Remember Frank Yerby?
Don’t laugh, but I’ve been reading Frank Yerby! To be specific, An Odor of Sanctity. Published in 1965(!) it’s another oldie and I selected it for a very particular reason. The story is set in 9th Century Spain, when society was a rich mixture of Muslims, Arabized Christians known as Mozarabs, and Jews, and I have long loved this era and this place.
When I was in high school, Frank Yerby was “the” racy author we were forbidden to read. I remember that the Watsonville librarian kept Yerby’s books on the top shelf behind her desk, and one could check them out only with a written note from a parent.
That didn’t stop our salacious fascination with the Yerby novels; chief among them were The Foxes of Harrow. Such works titillated our guilty pleasure well into the ‘60s, at which time I grew up and went off to college and read Shakespeare.
If life moves in cycles (circles?), my fiction reading through the years has arced back to where I started, with Frank Yerby. However, I’m older now and an author myself, and I honed in on Yerby because it turns out he was an accepted historical expert on medieval Spain!
Aside: The very first book I ever wrote, for which I did mucho research, was also set in medieval Spain. That book never sold (though, after reading the historical lore on marriage customs that Yerby dug up, I think there still might be a chance); the sequel, with a similar setting, was published in 2008 (Templar Knight, Forbidden Bride.
But back to Yerby. The sense of place in Cordoba and Toledo, and the incredible level of detail, right down to how the slave girls smelled and the slow Mozarabization of the hero’s garments and undergarments over the years, the spices, the skin colors, the perfumes... all of it was delicious.
The story is basically a “coming of age” tale about a young “Gothic” (French) man and his picaresque adventures, his involvements with women, his love affairs, and his struggle over questions of faith. We follow Alaric from his 14th year to the end of his life, watch his inner conflicts between sensuality and mysticism, and agonize, as he did, over the incipient erosion of paradise, as Muslim Spain was regarded.
Yerby’s writing style is fascinating: it’s dated, yes, with overlong, wordy sentences and a romanticized view of women (at least until Alaric is grown). Here is an example:*
“She sat there listening to the night noises, and feeling her nerves crawling just beneath the surface of her skin. It had not been so bad at first, because her former master had been with her then. But some two hours agone that great grizzled lion of a man whom Alaric had called Father had come into the room without a knock or a by-your-leave, and stood there eyeing her up and down as though she were some rare and distinctly unpleasant beast.”
In my view, this is one of those works whose content rises above its presentation. The struggles of a rational man in an irrational world speaks to us even today.
Next on my list is Yerby’s The Saracen Blade, published in 1952. I can hardly wait...
*Frank Yerby, An Odor of Sanctity, Dial Press, New York, 1965.