Saturday, April 24, 2010

Historical Novels, and What My Mother Told Me

What my mother told me: she told me that when I was a kid, I nurtured a deep suspicion of fiction. When the read me a story, I would ask "but it is it true?" Well, harrumph. Well--well it could be true. Apparently it became a catch-phrase, not least because it fobbed me off for a time.

As an adult, I love a good novel: I love those occasions when you can dive into a pool of narrative and just sink like a stone, to disport yourself with the fanciful sharks and the squid. But I don't do it very often. Apparently I'm still paranoid, with my crap detectors on stun. I'm far more likely to toss it aside after 40 pages and back to something grounded like a bus schedule. This is not necessarily a life-enhancing character trait, I'm sure I miss out on a lot of good stuff. Particularly with "historical" fiction: generally I steer clear of it, as bound to be an insult to my my more humdrum sensibilities.

So I'm surprised delighted to find out how much I've been enjoying John Edward Williams' Augustus, about the founder of the Roman Empire. Not that he gets everything right: there are obvious anachronisms, some coyly intentional, others just there. But in general he tells a story with a ring of truth: it could be true.

Which set me to thinking: I wonder why it is that Rome seems to have more than its share of successful historical fiction. I mean--the English Restoration yields up a whole genre of bodice-rippers, and the Crusades are full of cardboard heroism. But from Rome, we have Williams; also Margaret Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian and the Robert Graves Claudius cycle. And I suppose there are more.

With serendipity, I've stumbled on a possible reason. I'm reading Michael Kulikowski's review of Adrienne Mayor's The Poison King, a biography (after a fashion) of Mithridates king of Pontus who proved such a huge pain in the neck to the Romans in the late Republic. Shorter Kulikowski: it's an honorable attempt, but she really doesn't have enough to go on. So maybe she would have done better to try the novel:
We a territory that properly belongs to historical fiction, a medium that can, in the hands of Henry Treece, say, and occasionally even of a journeyman writer like Bernard Cornwell, achieve insight into character, motive, gesture and scene, without the restraints that the non-fiction world imposes. ... As scholarship, a book like this one is insufficiently novel to advance on the dry-as-dust monographs on which it is based, yet is simultaneously too constrained by the conventions of the discipline to open revelatory new prospects onto Mithridates and his world. Indeed, to get inside the mind of Mithridates one can still do worse than read a fictional reconstruction of his greatest enemy's memoirs: Peter Green's Sword of Pleasure inhabits Cornelius Sulla's patrician Roman mind in all its brilliant, terrible logic. In doing so, and freed from the academic trappings its author could just as easily have deployed, it tells us far more about what Mithridates faced, why his mere survival over so long a period was itself a titanic achievement and why, once he was dead, the Roman world would never tolerate his like again.
That's Kulikowski in the London Review of Books, 23 April 2010 34-36, 36. I wonder if Rome in general is that "territory that properly belongs to historical fiction"--just enough by way of documentation to tease us, not enough to build a three-dimensional product. Note to self, go find a copy of Peter Green on Sulla. Sounds like it could be true.

Update: Here's a (nuanced, qualified) appreciation of Sir Walter Scott.

Update II: Other historical novels I remember enjoying recently: Evelyn Waugh, Helen; Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre.


Anonymous said...

"to get inside the mind of Mithradates" one should read a 1957 novel about Sulla??

suggest you read Mayor's "Poison King" to see for yourself whether Kulikowsi's view is justified

Buce said...

Adrienne, is that you? But it's s good suggestion, although we could break Kulikowski's point into several--one, is K's point correct in general? Two, whether this new biography supports it? And three, whether Green's novel is worth the effort?

Anonymous said...

I think K's review is disingenuous. "The Poison King" is a genuine biography, based on impeccable scholarship, as other reviewers and respectable historians acknowledge (see jacket quotes)
K objects to my use of clearly marked speculation, within the ancient conditions of possibility, about gaps in the historical record. Numerous leading ancient historians employ this method.
Green's novel may be worth reading but it is not about Mithradates.

andrea said...

Hi Jack.

Have you read Wolf Hall? Hilary Mantel - Booker Prize 2009. It is superb.