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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

another one bites the dust

Thundershowers outside. The soft pale pink of rhododendron blossoms and bluebells glows under the gray sky.

Yesterday was Victoria Day in Canada; Kimmie and I relaxed in the prolonged weekend, and put up wall-shelves in her sewing-room to accommodate the growing crowd of Barbie-dolls clothed in her sumptuous creations. She bought about a half-dozen dolls over the weekend at Value Village in Vancouver--all brunettes this time. Lovingly she washed the dolls and shampooed and, yes, conditioned their hair. (Kimmie never had Barbie-dolls as a girl.) More models for her small-scale couture.

As for me, more reading, more notes. I left off reading Spartacus, a historical novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the pen name of Scottish writer James Leslie Mitchell, who died in 1935 at age 33, having, according to one source at least, apparently worked himself to death (not how I plan to go!).

Gibbon, a passionate socialist, was a talented writer, but I found that, even though I was most interested in the period and the events (I bought the book precisely because it was about the Spartacus slave revolt), the narrative did not hold me. I was influenced partly by the reviews on Amazon.com, which were ecstatic.

What went wrong? Gibbon's style is appealingly vivid and terse. He packs a lot into the opening sentence, for instance:

When Kleon heard the news from Capua he rose early one morning, being a literatus and unchained, crept to the room of his Master, stabbed him in the throat, mutilated that Master's body even as his own had been mutilated: and so fled from Rome with a stained dagger in his sleeve and a copy of The Republic of Plato hidden in his breast.

It's an eventful first sentence, to be sure. I especially liked the detail that the slave is carrying a copy of the Republic. But this purely outer view of the action proved to be Gibbon's way of narrating all the action in the book. We never get too much inside characters' heads, and thus the story has a rather cinematic quality: sights and sounds without thoughts or feelings. To me, as I think about it, this is a particular weakness in historical fiction, where there is a particular barrier, the gulf of time, to the modern reader's being able to identify with characters and feel connected to the story. Getting inside characters' heads is exactly how to make a modern reader feel at home in the ancient world.

When Robert Graves wrote his Claudius novels he narrated them in the first person, as Claudius, and thus provided an automatic entry to the inner world of his character. Yes, Claudius's ways of thinking and feeling seem strange at times--but at other times not. We recognize him as a person like ourselves, and even have the intriguing thrill of witnessing just how different an ancient person's thoughts are from our own, rather than merely seeing how strange their actions are, and puzzling over why.

Such, anyway, are a few of my thoughts. I had made it just past page 100 of Spartacus, and realized that it was a chore to keep on reading, so I pulled the bookmark and sent the book back to its slot in our bedroom shelf. I pulled out my new copy of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and started (re)reading that instead. I experienced the pleasure of embarking on a story by an experienced, self-assured writer who has something important to say.

So, yes, novel-wise, another one bites the dust.


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