Good books often take you places you never imagined you would visit.
Thanks to a last-minute invitation to join a small alumni group the other day, I was transported from the Princeton campus to the Vatican in Rome in the year 2004. The occasion was a reception for the author of the good book — Ian Caldwell, Princeton Class of 1998, whose second novel, “The Fifth Gospel,” has been on the New York Times bestseller list for the past month or so.
The new novel follows Caldwell’s “The Rule of Four,” co-written with a high school classmate. The book spent 49 weeks on the Times bestseller list in 2004 and sold nearly 2 million copies.
As a big-time author, Caldwell did not disappoint anyone with his informal discussion of “The Fifth Gospel” and how he came to write it. But he did surprise several of us when he described the path from the Princeton campus to the Vatican, and how it passed through St. Paul’s Church on Nassau Street.
As Caldwell recited his intellectual journey from Old Nassau to the Holy See, I took notes on both sides of a window envelope. As I now reconstruct it (and please don’t take this as any kind of gospel), Caldwell’s interest in the inner workings of the Catholic Church and the Vatican began in his undergraduate days at Princeton, even before he worked on “The Rule of Four.”
The interest was piqued in part by a roommate, a Jewish student who was becoming an Orthodox Jew and developing an interest in ancient languages, fueled by working as an office assistant to religion professor Elaine Pagels, an expert in early Christianity. The roommate studied Latin, ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac, and then turned his attention to Coptic, a language of the Egyptian Christians that not even the renowned Professor Pagels could read.
But who could help Caldwell’s roommate out with Coptic? In Princeton’s vast reservoir of intellectual wealth, it seemed there was only one person: the parish priest at St. Paul’s Church on Nassau Street, a place that for the typical university undergraduate was about as far away as the Vatican. So the roommate trekked back and forth to St. Paul’s to study the Coptic language with Father Evasio De Marcellis. How about that for a small world?
After graduation, Caldwell and his high school classmate from Fairfax County, Virginia, decided to knock out a mystery novel in the few months between their college graduations and the time when Caldwell started a job with a tech start-up, and the classmate, Dustin Thomason, enrolled in medical school at Columbia.
Their “The Rule of Four” involved four Princeton seniors immersed in decoding the mystery of a book — a real book — published in Italy in 1499 and titled “The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.” The characters’ quest got them entangled in a murder (naturally) and some thrilling scenes in the network of steam tunnels under the Princeton campus.
Tunnels? Really? Undergraduates since my days have speculated about the connections of the steam tunnels. But “Rule of Four” — good book that it was — brought the tunnels to life, with characters using them to get to the eating clubs from the main campus, and as settings for paint ball fights, and — ultimately — a dramatic chase scene. So convincing were the fictional portrayals that the Daily Princetonian reported that then-President Shirley Tilghman warned members of the Class of 2008 to “just forget about looking for the steam tunnels — they don’t exist.”
After the enormous success of “Rule of Four,” Caldwell turned his attention to his next novel. Thinking back to his college roommate’s deep academic fascination with the early church (which had ultimately led the roommate to make another conversion — this time from Orthodox Jew to Roman Catholic), and mindful of the worldly stresses that were beginning to be felt by the modern church as it dealt with sexual abuse charges against priests, Caldwell began to sense he had the ingredients of another good novel.
And like most good novels, it would take the reader somewhere: the Vatican. As the smallest independent state in the world by both area (a little more than 100 acres) and population (less than 1,000 people), the Vatican nevertheless has its own community ambiance — apartments for the workers, a supermarket, and even a drug store.
Even if that were not the perfect cauldron for a mystery novel, Caldwell — by then becoming the father to three children and knowing how much kids could bring to any story — thought back to the Coptic Christian tradition that his roommate had studied under the tutelage of the priest at St. Paul’s. A Coptic priest, Caldwell knew, could be married and even have children.
That was the final touch. His protagonist in “The Fifth Gospel” would have kids, more characters to add depth to the story and get caught up in the suspense.
When Caldwell’s talk was over, a few of us approached him for some casual talk before he had to head home to his family in the Washington, D.C., area. I had to share my amazement at the mention of Father De Marcellis. Even though I have lived the past 40 years within earshot of St. Paul’s bells, I only attended church there once — invited by some friends to a Christmas Eve service sometime in the 1980s. Father De Marcellis’s sermon was unlike anything I had ever heard as a kid at the Methodist Church. This was no time to be happy, De Marcellis admonished the congregation. Being born is no big deal. Dying and being reborn is the thing to celebrate. Come back at Easter.
Talk about coal in the stocking.
Another alumnus then added his own story. The school-age child of a friend had died suddenly, and De Marcellis had officiated at the funeral mass. The alumnus was not sure what had been said at the funeral, but afterward the family of the dead child resigned from the church.
I found it hard to believe that this gruff priest could also be a scholar of the Coptic language. I discovered an article in a peer-reviewed journal, Orbis Supplementa. The article, “The Asia Minor Connexion: Studies on the Pre-Greek Languages,” was edited by Yoel L. Arbeitman, who mentioned De Marcellis as one of four people critical to the work. “The only priest this Jew has ever had,” Arbeitman wrote, “who has always been there since we were co-students in Jerusalem more than three decades ago.”
If I possessed the talent and imagination of Ian Caldwell I would see a novel in all of this, possibly with some steam tunnels running between St. Paul’s and the university campus. And I would have to make something of the fact that the priest who told me to come back on Easter, in the last year of his own life, 1997, died on the day after Easter.