent—Charles Walker, Peters Fraser & Dunlop, Drury House, 34-43 Russell St., London WC2B 5HA, England. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer and educator. Former biology teacher in Guernsey, Channel Islands, as well as in Malta and Italy; St. George's English School, Rome, Italy.
AWARDS, HONORS: McKitterick Prize, 1989, for Chimera; Boardman Tasker Prize for mountain literature, 2003, for The Fall.
Chimera, Penguin (New York, NY), 1989.
The Bitter Cross, Sinclair-Stevenson (London, England), 1992.
A Jealous God, Andre Deutsch (London, England), 1996.
Mendel's Dwarf, Transworld, 1997, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 1998.
The Gospel of Judas, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2001.
The Fall, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2003.
Mendel's Dwarf has been translated into German, French, Italian, Dutch, Hebrew and Portuguese; The Gospel of Judas has been translated into French, Italian, Dutch, and Portuguese.
A Place in Italy, Sinclair-Stevenson (London, England), 1992.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Becoming Absent, working title.
SIDELIGHTS: After a nomadic childhood spent in England and the Mediterranean, Simon Mawer has spent more than twenty years teaching biology in Rome, Italy. Simultaneously, he has been writing novels that incorporate a variety of personal interests—mountain climbing, scientific exploration, the events of World War II, religious realignment—into graceful, complex narratives. Introduced to American readers with his fourth novel, Mendel's Dwarf, Mawer has become a notable name in British fiction. In the Atlantic Monthly, Michael Upchurch said that Mawer should be ranked alongside Iris Murdoch, William Boyd, and Michael Frayn, and explained: "Mawer's prose is admirably lyrical, playful, and precise. His greatest strength, however, is in crafting probing, puzzlelike narratives that yield compelling dramas of the mind and heart." In a review of The Gospel of Judas for the Christian Science Monitor, Thomas D'Evelyn called Mawer a "world-class novelist" and added, "Mawer's use of the novel to explore social, political, intimate, and religious history reveals the power of this genre to redeem the present."
Chimera, Mawer's first novel, is the story of half-Italian British agent David Hewison, formerly an archeologist, who parachutes into Italy during World War II. It is also the story of Hewison's nephew Anthony, who becomes curious about his uncle's past and visits him forty years later in Italy, where Hewison has settled in a villa and is engaged in an archeological dig of an ancient Etruscan settlement. The novel, like an archeology dig, intricately layers memories and events.
A Place in Italy is Mawer's account of several months he and his wife spent in Avea, a small Italian village. Living in a house that consists of two rooms and a cave carved out of the hillside, they become part of the village, part of its gossip and relationships. He and his wife savor the local food and customs and their connection to the villagers. Eventually they move on, but as Caroline Moorehead wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, "The good-humored book that has come out of their time in Avea is an evocative reminder of how successfully the Italians have been at hanging on to the pleasures of the passing seasons."
The Bitter Cross is a historical novel set in a time of religious conflict: the sixteenth-century Protestant revolution of northern Europe and the Turkish/Islamic onslaught in Italy and other Mediterranean countries. Set in Malta, between the two regions, the book is a complicated story of love and war featuring Gerald Paulet, a Knight of St. John in Malta. Betty Abel, writing for the Contemporary Review, noted that the book is "exciting and imaginative. Simon Mawer has vividly described his impressive characters and their exotic setting." Brian Morton of the Times Educational Supplement similarly stated, "Mawer writes the kind of historical fiction that convinces because it doesn't strive too hard to establish extraneous detail."
A Jealous God tells the story of Helen Hardin and her quest to find out whether or not her father, Andrew, a British intelligence agent who was rumored to have been killed in 1946 in the Palestinian bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, is actually dead. A Publishers Weekly reviewer described Mawer as "a poetic, masterful explorer of hidden motives, erotic desires, divided loyalties." In this book Mawer interweaves Helen's search for the truth with her illicit affair with her stepbrother and her guilty relationship with her mother. Simon Louvish wrote in the New Statesman, "The novel twists and turns between these narratives, allowing us a kind of God-like eye to see the connections that Helen, kept from the truth by her dying mother Lorna, may never find out."
Mawer's fourth novel, Mendel's Dwarf, stars brilliant geneticist Benedict Lambert, a descendant of the famous early geneticist and monk Gregor Mendel. Lambert is a dwarf, suffering from the genetic mutation of achondroplasia, and is obsessed with finding the genetic basis for his condition. The book is a dual biography, interweaving the story of Lambert's life with that of Mendel, but plot is secondary to sensibility in this imaginative novel. As Francine Prose wrote in the New York Times, "Far more interesting is the breadth and depth of the narrator's sensibility—his mix of seriousness and grace, the charm and lack of pedantry with which he touches on a range of weighty ideas. . . . [The book is] an odd and affecting literary experiment that keeps pushing itself and its readers to think harder, go deeper." A reviewer in Library Journal agreed, calling the book "a wonderfully crafted, thought-provoking tale in which the science never gets in the way of the story."
In The Gospel of Judas, Mawer imagines the impact of a newly discovered ancient scroll refuting accounts of Jesus' resurrection. Father Leo Newman is a scholar in Rome who is asked to translate the scroll and reveal its message to the world. Already troubled by his relationship with a diplomat's wife and shaken in his faith, he worries about the potential effect of the manuscript on all Christians. Writing for Publishers Weekly, Jeff Zaleski deemed that "discerning readers will relish Mawer's excellent writing and subtle treatment of potentially over-the-top subject matter." Newsweek reviewer Andrew Nagorski relished the challenge of Mawer's hypothetical situation: "In a book based on the premise that Jesus didn't rise from the dead, resurrection is a recurring theme. A factual history would never have imbued these personal struggles with the same emotional resonance."
The twin thrills of mountain climbing—the pure beauty of the surroundings and flirtation with danger—are the centerpieces of The Fall, a novel set in North Wales. When Jamie, an expert climber, is killed under mysterious circumstances on a dangerous rock face, his widow is visited by an old climbing partner, Rob. Relationships between these three, as well as between the men's mothers, prove to be complex. Questions arise about Rob and Jamie's paternity, reaching back into events of the post-World War II period. Critics repeatedly relished Mawer's prose and clear intimacy with the subject of climbing, but sometimes found his characters rendered with less skill. In the The Saturday Review, D. J. Taylor gave "all credit to Mawer for writing a book whose real theme . . . is the sheer insignificance of puny humanity when set against environmental splendour." He also said, "One could wish that the human entanglements lurking in the mountains' shadow were worked out with something more than a kind of emotional algebra." Others cast the novel as Mawer's finest work. "The Fall is the most meticulously plotted of all Mawer's books," said Mark Crees in the Times Literary Supplement; "yet it also stands as his most unrestrained and direct achievement." James Hopkin remarked in the New Statesman that this was Mawer's "ideal subject" and that the novel "becomes an elegy for a life of lost opportunity and love, a meditation on ageing and regret that gently supersedes the eulogy to the thrill of the climb."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlantic Monthly, June, 2001, Michael Upchurch, review of The Gospel of Judas, p. 106.
Christian Science Monitor, July 26, 2001, Thomas D'Evelyn, "Personal and World Faith Shaken," p. 20.
Contemporary Review, July, 1992, Betty Abel, review of The Bitter Cross, p. 44.
Library Journal, November 15, 1997, David W. Henderson and Barbara Hoffert, review of Mendel's Dwarf, p. 77.
New Statesman, February 9, 1996, Simon Louvish, review of A Jealous God, p. 137; March 10, 2003, James Hopkin, "Novel of the Week: The Fall," p. 53.
Newsweek, June 18, 2001, Andrew Nagorski, "If Judas Told His Story. . . ," p. 62.
New York Times, March 22, 1998, Francine Prose, "Get Out the Chromosomal Map," p. 13.
Publishers Weekly, July 8, 1996, review of A Jealous God, p. 76; November 3, 1997, review of Mendel's Dwarf, p. 64; April 9, 2001, Jeff Zaleski, review of The Gospel of Judas, p. 48; December 23, 2002, Jeff Zaleski, review of The Fall, p. 249.
Saturday Review, February 15, 2003, D. J. Taylor, review of The Fall, p. 29.
Times Educational Supplement, June 5, 1992, Brian Morton, review of The Bitter Cross, p. 32.
Times Literary Supplement, November 27, 1992, Caroline Moorehead, review of A Place in Italy, p. 10; February 28, 2003, Mark Crees, "Don't Look Down," p. 23.
Washington Post, January 26, 2003, Richard Byrne, "Down We Go," p. T7.
The World & I, June, 2003, Joseph Sullivan, review of The Fall, pp. 218-223.
Simon Mawer Home Page,http://www.simonmawer.com/ (November 15, 2003).