All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well
All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well
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Tod Wodicka was born in Glens Falls, New York, in 1976. He currently lives in Berlin with his girlfriend and their son. This is his first novel.
Chapter OneDawn, or its German equivalent, cannot be far off. But here, at the top of the hill, night still clogs the forest. Being sixty-three years old and sleepy, I find it nearly impossible to differentiate now between the stray grapevines, the trees, and the waist-high shrubs that I know surround me. They could all be wild animals.
‘Is everyone awake?’
Three days ago I imprisoned six middle-aged women and one pre-pubescent girl in a tent on this hilltop. The time has come to set them free.
‘Pray undo the lock,’ an anchorite whispers. Then, sensing my hesitation, ‘Did thou forget the key?’
There is no key because there is no lock. My hand waits on the zipper. I stand there in my dagged-edged taffeta tunic, my sandaled feet wet from dew. My bald little head. My nose. Somewhere behind me sleeps the great stone Benedictine Abbey St Hildegard, its vineyards cascading down the hill over Eibingen, over Rudesheim, and into the river Rhine.
Zipper down, the tent gives us Tivona Henry. Forty years old and not unlovely, Tivona is skinny in a way that suggests intense concentration; more simian, maybe, than outright undernourished. Her head feeds a nest of gray-streaked frizz. It’s Tivona’s medieval chant workshop that I’ve accompanied on this German vacation. She smiles.
I have only myself to blame. Weeks prior to the journey I’d sowed the idea of re-enacting Hildegard von Bingen’s first days in the anchorage, more or less on a lark, knowing full well these women’s anchorite longings and their propensity for outlandish re-enactment schemes. I expected nothing to come of it. Then, a day before departure, it was announced that several of the women would be enduring three days in the tent; three entire days and nights atop the hill overlooking the Abbey, reliving Hildegard’s girlhood. One meal a day, only wine to drink, no idle chatter, absolutely no grumbling; just chanting and the occasional prayer. I have never had a problem with the concept of medieval re-enactment. In fact, many believe that I actually invented it. The world is riddled with far worse activities and I altogether refuse to even feign embarrassment, especially at my age. Dressing up in period-specific costume? The re-creation of history through practical workshops and group scholarship? For some, in this day and age, there’s simply no place left to retreat.
Tivona steps free from the tent. Others follow, one by one. Blinking, grinning heads, then arms, then bodies. Tivona leading her cortege of part-time anchorites back into the twentieth century. Each holds a candle made by the nuns here at the Abbey St Hildegard, most ennobled with now-grotesque melting effigies of their patron saint. White tunics glow in what is left of the moon.
Some stumble, others laugh; they are very obviously inebriated. They sing. Soon I am surrounded, my flame-flickered face a mask of potent infirmities, adhering, so I’ve been told, to the long tradition of Christian mysticism insisting that those impaired in body are somehow healthier in spirit. Which is another way of saying that because I am ugly I am going to get a reward. Specifically, I have a misshapen nose.
There is a deep silence despite the amateur medieval plainchant which clouds behind me. It’s nearing lauds, first light. Single file, we begin our descent back towards the Abbey and the event of our first public performance.
‘Burt?’ Tivona asks.
In three days the women will return home to Queens Falls, New York. They do not yet know that I have no intention of accompanying them.
‘Are you well, m’lord?’ Tivona continues.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I am not.’
Two years ago I joined Tivona Henry’s medieval chant workshop as a way to better manage the anger that New York State’s Board of Parole believed they had good reason to be wary of. Following a late-night Confraternity of Times Lost Regained revel, I’d been apprehended while attempting to transport myself home in a borrowed Saab. I didn’t have a license to operate such a vehicle, or any vehicle, or the requisite skills; and, worse, I’d consumed much homemade mead. I really don’t remember the specifics. It’s a matter of public record, however, that I altogether refused to walk in a straight line or touch my nose with my finger. They’d never detained anybody dressed in period-specific, historically accurate costume before, and once installed in the Queens Falls police depot I was treated genially, like a time traveler who couldn’t comprehend the vigorous modernity which had enveloped him. Because I was old they supposed I was demented.
For one thing, they refused to immediately imprison me. This I found offensive. I was made to sit on something aluminum, and handed beverages I could not possibly drink. (Coffee, I did my best to explain, was OOP. Out of Period. Such beans did not exist in medieval Europe, so I assiduously avoided them.) My portrait was snapped, the air from my lungs scientifically tested. To the best of my memory, I was wearing a simple woolen tunic, nothing extravagant or untoward.
‘Let’s do this one more time. Just for the record, what year is this again?’
I liked the police officer charged with interrogating me. In him I noted the same pious dreaminess that often overtakes a medieval re-enactor after a long, involving Confraternity of Times Lost Regained weekend.
‘AD 1256,’ I answered. I was inebriated enough to imagine that he would see in me what I saw in him, and that he would not only recognize but applaud our similar life choices. Our costumes.
‘Right. This your wallet, Eckbert?’
‘It is my pouch.’
The police officer removed some cards from my leather pouch. The first was a wallet-sized, laminated reproduction of a painting of my son, Tristan, and me. Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of an Elderly Man with His Son.
I raised my voice and rose to my feet. I did something which required another police officer to restrain my hands in metal cuffs.
‘Take it easy, old man. Nobody is going to steal your library card.’ The officer looked at me carefully. Slowly, he placed my Ghirlandaio back inside the pouch. He held another card. ‘Burt Hecker,’ he read. ‘Well, and here’s another, also says Burt Hecker. Confraternity of Times Lost Regained. That your thing, Mr Hecker? Medieval re-enactment?’
History, when you devote your life to it, can be either a weight into a premature old age or a release from the troublesome, promiscuous present: eternal immaturity as an occupational boon. Since I was thirty, most have considered me retired, unemployed, or fundamentally unemployable. I have devoted my adult life to amateur scholarship and the Confraternity of Times Lost Regained, the re-enactment society I founded. I’ve since been left a considerable fortune.
The fluorescence made me sneeze. ‘I’m just an old man,’ I said. ‘Do with me what you will.’ Telephones trilled and voices barked from small boxes full of static. Flags, bowls of peanuts, guns, computer screens imitating aquariums—lunacy, plain and simple. Me in my tunic and homemade sandals.
‘You do not have a New York State driver’s license.’
The CTLR revel had not yet ended when I had absconded, stealing the automobile. It was the first time in my life that I had ever been behind the wheel of such a vehicle. I had had much mead. The last image I recall was of dozens of men, women, and children dressed in all manner of medieval garb—princesses, squires, knights, blacksmiths, peasants, and monks—my twentieth-century secessionists arm in arm around a bonfire, dancing, leaping, singing, with all that desperate blackness surrounding them, pulling at them, devouring the edges of their perfect, historically accurate illusion. Way too much night, I thought. They don’t stand a chance. In any event, the idea with the Saab had not been to transport myself to any physical realm.
‘Who is Lonna Katsav?’
‘What?’ Lonna Katsav was my best friend and my lawyer. ‘She has nothing to do with this,’ I added, finally shocked back into AD 1996. It was Lonna’s Saab that I had stolen. On the wall was a framed photograph of the Governor of New York State, and one of the President of the United States. Since when, I wondered, did those wielding great authority begin smiling like nineteenth-century barkers? How could anyone take these men seriously? If everyone loses their mind at the same time does anyone really notice? I looked around me at the game being played, the idea of order and duty and society and justice being re-enacted, that stern idiotic bustle, and I knew, suddenly, that it was all over. I had crashed my best friend’s car into a point of no return.
‘Well, Lonna Katsav is coming to pick you up.’ The police officer offered me a stick of chewing gum. ‘She’s not going to press charges, you’ll be happy to know. Though she thought about it.’
I held up my shackles. I sighed. ‘Make sure that she sees me in these at least, would you?’
It should be said that throughout the whole ordeal my officer did an admirable job of not once gawping at my nose. The first fellow I encountered at the station had demanded that I actually remove it, thinking it was part of my medieval garb.
The punishment for drunk driving without a license in a stolen car consisted of a fine and the recommendation that I serve my parole in thrice-weekly Anger Management & Self-Betterment Workshops. However, because my late wife knew some people who knew some people who knew the judge, I was allowed a unique alternative. Thus, I became the first male member of Tivona’s medieval music therapy workshop. Truth is, nobody was particularly worried that I’d anger. I rarely did. They simply knew that I would, on principle, risk six months in the threatened cage rather than submit myself to the group hugs with mountain people I was certain such Self-Bettermenting entailed. Better, finally, to chant. Better eighteen months of intuitive healing with Tivona Henry.
Meet Burt Hecker: a mead-drinking, tunic-wearing medieval re-enactor from upstate New York. He prefers oat gruel to French fries because potatoes were unavailable in Europe before 1200 AD; and, at war with the modern world, he enjoys hosting large-scale re-enactments at the Victorian bed and breakfast he calls home.
But Burt has some serious problems. After an incident involving the New York State police and an illegally borrowed car, Burt is forced to join a local music therapy workshop to manage his anger. He gallantly accompanies the group to Germany for a festival celebrating the music of the visionary saint Hildegard von Bingen–but he has no plan to return home. His real destination is Prague: he must find his estranged son Tristan, who, he believes, has lost his way in the Bohemian city.
As we move between past and present, the tragic details of Burt’s life are gradually revealed: the recent death of his beloved wife; the circumstances that separate him from his children; his complicated relationship with his mother-in-law. And we begin to understand, with heart-wrenching clarity, Burt’s eccentric and poignant devotion to a time other than one’s own.
Wildly inventive and mesmerizing, Tod Wodicka’s debut is a modern-day Arthurian quest that introduces one of the most winning oddball characters to come along in years.
"Boy is it fun to read All Shall Be Well. Traveling through Eastern Europe with Burt Hecker is a little like heading south with Charles Portis’s Ray Midge of being holed up in the campgrounds with Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote–uproarious, wholly odd, wonderfully rendered."
–Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End
"A rare comic novel, beautifully styled and often very moving, which seems funny almost by accident, as if it just happened to discover notes of comedy while it went about sounding the depths of its characters. Wodicka is a superb writer."
–Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Brief History of the Dead
"An astonishing, beautiful book. It’s comic and compassionate, assured in tone and richly poetic . . . unfolding in brilliantly unexpected and entertaining ways."
–Peter Hobbs, author of The Short Day Dying
"Outstanding . . . A vibrant, original, at times hilarious novel . . . A worthy addition to the school of studies in American dysfunction–in heritage, rebellion, the bonds and resentments of family love–reminiscent of Roth or Franzen."
"Wodicka’s wry and subtle prose is a pleasure throughout."
"An assured novel bursting with humor and weighted with sadness."
"Wonderfully imagined . . . Wodicka has crafted an eccentric tale full of humor and compassion."
—The Guardian1. Fathers are missing throughout the novel, and missing in particularly violent ways: Anna’s father and husband kill themselves; Burt’s father may have raped his mother. What does it mean that the one father who is present, Burt, tries to disappear into the past?
2. What do you think turns Anna Bibko into a woman obsessed with her family’s people, the Lemkos, and particularly with the crimes against them? How is this like or unlike Burt’s obsession with a world far before his own time?
3. Why do you think the author chose Burt as a first-person narrator? What might have the story been like if one of the other characters had told Burt’s tale? What does this suggest about the trustworthiness of Burt’s voice?
4. The essence of the novel seems to be the relationship between parents and children, and the ways we fail our children and feel that they fail us. Burt states that “families are historical things. You have to believe in them for them to be real.” What do you think the different characters believe about family and the reality of familial relationships?
5. Consider the music chanting workshop that Burt is part of, and the Hildegard von Bingen music that he and Tristan listen to together, as well as the Lemko folk songs that Tristan goes to seek. What role does music play in the novel? And what does it suggest about the needs of children to escape their family that Tristan, in the end, leaves both the medieval and Lemko worlds behind in his music?
6. Burt claims that history is always ours for the reliving. Do you feel, as Burt does, that “reality is re-enactment”?
7. The title of the novel comes from Julian of Norwich’s meditation on sin. The opening and closing come from the life of Hildegard von Bingen. Why do you think the author chose to frame the novel with these female religious figures, both representative of a certain kind of visionary mysticism?
8. The beginning–a retelling of the entombment of Hildegard–is about the sacrifice of a child. Do you think Burt sacrifices either or both of his children? To what end?
9. Consider the section titles: The Emigrants, Kitty, The Castle. What do you make of these titles? Who are the emigrants, and what is the castle?
10. Examine Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of an Elderly Man with His Son. What do you think Burt sees when he stares at this painting? What do you think is the meaning of his nose in the story, and how do you think it affects Burt when June changes her inherited nose? What role does disfigurement as a whole play in the novel, and how is it related to the idea of otherness–of being an outcast?
11. We hear and see little about the relationship between Tristan and June. What do you imagine that relationship to be like? How do you see your own family dynamics reflected in the novel?
12. What role does Lonna Katsav fulfill in the story? Is she a mediating force, a meddler, a woman searching for a way into a family?
13. What is the meaning of Max Werfel’s search for his family? Is the fact that Max and Burt can’t communicate important to the arc of the story?
14. What is the role of geography in the novel, the importance of place?
15. Burt speaks very little about his own past: he tells Kitty some, and takes her to the orphanage where he was raised by nuns. Why do you think he pushes his past away? Do you think his children know about his own lost family?
16. What is the relationship between June and her father–who is, biologically, her true father, a fact that may not be true of Tristan? In many ways–physically, their faces; temperamentally, their feeling like outsiders–daughter and father are very similar. Burt reflects that “I’ve often seen my daughter there, in those eyes, waiting, pleading almost, for me to hurry up and figure her out.” Yet Burt seems focused solely on Tristan. Why do you think this is the case?
17. Regarding the question of parentage, Anna states that she knows for a fact that Tristan isn’t Burt’s biological son. Do you think this is something Burt has known all along as well?
18. What do you make of the relationship between Burt and Kitty, and particularly of the scene when Kitty foresees their future?
19. What role do blame and forgiveness play in the lives of the different characters?
20. What is the importance of the imagined Lemko scenes–of Anna watching her grandfather die, and Kitty seeing that death and his funeral? Do you think these are authorial insertions, or still Burt’s framing of the story? What does it mean that Anna’s grandfather tells her that she “can never go far,” right after Anna is imagining burning down any trace of the Lemko in herself?
21. Do the signs at the end point to a future reconciliation, a reconstruction of the family? Consider Burt’s realization that “my daughter and I have the same goal.” What goal is this? What else does Burt see more clearly in the end, and what does it mean that he identifies himself with Hildegard, but foresees an ending that opens into light, instead of death?
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