Friday, October 26, 2012

History, Fiction, and Historical Fiction (Part 2)

For me, the preeminent historical subject—and history’s greatest story—is Rome. It’s a 2,000-year arc, which begins with a pagan, Latin-speaking republic on the banks of the Tiber, and ends with a Christian, Greek-speaking monarchy on the banks of the Bosphorus; and yet it’s a single narrative, about a single entity that over millennia of tumult and transcendence becomes something entirely different. There are almost no points of intersection between that first Rome and the final one, which has caused us, in the modern period, to give a new name to the latter—Byzantium, we call it, and the people who live in it Byzantines. But those are terms they themselves never used, and that wouldn’t have made sense to them. Never mind that their empire no longer included the city of Rome—or any of Italy—they considered themselves Romans, and their empire Rome.

This is a great, endlessly fascinating paradox, and it has kept me a happy reader for most of my life.

Occasionally you see this type of story played over the course of a single life. Right now I’m reading the latest book by the biographer Robert K. Massie, which begins as the story of Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, a petty German princess living on the edge of poverty in the small Prussian town of Stettin, and ends as the story of Catherine II, empress and autocrat of all the Russias. The girl at the beginning and the woman at the end comprise a single lifespan, but thematically there are no commonalities; they’re one physical entity, but two separate characters.

I crush hard on this kind of thing. And in Rome, it’s not the six or seven decades of a single life we’re talking about, it’s two hundred decades of social, political, cultural, and spiritual ferment. Or even longer. After all, there’s no real consensus on when Rome ended. Some authorities say it was with the collapse of the western empire in AD 476; others (myself included) point to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Others maintain it continued in the west until 1806, having been revived by Charlemagne and called the Holy Roman Empire. And still others say, stop fooling yourselves, we’re still living in Rome, and probably always will be.

It’s certainly true of me; I spend a fair amount of my intellectual life in Rome, reading histories, biographies—and historical fiction. Rome has been much, much luckier in that regard than England, or Egypt, or any of the other nations and empires which seem to inspire overwrought, romanticized dreck. Maybe it’s Rome’s essentially masculine, martial character that tamps down the dizzy romanticists.

Probably no one will be astonished to hear that my favorite Roman period is the five hundred years comprising the final centuries of the republic and the first of the empire. This is probably everyone’s choice; it is, after all, central to the story of western civilization, and therefore a direct antecedent of our own history. And within those five hundred years, my special affection is reserved for—again, no surprise—the eight or nine decades bookended by the rise of Julius Caesar and the death of his adopted son, the emperor Augustus. The sheer number of indelibly famous personages crammed into this period can almost choke you: Pompey the Great, Cicero, Cato the Younger, Cleopatra, Mark Antony. I myself would probably be happy to read nothing but biographies of Julius Caesar for the rest of my life. In so many ways, he was the first modern man: forward-looking, ruthlessly ambitious, urbane and sophisticated, the inventor of the cult of personality. And yet in other ways he’s incomprehensible to moderns; we look at his Gallic campaign today, for instance, and what we see is flat-out genocide. But that’s the appeal for me—the paradox of it; the uncertainty. Just when you think you know where you are in Rome, someone pulls the rug out for under you, and all your limbs go cattywampus.

One of the advantages this period enjoys is a spate of excellent ancient sources: Livy, Suetonius, Plutarch, even Cicero himself. Possibly if later dynasties had talent of this caliber documenting their preeminent personalities and events, they’d be equally well known to us; but by that time, of course, being a chronicler was a vastly more dangerous job. Emperors, unlike consuls, could have you killed on a whim. And they were always having whims.

We’ve got some excellent Roman authorities writing today as well, including Anthony Everitt (Cicero, Augustus, Hadrian), Adrian Goldsworthy (Caesar), Tom Holland (Rubicon), and Stacy Schiff, who just delivered a knockout biography of Cleopatra. But I have to say, I’m almost more drawn to the novels. The Romans were so like us in so many ways, that they lend themselves to historical fiction in a way feudal and medieval figures don’t. My favorite Rome-inspired novels are a series by Allan Massie that includes Caesar (just fantastic), Augustus, and Tiberius. Another novelist, John Williams, had a crack at Augustus that’s on par with Massie’s, while being entirely different. (This is the advantage to taking Augustus as your subject; unlike Caesar, who was so unremittingly public in everything he said, did, or thought, Augustus was much more tacit, even secretive; the workings of his mind are still largely hidden from us. This makes him a pain in the ass for biographers, but a dream for novelists.)

 I also love Karen Essex’s two-volume take on the most famous queen of Egypt, Kleopatra and Pharaoh. And of course there’s Robert Graves’s I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which also serve as a kind of acid comment on British imperialism, but are thumping good reads on Roman terms alone. Hell…on any terms. (Graves also wrote a terrific novel set in the Byzantine era, Count Belisarius.)

And I can’t leave you without confessing my love for Steven Saylor’s series of ancient world whodunits, known collectively as Roma sub Rosa (meaning “under the rose,” or “that which is done in secret”) and featuring the charismatic, unabashedly romantic detective, Gordianus the Finder. Saylor’s prose is a tad workmanlike, but he’s a born storyteller, and  when I read histories of the late republican period, and Sulla and Marius and Cicero appear on the page, I clothe them in Saylor’s tics and mannerisms. I can’t help it; that’s who they are to me.

It occurs to me that I took up this theme in my last post as a means of providing context for Hillary Mantel’s remarkable dual-Booker Prize win for her two recent historical novels; but I’ve sort of degenerated into fanboy babbling. Well, that’s blogging for you. Anyway, I hope I’ve given some of you a signpost or two to avenues down which you’ll gladly travel; feel free to return the favor, in the comments section. Let this be your safe space; we won’t sneer at you for professing your love for a historical novel, any more than we would for a graphic novel. (Hm. There’s an idea for another post…)  

Friday, October 19, 2012

History, Fiction, and Historical Fiction (Part 1)

Hilary Mantel has won Britain’s prestigious Man Booker prize for fiction, for her novel Bring Up the Bodies, a follow-up to her previous novel, Wolf Hall, which also won the Booker. This two-peat is remarkable enough; but it’s even more remarkable when you consider that both novels are historical fiction, which is sort of the halfwit second-cousin of traditional fiction—the one you’re reluctant to let sit and the table because he chews with his mouth open and laughs too loud—and even more remarkably, it’s fiction about the Tudor court. There are a lot of historical novels about the reign of Henry VIII—a virtual mudslide (in every sense of the word)—but the majority of them feature covers with lushly clad royal ladies and gold-embossed lettering proclaiming things like “Dusk for the Dawn Queen by Callista Pilsen.” (I just made that up, so don’t go looking for it.) (Though if you were tempted to go looking for it, stop reading now. This post is not for you.) Mantel’s two books (a third is to follow) are a gust of cold, clean air to anyone who’s ever tried to slog through any of that miasma of purple prose. Her protagonist is not a royal wife, not Henry himself, but Henry’s impossibly gifted and painfully self-aware chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. And instead of wallowing in the period, Mantel goes at it with a scalpel. I’d only read one Mantel novel (Fludd) before undertaking these two, and I wasn’t prepared for the searing brilliance of them. The Booker committee got it right, and right twice, is all I’m sayin’.

I’m an avid reader of history, and as a novelist I’m of course an avid reader of fiction; yet I don’t read much historical fiction. But this Booker win has got me thinking about the historical periods that most interest me, and how I choose to spend my time there—whether in hard history and biography, or in fiction—because there are a few historical novels that I’ve discovered and cherished over the past three decades, and it’s time I gave them a shout-out.

As long as we’re already on the subject, one my principal historical interests is the British crown, from its first stirrings in the reign of Wessex’s Alfred the Great right through to the tabloid present—but especially the five hundred years between Henry II and Charles II (two of the most complex and magnetic kings). And within that window, the hundred-year-plus Tudor era remains the most consistently interesting to me. This is the tumultuous period when a small feudal kingdom turned a corner, and for better and worse (and there’s plenty of both) charged boldly towards modernity (shirking the Church, breeding nationalism in its place, establishing a prototype police state, etc.). And there was no shortage of collateral damage; in fact sometimes I think I could happily spend the rest of my life reading only biographies of people who had their heads cut off in Tudor times (Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Jane Grey, Mary Queen of Scots, the Earl of Essex—and that’s just a partial list.) But there’s no use denying that my obsession with the era is principally due to the tremendous, larger-than-life, mesmerizing, maddening presences of two monarchs: Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I. You’d think they’d be a gift to novelists (they’ve certainly been so to playwrights and screenwriters); yet good historical fiction about either is pretty much nil—or was, until Mantel.

Even the traditional biographers tend to buckle under the weight of so much muchness—and I’ve read a load of Tudor biographies, believe me. There are a couple of writers—Alison Weir, for one—who churn them out like cherry pies; it's a cottage industry. But I find those books exhausting; that everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach—you know what I mean. No, the Tudor biographies I most value, and to which I return most frequently, are two short ones: Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty and Elizabeth Tudor: Portrait of a Queen, both by Lacey Baldwin Smith. He absolutely nails the psychology of both, and does so in very pointed, plangent prose, worth reading for its own sake.

As for historical fiction about the English crown: as I mentioned, it’s slim pickin’s unless you’re in the market for bodice-rippers. But I can wholeheartedly recommend Rose Tremain’s Restoration, a wildly entertaining picaresque saga that features one of my favorite kings, Charles II, in an indelible supporting role, where he functions as something like a cross between a Greek chorus and a deus ex machina. And talks like a 17th-century Noël Coward.

And then, of course, there’s Mantel.

Right, I’ve chattered on long enough; next time I’ll talk about a historical period that grips me even more than royal England does, and which has been much, much luckier in its historical fiction—and in its histories and biographies as well.