The Alchymist’s Journal

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus, was an uncomfortable presence in his own times. He expressed nothing but contempt for doctors who ministered to their own pockets rather than their patients’ needs. He was persuaded that the medicines they prescribed often did more harm than good. He despised them for following without question the medical texts of Galen and Celsus, declaring that gypsies and washerwomen knew more about real medicine than the learned professors. He practiced the art of alchemy.

THE ALCHYMIST’S JOURNAL consists of a fictitious journal written by this same Paracelsus, followed and commented upon in turn by the journals of a series of other alchemists—skeptical, Christian, revolutionary, philosophical. The novel is a tour-de-force of language that pillories ignorance and superstition while advocating both scientific and spiritual realism.

In this book, various strands of Connell’s genius come together: the historical research skills of the author of SON OF THE MORNING STAR meld with the philosophical interests of the author of POINTS FOR A COMPASS ROSE and NOTES FROM A BOTTLE FOUND ON THE BEACH AT CARMEL in an incandescent language that surpasses in richness while equalling in subtlety the prose of such minor fictional masterpieces as the stories in his SAINT AUGUSTINE’S PIGEON.

Acerb, bombastic, iconoclastic, and eloquent by turns, Connell’s book resembles Paracelsus himself. It is uncomfortable reading, for it makes demands that few books dare make: It insists on the reader savoring every word; it expands the reader’s vocabulary; it debates topics—alchemy, astrology, medicine—in ways that perhaps do not conform to the reader’s expectation. It is confounding, rude, penetrating. It is also brilliant.

Not surprisingly, the book is published by North Point, a press so consistent in its excellence that is has now closed shop. We mourn the loss, while admiring this final example of what truly intelligent publishing can offer us.