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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, August 27, 2007

an afternoon's reading

For me, "writing" is mostly research. I spend most of my time learning about what I want to say. How does this process work?

There's a kind of cause-and-effect process; I pursue threads of research. Yesterday, for example, I read from three different books. At teatime I tucked first of all into Home Networking Bible by Sue Plumley--a book I bought last September, having spied it among the stacks of books on the bargain table at Save-On Foods. Its printed Canadian price was $42.99, but Save-On had it marked down to $14.99. As one of the "Bible" series of computer books published by Wiley, it's supposed to be comprehensive about its topic. I had always been rather mystified and intimidated by the concept of computer networking, so I saw an opportunity. I had bought the Windows 98 Bible and been quite happy with that, so I picked this one up as well. I'm reading it now because it's time to get a new computer, and I want to provide Kimmie with a computer as well (probably this one), and to share our broadband Internet account--so home networking it is. I'm gobbling it up quickly, because I want to move on this.

Next: The Golden Ass by Apuleius. I bought the book just this month through Abebooks from a bookseller somewhere in the Southeastern U.S. It's the Wordsworth Classics paperback edition, translated from the original Latin by William Adlington and "revised" by an S. Gaselee. I bought this book as a result of reading Hellenistic Religions, an excellent little book by Luther H. Martin. Martin opens his text with a discussion of The Golden Ass, which was written in the 2nd century AD, because he regards it as a perfect picture of Hellenistic thinking and feeling about the world and about religion.

In it, the first-person narrator, a certain Lucius, is traveling on business to a city in Thessaly, Greece--a place reputed to be the birthplace of magic--and discovers that his hostess, Pamphile, is herself a witch. In his eagerness to learn about the hidden arts of magic, Lucius seduces his host's maid Fotis, and persuades her to take him to where he can watch Pamphile change herself into an owl--a trick she does so she can fly away secretly to her young lover. Lucius, craving such an experience for himself, induces Fotis to get him the magic ointment, but when he puts it on, he is transformed into not an owl, but an ass--Fotis in her nervousness has grabbed the wrong ointment.

As luck would have it, thieves break into the house at this moment, and in the chaos Lucius, now in asinine form, is dragooned into becoming their pack-animal, and finds himself willy-nilly on an adventure as a mute ass. The supposed cure for his condition is simple: he just has to eat some roses--if he can find them. But so far, the thieves have him under tight control (and they're none too kind to their stolen animals).

When I received my copy of the book, I was at first disappointed to discover that the translation was done in 1566; indeed, it seems no one even knows who William Adlington was, since, except for his moniker on the title-page of this book, there is no record of him. The prose style, therefore, is essentially pre-Shakespeare, although it has been modernized (and punctuated) by S. Gaselee, a "fellow and librarian of Magdalene College, Cambridge," in 1922. I regretted not picking up the version translated by Robert Graves, one of my favorite writers. But now that I'm actually in the book, I'm finding it very readable--much more so than I expected. Indeed, to my surprise, the book is something of a page-turner. I read it as I do my nonfiction books, highlighter in hand, picking out cultural tidbits as I go.

Next: The Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson. I bought this book, along with his earlier work, Blowback, from Amazon.com last month. The paperbacks, published by Owl Books, are part of The American Empire Project, an organization devoted to exposing and documenting the rise of the American empire. I was put on to the books by reading posts on TomDispatch, a blog of dissent by Tom Engelhardt against injustices perpetrated by the U.S. government. Chalmers Johnson, a longtime American academic specializing in Asian economics and politics, is a contributor to Engelhardt's blog.

(Tom Engelhardt I discovered, in turn, via Google News, my homepage. I clicked on an op-ed piece by him that appeared in the South China Morning Post. It was a very well-written, cogent essay, critical of some aspect of U.S. foreign policy, written from a point of view I had not yet seen anywhere in the U.S. press. It led me to check out Engelhardt's blog.)

I had just finished reading Blowback, first published in 2000, and plunged immediately into The Sorrows of Empire, enjoying Johnson's knowledgeable, authoritative prose. (Blowback, by the way, is a jargon term of the CIA, referring to violence perpetrated against Americans by foreigners in retaliation for clandestine operations undertaken by the CIA. An example was the 1988 bombing of Pam Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people--payback for a 1986 Reagan-administration aerial raid on Libya that killed Khadaffi's stepdaughter. Another example is the 9/11 attacks on Manhattan and Washington, which occurred just a year after Johnson's book was published.) The Sorrows of Empire, published in 2004, already has a much different, starker tone than the earlier book, for Johnson says that while Blowback was still a warning about the possibility of America's morphing into a full-on empire, he was now writing about what he regarded as an accomplished fact. Or, as Johnson himself puts it:

In the wake of September 11, 2001, it no longer seems necessary to issue warnings; instead a diagnosis, even an autopsy, may be more appropriate. In my opinion, the growth of militarism, official secrecy, and a belief that the U.S. is no longer bound, as the Declaration of Independence so famously puts it, by "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind" is probably irreversible.


The United States, with its obsequious Congress and its docile press, is at this moment undergoing transition from a republic to an empire (or, in the usual euphemism, a "lone superpower")--a point crossed by ancient Rome just at the time of my own story. In that sense, it is very germane to my own work. But mainly I'm reading it to become a better-informed citizen of the world--a responsibility I take seriously.

So there you have it: an afternoon's reading by the writer.


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