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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Sunday, December 04, 2005

elusive gratification

Winter truly drawn in, with wet snow falling all day (lightly), and me out a couple of times to shovel it off the sidewalk along the front of our building, also shoveling the walkways of my neighbors down to the corner. Tossed anti-ice crystals on the walks.

I was happy to receive a comment from a reader named Kate to my recent post about shopping for historical fiction, offering suggestions in response to a request I left in the comments there. She recommends The Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough. It does seem like a natural. I borrowed one of them from the library about a year (or two) ago when I saw it on the paperback rack--it must have been Caesar: A Novel, because it opened with Caesar in Britain. I made it about 100 pages in as I recall, then bailed. Why?

These books get glowing reviews and have high ratings by readers on Amazon.com. What's my problem? This is a symptom of my fiction anhedonia. My basic problem with what I was reading was my feeling that although stuff was happening, there was no story. I felt that McCullough was executing history, and had clearly done a ton of research, but at 100 pages in I wasn't engaged with a character who had a well-formed problem. To me there was a sense of history being taken for granted, rather than turning it into character problems whose outcome is always in doubt. Since I can't (or won't) force myself to read something I'm not enjoying, I took it back and gave up on the series. Maybe I should go back and give it another try--I probably should.

Kate also mentions the famous Robert Graves books I, Claudius and Claudius the God. Now these are indeed brilliant. Graves of course is a different order of writer, and his command of the period is as close to complete, I'm sure, as any modern could come. He is one of the best English stylists ever, but his real achievement is in conveying a sense of the strangeness of the time relative to our own: he shows how the characters of the time think differently than we do, have different assumptions built into their being. Harold Bloom, in The Western Canon, mentions that strangeness is one of the defining qualities of great literature--often obscured by the fact that great works have become canonical, and so, in a sense, are taken for granted. But when they first appear, they are strange and unprecedented in some way. Graves's books about Claudius have, I think, some of this kind of strangeness, even if they do not become canonical or great in Bloom's sense.

Kate seconds a vote by Gabriele Campbell that Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter is a good standalone historical read, so I think I will try that by all means. I'm game to try her other pick too, The Heaven Tree (trilogy, I see) by Edith Pargeter. Many thanks, Kate--I appreciate it, and feel free to throw more picks my way.

Now: teatime, read-time. I'm currently working on four books during reading-time: Shantaram, Beyond the Essene Hypothesis, Uriel's Machine, and Identity: Youth and Crisis. I'm enjoying them all very much. A reading hedonist, pure and simple. And I wish to gratify readers as I have been gratified.


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6 Comments:

  • Have you read Marguerite Yucenor's "Memoirs of Hadrian"? I really enjoyed this book. (Mainly because having lived in Greece - my second home - I was always aware of Hadrian's existance and especially fascinated with his lover Antinoos whose beautiful statues are on display.)

    I haven't as yet started reading Jack Whyte's Arthurian Roman series, have one and was kind of saving it. But he's certainly a dynamic speaker if you ever get chance to sit in on a workshop with him.

    By Blogger Wynn Bexton, at December 04, 2005 9:28 PM  

  • Here are a couple of diagnoses of your fiction anhedonia :-)
    1. You're writing your own novel, and you have in your head a hazy outline of its potential. Note that I say 'potential', because you've commented elsewhere that you feel the 'actual' i.e. the words on the page, never lives up to the 'potential'. When you read someone else's novel, you're comparing *their* actual with *your* potential. And that's going to be a tough hoop for any book to jump through!
    2. Looking at your reaction to 'Caesar', I think you may have quite a stringent definition of what makes a good story. I happen to like books that take me into another world, where a variety of people interact with their world, their circumstances and each other. That counts as a good story to me, but you count it as 'stuff happens but no story'. Very rarely do I identify with one character and one problem to the exclusion of all else. I think I would find that too narrow and it would annoy me. In fact, I can't think of many books that would fit that definition, so maybe I don't understand what you mean? I'm also puzzled by the fact that you liked the 'Claudius' books, because although they focus on one character (Claudius), like many first-person narratives, I don't see how in either of them Claudius has one overarching problem that runs through the whole book.


    If you like Arthuriana, (I see from the comments that Wynn Bexton has recommended Jack Whyte's 'Camulod Chronicles'), then I think it's hard to beat T.H. White's 'The Once and Future King'. But that, too, isn't about one character with one problem. How about listing some books that you *have* enjoyed and then we can see if we can think of any more like them? :-)
    Kate

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 05, 2005 3:33 AM  

  • Wynn and Kate, many thanks for your comments. I appreciate your help. I feel a bit like the sullen kid who won't eat his Brussels sprouts, and helpful adults are encouraging me.

    Kate, you raise good points. I'm thinking, and will probably talk more about this in my next post.

    By Blogger paulv, at December 05, 2005 6:53 AM  

  • Reading historical fiction is like eating Brussels sprouts? You poor man :-)
    I'm guessing that your fiction anhedonia is a recent symptom and appeared (or worsened) when you started writing your present novel. Am I right? If so, it happens to me. I expect it happens to other writers (straw poll, anyone?).
    Oh, and another possibility - are you subconsciously analysing as you read books in your genre? What's good? What's bad? How did this get published? How does mine compare? Nothing destroys pleasure like analysis, as we all learned (if we learned nothing else) in Eng Lit class.
    I shall be interested to read your thoughts.
    Kate

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 05, 2005 9:55 AM  

  • Marguerite Yourcenar's Hadrian biography is a good suggestion. I looked through my shelves when Paul posted his question, but missed her, because she isn't among the English books. :-)

    Else, I had some problems finding English books Paul might like. I guessed Colleen McCullough won't be his cup of tea, nor would Bernard Cornwell's Arthur and Crusade trilogies, though I like them. But Edith Pargeter might be something he'd enjoy. Rosemary Sutcliff, too - there's more to her books than the 'writer for children and Young Adults' as which she's often shelved.

    I agree that my reading tastes have changed since I write myself. I've found quite some faults with a number of books, faults I won't have seen a few years earlier.

    BTW Not historical fiction, but fantasy based on a variant of known historical places: the books by Guy Gavriel Kay. Definitely better than your average fantasy quest multilogies à la Jordan (who is dead boring, imho).

    By Blogger Gabriele C., at December 05, 2005 11:02 AM  

  • Oh, I have one more: since you like Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, go for his Joseph Trilogy. It's avaliable in English. Lot of food for thoughts in that one.

    By Blogger Gabriele C., at December 05, 2005 11:05 AM  

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