Posts from November 2010

November 30th, 2010

Penguins on Parade: Michael Psellus!

Some Penguin Classics have the field all to themselves. The imprint actively encouraged popular scholarly endeavor, and throughout its history its editors have actively sought out the best accessible critical work being done anywhere and offered to fold it into the Penguin Classics library. This is going on today (the magnificent recent three-volume Tales of the Arabian Nights is one good example among many), and it was going on forty years ago when the publisher bought E. R. A. Sewter’s engaging Yale University Press translation of the Chronographia of Michael Psellus.

Constantine Psellus (‘Michael’ was his name as a monk, adopted late in life) was born of a noble family in 1018 and given a first-rate education by his doting mother. He attached himself to the court of Constantinople’s Emperor Michael V, and through a succession of emperors he rose to Secretary of State, Grand Chamberlain, Prime Minister, and Professor of Rhetoric at the new University of Constantinople. He was friends with all the leading intellectual lights of his time, and he himself was steeped in classical learning – his numerous extant works are filled with echoes and references to Homer, Hesiod, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Demosthenes, Plutarch, the Church fathers, the Stoic philosophers, and the leading medical treatises of the day.

He wrote a vast amount, most of which we still have – including well over 500 extant letters that have never received a popular scholarly edition, despite the fact that there’s virtually nothing like them in the entire canon. The first section of the Chronographia was finished around 1063, but the work remains unfinished. Psellus died in 1078, apparently having fallen from imperial favor and been turned out of all his high offices by Michael Parapinaces. We’ll probably never know the reason for this sudden turn of fortune, although sometimes, just very occasionally while reading the work here given as Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, we get the faint impression it might have been for the crime of being a bit tedious.

Only very occasionally, though, and Psellus was writing under the conventions of his time. The rulers of Constantinople were hardly the degenerate nincompoops of casual lore, but at their courts they enforced the most slavish Oriental despotism imaginable, and court writers learned the vocabulary of abasement from the cradle – so we can’t hold his book’s incessant fawning against Psellus. And translator Sewters is entirely correct when he says “Psellus can have few rivals as a vivid narrator of events … as a picture of Byzantine life and particularly life at the imperial court his work could scarcely be surpassed.”

A big key to these superlatives is access – Psellus is mostly writing about things he was personally on hand to see and hear, and that makes his book spellbinding. When he writes of the threat of war with the Russians faced by the emperor Constantine IX in 1042, his reporting is full of first-hand opinionizing:

They [the extorting Russians] mentioned the actual amount,  a thousand staters for each ship, on the understanding that this money should be counted out to them in one way only – on one of the ships in their own fleet. Such were the proposals they put forward, either because they imagined that there were springs of gold in our domains, or simply because they had decided to fight in any case. The terms were impossible, purposely so, in order that they could have a plausible excuse for going to war …

And our author’s subsequent note while narrating the ensuing naval battle is one that becomes familiar throughout the course of this remarkable book: “It was a sight that produced the most alarming effect on every man who saw it. For my own part, I was standing at the emperor’s side…

The aforementioned leaning toward sycophancy crops up consistently too, and that can get wearying for modern readers who are accustomed to less bowing and scraping in their historians (with very notable and best-selling exceptions, of course). Our scanty secondary sources about Constantine IX, for instance, paint a slightly different picture of his physical appearance than the one Psellus is so eager to commit to paper:

It was a marvel of beauty that Nature brought into being in the person of this man, so justly proportioned, so harmoniously fashioned, that there was no one in our time to compare with him. To this symmetry she added a robust vigour, as though she were laying the foundations for a beautiful house. This strength that she gave him was not manifest in long hands or the great size of his limbs or other parts of his body; rather, I fancy, she hid it deep in his heart, for it was not revealed in the parts that were visible. They, in fact, were more distinguished for their beauty and proportion than for any unusual size. Indeed, his hands were only moderately big, and the same can be said of his fingers: their medium size was most noticeable, but they were endowed with more than ordinary strength, for there was no object, however hard, which he could not very easily crush with his hands and break in pieces.

He adds to these rather bland superlatives an incredibly revealing further line: “An arm gripped by that man was painful for days.” There’s only one way Psellus could have come to know that, and the mind boggles at how that came about. And to be fair about all that body-worshipping, when Constantine IX was shortly after stricken with the crippling rheumatism that would afflict him for the rest of his life (his joints deformed, he could scarcely sit up, and his every movement brought sharp pain), Psellus describes it all with equal specificity. He took certain parts of his job as historian very seriously.

And perhaps the most eye-opening part of Fourteen Byzantine Rulers is its continuous reminder that Psellus had lots of history to recount. Sewter, in his playful Introduction, recalls a time not long before when there were scarcely any modern studies being done of the Byzantine era, and when schoolboys were discouraged from inquiring about the ten centuries between the fall of the empire in the West and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 – even though those schoolboys were understandably curious:

However ignorant we may have been, some of us did ask awkward questions: if they were so inferior, how did those wretched Byzantines manage to survive so long after the collapse of the West? And what about Santa Sophia? And wasn’t a millennium rather a long time for a sustained decline?

Yes indeed it was, and it’s a shame that even today, readers of history know so far less about Byzantine history than about Imperial Rome or the Crusades. But at least Penguin Classics like this one have been out there trying all these years.

November 29th, 2010

Under the Covers with … who?

Several card-holding members of the Silent Majority have written to make sure I know that our intrepid hero, Paul Marron, is not the only good-looking young man to appear on a long series of Romance covers. Of course Fabio has been mentioned, as well as less corpulent but no less magnificent figures such as Steve Sandalis or Frank Sepe and a host of others.

Given the fact that I’ve been selling these things since the reign of James I, this information naturally came as no surprise to me – although I’m always grateful to know that people are reading Stevereads! Yes, Paul Marron isn’t the only guy who’s made a nice little side-career in prettying up the real estate of Romance covers, and while I’m naturally partial to my guy (I realize these things are tricky to quantify, but I’m prepared to assert that I’ve settled on the best-looking young man to show up repeatedly on paperback covers), the point serves to bring up an interesting tangent to our little adventure ongoing adventure story here. Because the Steve Sandalises and the Frank Sepes and the Fabios are of course the rarity even in today’s publicity-hungry days. In the blissful 72 years of the mass market paperback’s existence, thousands of handsome men (and a surprisingly number of those who were most certainly otherwise – hope springs eternal, I guess, although the gambit looks considerably more pathetic when removed from the low lighting and alcoholic haze of the bar…) have graced book covers and gone entirely uncredited.

This has been intentional, naturally: publishers want their models to be anonymous so readers can mentally substitute themselves into the fanciful scenarios of those covers. The opposite effect is achieved if you put somebody with name-recognition into those images – then readers can’t help but just think of that person (Daniel Radcliffe, Jared Padalecki, or whomever), and a significant element of wish-fulfillment is aborted. Plus, anonymous comes a bit cheaper than name-brand.

And yet, an irony attends – because some of those anonymous faces catch on – readers like them and want to see more of them. They’re still anonymous (most of the time – faithful readers of Romantic Times will still be in the know, but most supermarket shoppers will just think “Oh, it’s that guy! I like him!”), but they’re obviously somehow conducive to fantasy. Some young men just have that kind of face – and the body doesn’t hurt either.

So you have the odd situation of many, many young guys becoming well-known while remaining anonymous. Stroll down the aisles of any Annie’s Book Stop and you’ll see handsome face after handsome face – all without even so much as a paltry cover-credit.

Our young man today is one such candidate out of thousands. He’s been on many dozens of covers – fans have obviously called for him – and yet he’s no household name, no Fabio, no Frank Sepe … and certainly no Paul Marron.

He has his preferences, as we can see, his preferences and his types. He’s fairer-haired than our Paul, with a longer and less pouting face and a nose only a handsome young man could carry off at all. He has soulful, accessible eyes – not the dark pits of sultry menace our Paul has. And he smiles – indeed, he looks like the type who has to be told not to smile – and not just the occasional wry “I’m going to bed you without even telling you who I am” cocky half-grin of our Paul but the open, sunny smile of the American Midwest. This young man could not pose with a whip or a broadsword, and one suspects he doesn’t even own a pair of leather pants.

And he’s very likely not as chiseled as our Paul (although to be fair, who is?); I’ve seen him on dozens of covers, but never, to the best of my recollection, topless (or anything-else-less) and seldom even in a clingy T-shirt. In fact, he’s a favorite of ample clothing – the vests and ruffled-shirts of the Regency period, or else a rancher’s big fleecy jacket. All we need to do is recall how utterly miserable our Paul looked when sensibly layered to guess we’re dealing with a completely different personality here.

Well, perhaps not completely different – our anonymous interloper clearly shares something of Paul’s sexual voracity! The somewhat ridiculous cover to Criminally Handsome is the only one I’ve ever seen in which he’s alone, and virtually every time he has female company, he’s got designs on that company. Designs, and a signature move – he’s doing that not-so-subtle hand-slide in almost every setting, a wonderful gesture that’s both assertive and non-threatening. It’s smooth; one can’t help but think our Paul would approve, even though he’d never stoop to being so polite himself.

But who is this young man? Although I’m certain there are people out there in the wilds of the Internet who know him (hell, maybe he’s got a blog of his own … perhaps even, gulp, a book-blog), I certainly don’t. In this instance, I’m in the exact same position as any other random reader: I see these covers, and I say “Oh, that guy! I like him!” He doesn’t seem to be working in the industry anymore, but for a while there, he was almost as ubiquitous as our Paul.

Speaking of whom! When we last left our hero, he was being tied up and shackled with abandon by a voluptuous vampire queen – and learning to like it. But this seemed to trouble him, and there were hints of a backlash on the horizon. Tune in next time to learn all about it!

November 27th, 2010

Notes for a Star Trek Bibliography: The Dinner Bell!

After the reckless abandon of the fanzines, just after the first flush of professionally-published fan fiction, the world of Star Trek fiction reverberated with a sound previously unheard in connection with any other adult science fiction TV show: the sound of the dinner bell. This sound is typically heard when a gap opens up between demand and supply, and it’s almost always gonged by executive types who don’t care much about how they supply that demand. To those executives, a gap between demand and supply means money – either being made or being lost. There is a large and active class of human beings that is urgently concerned with the making and losing of money, and that class always busies itself with the gap between demand and supply, be it for cars, Coldplay CDs, or ‘reality’ TV shows. It’s through the ceaseless activities of this class of people that crap first entered the world seven thousand years ago and continues to fill it. So it is with parking garages, Will Ferrell movies, and, alas, a vast number of books – including Star Trek books.

The reason for this is of course lack of passion, and the reason it becomes an issue is simple: when executive types concerned with filling the gap between demand and supply ring the dinner bell, the first people to respond are the hacks. Almost by definition, a hack writer is someone for whom a writing assignment is a matter of pages not passion, word count not wonder, deadlines not destiny. Hacks may not live to write but they certainly make their living from writing – the lounge like sharks through the empty seas and come to full, hurrying life the instant their always-searching senses detect the erratic twitchings of a job. The nature of the job is secondary to a whole host of things: is it possible in the time allotted? Can it be done or faked without undue effort? And above all, what does it pay? If these things all check out OK, the hack will take the job – and only then will inquire what it is.

In the late 1970s, after Paramount and Bantam woke up to the fact that if they printed a Star Trek novel at $2.95 a copy it would routinely sell 300,000 copies (often more, and always quickly), they rang the dinner bell. In a financial sense, they had to – all they had on tap to fill that suddenly-perceived gap were a few manuscripts lovingly crafted by fanatics show-followers, and loving craft is time-consuming. Books were needed right away, to fill the creaking metal spinner-racks that constituted the whole sci-fi section of most American bookstores at the time.

It wasn’t only Star Trek, naturally. Tie-in novels were booming, and the waters were positively frenzied with hacks. The Hardy Boys, K.N.I.G.H.T. Rider, The Man from Atlantis, (pre-cool) Battlestar Galactica, The Partridge Family, C.H.I.P.S. – all were spawning books in which familiar character-names were moved around in new “adventures” for an audience who wanted more than they’d received through the medium of TV. Every one of those books had to be written, and since it was too much to expect anybody to want to write them (it was only enough for the studios to expect people to want to read them), hacks were needed – and they answered the call, adopted pseudonyms, churned out prose, and so made their rent payments, bought their swimming pools, gave money to friends, and paid their beagles’ medical bills. It’s true that the field of literature was not elevated by their endeavors – but nobody got hurt, and the publishers’ checks didn’t bounce.

So it was with Star Trek novels in the late ’70s. The dinner bell was sounded, and the books came pouring off the presses. Perhaps it’s helpful to clarify here that I’m not always and only using the term ‘hack’ in a pejorative sense. I’m especially not using it to connote shoddy writing. When it comes to the actual mechanics of fluency, hacks are almost always not only competent but proficient – their sentences are smooth, their constructions hold up, and their dialogue is usually snappy. They are the prose professionals; while other, more heartfelt souls are torturing their sentences into brilliance over months or even Gold help us years, hacks are producing reams of writing that isn’t brilliant but isn’t bad. But a thing need not be technically bad to be crap – all that’s really necessary to produce crap is to lack any passion for what you’re doing. Andy Warhol, Sidney Lumet, Jonathan Franzen – the list of people who aren’t technically bad yet produce crap is almost endless. The sad fact is, consumption doesn’t usually wait on craft, or the world would have far less of practically everything man-made, and all of it would be much better.

In any case, none of this can be blamed on the hacks. They swarm in and take the writing jobs because those jobs pay, not for any other reason. In the late 1970s, there were suddenly paying jobs writing Star Trek novels (a state of affairs that would have seemed a madcap dream only a few years previous), and the work was fairly easy. The studio had a readily available ‘book’ on the factual scaffolding of the show (Dr. McCoy has an ex-wife, not a wife; Lieutenant Sulu is Japanese, not Chinese, etc.), and besides, by then almost everybody had seen the re-runs. What fans wanted seemed simple: more Star Trek adventures. Hacks set to work.

The resulting novels are the earliest canon of genuinely professional Star Trek novels, but they aren’t the heart of that canon. In books such as Stephen Goldin’s Trek to Madworld, Gordon Eklund’s Devil’s World and The Starless World, Jack Haldeman’s Perry’s Planet, or Joe Haldeman’s Planet of Judgment and World Without End – this list is about a dozen books long – the general rout of readers got what it seemed to want: more adventures of the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise (“No bloody A, B, C, or D”). Hack writers took fifteen minutes to come up with a tentpole gimmick – what if stars were sentient? what if the Enterprise encountered magic? what if Spock were trapped on a hostile world with a woman who hates Vulcans? – and plugged in cufflink characterizations (Kirk = heroic, McCoy = dour, Spock = exposition, etc.), shook vigorously, and rapped out the requisite 50,000 words. Trust me when I tell you: if you switch off the part of your brain that believes in its subject, the work isn’t difficult. 5 solid pages a day gets it done in a little more than a month, and the publisher’s check goes a long way.

The problem was that Star Trek was built on passion. Not just a drive to broadcast a show every week (even the producers of B.J. and the Bear had that), but passion about what the show stood for, what it dreamed. It would be impossible to tell the difference between a good Space:1999 novel and a bad one, for the simple reason that such a higher passion had never touched the show at any point – either in the broadcasting or in the knock-off novels – and without that passion, kitsch is indistinguishable from craft. But for some fans, it most certainly was possible to tell the difference between a good Star Trek novel and a bad one. The key was passion, and the give-away was how that passion animated the characters at the heart of the show. The Voight-Kampff test of Star Trek fiction has always been, ironically enough, whether or not the characters seem real.

This is an intangible test, and so hacks were doomed to fail it. A few minutes cogitation can give you a gimmick you can run through the whole of a quick book – Hey, past a certain point technology looks like sorcery, doesn’t it? or Hey, what if gravity just stopped working? – but as The Velveteen Rabbit taught us many years ago, you have to believe in something to make it real. In every one of these dozen or so early novels (all of which we fans eagerly devoured and re-read, all of which sold far, far in excess of all other sci-fi novels published in the same months), there are familiar character names but no characterization, dialogue tics but no real exchanges, lots of stuff happening but no drama. In virtually every one of these books, you could extract the Star Trek elements and substitute Space Cruiser Yamato elements without disturbing things at all – stars would still be sentient, gravity would still be wonky, etc. They were consumed because their recipients were starving, and for that same reason many of them were fondly remembered even once those recipients had all the sustenance they could want (when you’ve been hiking for two weeks on one bitter apple and a few swallows of water a day, you remember forever the first big meal you had when it was over, no matter how terrible that meal was).

Very often, once hacks swarm in and blanket an area, they blight it or nearly do. The real question at this point in the course of Star Trek fiction was: now that the studio and the word-churners were involved, would there be no more genuine, passionate Star Trek fiction? As befits this particular show, the answer turned out to be surprisingly hopeful – as we’ll see next time!

November 22nd, 2010

The Sandburg Lincoln!

Our book today is the much-storied oft-maligned enormous biography of Abraham Lincoln by Carl Sandburg, who wrote it in multiple volumes (two of “The Prairie Years” and four of “The War Years”) over the course of some 30 years of ongoing research and constant revision and who agreed to its publication in a gorgeously-made Reader’s Digest one-volume edition in 1970. That edition is deliberately monumental – oversized, profusely illustrated, and of course sad, as all things connected with Lincoln must be.

He’s an odd case, historically, and I’ve never quite known what to make of him. He acted less intelligent than he was, and he had an abiding personal belief not just in the utility of humor but in its power – a rare thing in anybody, much less a public official. And he was president of the country as it tore itself apart, which raises another crop of considerations entirely, especially since I naturally believe the Southern states should have been allowed to secede from the Union if they so chose. The Union was supposed to be voluntary – that was its whole point. Doesn’t matter that the South wanted to secede for the ugliest of all possible reasons, and it doesn’t matter that the resulting Union would have been much smaller and weaker. In the memory of some people still alive in 1861, America had started a rebellion and fought a war for freedom from a coercive union – the Civil War should never have happened, for that reason alone.

But it was fought, and it gave the young country a martial mythology it somehow failed to acquire in the War of 1812, and in Lincoln it got its first mythical leader since Washington, the nexus of nearly as many lies as Washington. Lincoln has lodged in the national psyche as a champion of the common man – yet he lived his whole life yearning to be wealthy, yet he suspended habeas corpus and imposed martial law and authorized military action against civilians. He’s seen as a beacon light for freedom, yet he he dashed the independence of an entire fledgling nation and said repeatedly that if he could have ‘saved’ the Union without freeing one black slave, he would do it.

The key to both men – Lincoln and Washington – isn’t in what they did but in what they didn’t do. Washington didn’t assume dictatorial powers – and Lincoln didn’t live.

Hence the sadness whenever he comes up (I myself consider the Lincoln Memorial the saddest piece of scuplture in the world, even beating out a certain momument in Rock Creek Cemetery), and Sandburg was a poet – he couldn’t fail to feel it, and it infuses his book.

His book has been much maligned in the half-century since its appearance, and I can only chalk that up to the knee-jerk contempt some academics have for any researched writing that gains a popular readership. Certainly the individual volumes Sandburg wrote did that: each one was an enormous best-seller, and we’ll never be able to guess how many copies of the one-volume abridgment have sold in the last 50 years.

It’s comforting to re-read it and realize that whatever role mythology might have played in inspiring this book or moving copies, the main reason it sold is because it’s so damn good. I’m no great fan of Sandburg’s poetry, but he’s one hell of a historian. I have no patience for the argument that he lacked formal training – or even that he favors certain kinds of facts over others. For me these things are overridden and rendered moot (and they aren’t at all true – books can provide an excellent formal training, and Sandburg’s book is more thoroughly researched than its critics have ever given it credit). The point is, this is powerful, deep-rooted, utterly absorbing reading.

My favorite part this time around was the endless gallery of mini-portraits Sandburg provides of virtually every character who walks across his stage … including two great abolitionists, Charles Sumner:

“I am in morals, not politics,” said Sumner. He took it as his mission and role to tell the Senate and thereby the country North and South a series of tragic and horrible facts about slavery. He knew he was telling the truth. But he believed also that any such truth as he might omit was of no importance … He mentioned the unmentionable, with a cold wrath and an evenly measured scorn, and at last there were Southern Senators and Representatives who wanted to see him suffer and die.

And Massachusetts governor John Andrew:

Andrew sat on Beacon Hill now, a square-built, deep-chested man, curly hair topping his round head, a face smooth with kindliness, almost boyishly cherubic, his eyes peering from behind spectacles, wanting results out of his loyal toiling, decisions quicker than Lincoln could give.

And of course the tireless photo-editors of the old Reader’s Digest bullpen have made this particular volume the one to own. Virtually every person mentioned has a portrait, caricature, or photo included here, from the most aesthetically pleasing (that would be a young Joseph Fremont, the most handsome young man of his day, including Hawthorne and Lord Byron) to the least, which was certainly Lincoln himself, here seen in every photograph we have of him.

Sandburg’s marvelous prose does the president more justice than those photos ever could. It’s unexpected to be reminded how panoramic this book is, but in the end it concentrates amazingly on Lincoln and his many sides. Our author was born in 1878 in beautiful Galesburg, Illinois where the flat-bottomed clouds come freighting from the vast west and cast their tale-telling shadows on the fields and houses, and he grew up in an age that could remember Lincoln as a living man. That living man makes more appearances in this book than in any later biography, and quite a few of those appearances help to alleviate the gloom, as when Lincoln heard the grievance of an officer in the 69th New York regiment:

An officer stepped forward who that morning had tried to quite the service and leave camp, saying, “Mr. President, this morning I went to speak to Colonel Sherman, and he threatened to shoot me.” Lincoln: “Threatened to shoot you?” “Yes, sir, he threatened to shoot me.” Lincoln looked at the officer, looked at Sherman, and then, stooping toward the officer as if to give a confidential message, and speaking in a stage whisper that could be heard for yards around, “Well, if I were you, and he threatened to shoot, I would not trust him, for I believe he would do it.” The officer turned and vanished. The men whooped.

But that gloom is ultimately all-encompassing, and it does occasionally tempt Sandburg to mysticism:

Had the people and events of those tornado years shaped Lincoln more and more into a man paradoxically harder than ever, yet also more delicate and tenuous in human judgments and affairs? Was there more often a phantom touch in what he did? Did certain men and women who studied him either close up or from far away feel that a strange shade and a ghost, having often a healing power, moving toward a wider and surer human solidarity, lived and spoke in the White House?

Such things are never written about presidents who retire to Crawford and live to a ripe old age innocent of books, disagreements, and introspection. They’re reserved for martyrs, whether they’re true or not. And Lincoln’s own martyrdom propels the most powerful writing in Sandburg’s Lincoln, the tense, mournful account of the President’s last day leading up to that moment at Ford’s Theatre, then that moment (brought about by “The Outsider” – he’s not given a name during the re-enactment), then the horrible aftermath all night long. An immensely strong body fought all through the night against its own certain doom, but it’s the moment itself that fascinates Sandburg:

For Abraham Lincoln it’s light’s out, good night, farewell – and a long farewell to the good earth and its trees, its enjoyable companions, and the Union of States and the world Family of Man he has loved. He is not dead yet. He is to linger in dying. But the living man can never again speak, see, hear, or awaken into conscious being.

The Lincoln scholars among you might scoff at the melodramatics of something like that, but you shouldn’t deny its effectiveness. This is from first to last a wrenchingly heartfelt book, filled not only with the author’s vast research but with his visceral reactions to everything he’s learned. That’s a combination not lightly to be discarded and not likely to be superseded, yet both those fates have been foisted on Sandburg, and I often wonder why. Is it because he was a poet, and so all other literary efforts can be branded dilettantism? That seems to me to over-inflate dilettantism and underestimate what a serious mind can do in its after hours. Fortunately, while doctrinal wars play out, we still have this book. A nice plump Penguin Classic of it would be no less than it deserves, even though we’d lose all the wonderful photos.

November 21st, 2010

Put up your Dukes!

Several of you have written (privately, of course – wouldn’t want to clutter up the Comments field with anything so unseemly as comments, now would we?) with questions about our tumultuous ongoing inquiry, Under the Covers with Paul Marron. The questions have taken a variety of forms, from those of you naughty enough to wonder if I myself have had the pleasure of wrapping that taut little model-body in sturdy clothesline to those of you who’ve questioned whether or not Paul and I might be sampling the Love That Dare Not Pout Its Name. Prurience, it seems, is the currency of the Internet. Shocking.

But one of the more presentable questions has concerned not so much flexible muscles as flexible reading: do my indefatigable researches for Under The Covers constitute the whole of my sojourns in the Romance genre?

This one I can answer: not so! Not hardly! More romance novels are published every year than any other kind of fiction, and more of them have been published in the past than any other genre, even murder mysteries – even westerns. Whole bookshops are devoted to their resale (like my beloved Annie’s, but also many more, a species of bookshop once chronicled for the Romantic Times by my erstwhile colleague Rebekah Bradford), and sports arenas could be filled to the cheap seats with slim, florid-covered novels who came, sold in their hundreds, and vanished in a season. Unlike science fiction or even murder mysteries (to a criminally lesser extent), romances do not linger – the genre has fielded virtually no ‘classics’ of the type that stick around, constantly re-packaged for new generations of readers. The books are mostly chaff – here today and tomorrow in the fire.

The reason is social conventions, of which romance as a subject has multitudes, murder mysteries far fewer, and science fiction by definition almost none. Social conventions change quickly, sometimes multiple times in one generation, and romance novels based on those conventions quickly lose their appeal. It’s assumed by most publishers that the virtuous nurses of Betty Neals’ romance novels of the early 20th century can have little to say to the raunchy vampire grrrrls of the early 21st.

The great exception, for obvious reasons, is the historical novel. Set your torrid romance in the present day and you’ll be the curator of a period piece faster than you can say “Peyton Place.” Set the same story in the Middle Ages, and your book could outlast its contemporaries by a season or two. The few romance novels that have ever managed to live on and get reprinted have almost all been historical novels, and despite the ubiquity of those raunchy vampires, a great percentage of romance novels published every year take place in Ye Olden Times.

This leads, of course, to some fairly hilarious anachronisms, as anybody who’s ever relished John Mortimer’s pitch-perfect story “Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation” will recall. But some writers at least try to do their due diligence, making a heroic effort to sort out things like wall-sconces and crusades and the Ton before they start with the heavy breathing. And to be honest, sometimes the anachronisms fall by the wayside when the story is good enough – or when the author is (not one critic pointed out the six things that couldn’t possibly have happened in Wolf Hall, for instance – including me).

Or when the subject is – in our case today, the over-mighty subject. Yes, we’re talking about Dukes, those rarest and mightiest of English peers. In the real world, there’ve been hardly any dukes in history, only about 500 or so total individuals, and in the world today there are fewer than 25 still alive (I myself have only met a baker’s dozen of the creatures over the years, and I’ve only known two of them well). But you’d never know that from reading romance novels, where you can hardly unfurl a reticule without rapping a duke across the snout (Duchesses are almost equally common, as those of you will know who recall my love of Eloisa James‘ novels)(including one, as you can see, that sports a now-familiar face!). Take three relatively recent reads of mine, harvested from the close-packed aisles of dear Annie’s.

From 2004 we have Adele Ashworth’s Duke of Sin – the Duke in question here being William Raleigh, Duke of Trent, Earl of Shreveport and Kayes, Baron Chesterfield … and husband of Elizabeth, the wife he’d been rumored to have murdered. It’s 1856, and this Duke is situated in lovely Cornwall (where no dukes at all live in real life), and he’s the object of the widow Vivian Rael-Lamont’s unwilling attentions. Unwilling and coerced: at the novel’s start, Mrs. Rael-Lamont is approached by an actor (an actor!) with an irresistible offer – if she uses her considerable feminine wiles to filch from the Duke of Trent his prized manuscript of an unknown Shakespeare sonnet, the scheming actor won’t publish to the world that her husband is … still living! And this is the key to the historical’s appeal: even in Grace Metalious’ day, such a bit of blackmail would have no force at all: publish and be damned, and all that. But if you set a thing in the past, all kinds of naivete become believable, and so poor Vivian sets off for the Duke’s library, about which we’re told, “Despite the fact that the library had been decorated in a purely masculine flavor, as befit a library, this one was simply gorgeous.” The predictable complications ensue, but Ashworth keeps it all controlled and carefully moving, right up to the intensely foreseeable ending. No pronouncements about Dukes as a breed are made by Duke of Sin, and this one particular duke turns out to be not so bad a chap.

Quite the reverse seems to be true of the title character in 2006’s The Decadent Duke by the redoubtable Virginia Henley. Here the aristocrat in question is the Duke of Bedford, although from the rather opulent cover illustration, you might think he was the Duke of Soloflex. Whatever the designation, it’s him and his dashing younger brother who have Lady Georgina Gordon’s interests peaked:

“John Russell? He’s the Duke of Bedford’s younger brother,” Charlotte said. “The Russell brothers were orphaned at an early age and brought up by their grandparents, the Marquis and Marchioness of Tavistock. Strange how dissimilar brothers can turn out to be. Marriage is anathema to Bedford, yet John couldn’t wait. Against his grandmother’s express wishes, he wed Elizabeth Byng in Brussels when he was only nineteen. He was a young ensign in the Footguards, and fought in Belgium.”

“Speaking of grandmothers, Elizabeth Byng’s grandmere was a Lennox,” Charles remarked. “So John’s wife is a distant relation of mine.”

“Lud, I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire British aristocracy were related through intermarriage,” Charlotte said dryly.

And indeed, genealogy is paramount in The Decadent Duke in a more technical and researched way than you’ll usually find in a romance of this kind. Real historical characters by the dozen flit through Henley’s pages, whereas the typical hisotorical romance exists in a happy Trollopean kind of abstraction whose main appeal is its freedom from the need to research. Of course, as noted, the end result of that freedom can be full of annoying howlers, but you can’t let that ruin your fun. And if we’re talking about fun, we should certainly close things for today by reaching for the lady whose books epitomize it: the aforementioned Eloisa James, whose novels fizz and bubble like fine champagne. James has written a sparkling series of novels starring various high-spirited duchesses, but in her 2006 novel The Taming of the Duke it’s the male of the species in the spotlight, namely Rafe, the Duke of Holbrook – and his recently-revealed brother Gabe:

“Raphael and Gabriel,” Rafe said. “Bloody hell. I had no idea.”

Suddenly the rather serious set of his brother’s face shifted to a grin. “The discovery that you are name for an archangel drove you to curses?”

It was in his smile that Rafe found the difference between his brother’s face and his own. For Gabriel Spenser’s grin had a charming seriousness to it that had never been part of Rafe’s personality.

“What could our father have been thinking?” Rafe demanded. And then he caught, lightning quick, the shift of his brother’s eyes that showed he knew perfectly well what the old duke had been thinking. “Next thing you’ll be telling me Holbrook dandled you on his knee.”

“Only until age eight or so,” Mr. Spenser said, adding with a touch of something like prudence, “Your Grace.”

“Bloody hell,” Rafe repeated, “And don’t call me Your Grace. I’ve never taken to the title.”

James knows her facts well enough to know only dukes, of all the British aristocracy, are called “Your Grace” instead of “My Lord,” but her main focus in this book, as in all her books, is to provide the perfect hour’s amusement. You can tell this even by her chapter headings, like “A Chapter In Which Brazen Jokes About Holes Would Be Appropriate (But Your Author Refrains)” – here’s an author with no greater ambition than to please you (and perhaps provoke a wistful sigh)(because she’s a great big softy). And since every age has its cares, these delightful historicals deserve to survive, although the odds are against it.

I’ll keep reading them, just as I’ll keep ranging far and wide over the field of romance (and most other genres, of course) – but it’s true: lately, my concentration has been focused on a the fictional odyssey of a certain Italian-extraction male model. We’ll return to that odyssey all the more refreshed, I think, from having detoured just briefly into the world of dukes and duchesses.

November 19th, 2010

The Rawlinson Herodotus!

Our book today is the mighty 1858 translation of Herodotus by George Rawlinson, and it brings to the forefront the whole subject of the translator’s art – how could it not, when critics the whole world over immediately hailed Rawlinson’s book as a masterpiece of that art? A masterpiece, yes, but a thoroughly supplanted one – even here on Stevereads, where the praises of Aubrey de Selincourt’s Penguin Classic translation have been sung endlessly but Rawlinson not ever mentioned.

Rawlinson worked on his epic translation alongside his brother Sir Henry, but it was mostly younger brother George who supplied the perfectly rounded phrasings, and although those phrasings are, in their essence, virtually the rhetorical opposite of Herodotus’ own style of writing, they have the grace, the power, and that effortless Ciceronian cascade effect that so much of the best Victorian prose always has. Sometimes that rolling, sonorous quality is the only thing that will answer for a mood or a patch of weather or a bout of illness. There’s such an unblinking certainty to it – the very quality that led later ages to despise it, but I’ve always thought the reaction was mostly vanity. No age has written per capita as mightily as the Victorians (even my beloved Elizabethans come in only second), and the Victorians knew it. Other ages knew it too, on some level, and that’s never an easy knowledge.

Ordinarily, I’d feel some sympathy. But there are days when I reach for my battered Rawlinson without any thought for de Selincourt or any of the more modern translators. Listen to the delegate from Corinth, for instance, rebuffing the offers of strong government from the Spartans:

“Surely the heaven will soon be below, and the earth above, and men will henceforth live in the sea, and fish take their place upon the dry land, since you, Lacedaemonians, propose to put down free governments in the cities of Greece, and to set up tyrannies in their room. There is nothing in the whole world so unjust, nothing so bloody, as tyranny. If, however, it seems to you a desirable thing to have the cities under despotic rule, begin by putting a tyrant over yourselves, and then establish despots in other states. While you continue yourselves, as you have always been, unacquainted with tyranny, and take such excellent care that Sparta may not suffer from it, to act as you are now doing is to treat your allies unworthily. If you knew what tyranny was as well as ourselves, you would be better advised than you are now in regard to it.”

All 20th century versions of that passage are pithier – but pithy isn’t everything. Rawlinson captures better than anybody one essential element of reading Herodotus – how the so-called Father of History envelopes you in a seamless fog of narrative, story upon story, story within story, and you happily floating along without ever touching down because all those stories, regardless of length or pertinence, have first been chosen for their worth by a master storyteller. That worth is the one thing they have in common, and Rawlinson’s rolling English perfectly mirrors it. When the female ruler of his own native Heilcarnassus becomes an ally of Xerxes and leads her troops personally, her story unfolds in an aside worthy of a novel:

Of the lower officers I shall make no mention, since no necessity is laid upon me; but I must speak of a certain leader named Artemisia, whose participation in the attacks upon Greece, notwithstanding that she was a woman, moves my special wonder. She had obtained the sovereign power after the death of her husband; and, though she had now a son grown up, yet her brave spirit and manly daring sent her forth to the war, when no need required her to adventure.

I recently spent a dreary afternoon reveling in the company of Rawlinson’s Herodotus, and I heartily recommend it. But do yourself a favor and prepare first: the best, most full-blown literature of the Victorian era can’t be picked up casually (unlike the literature of so many eras, which can) – its demands are as great as its rewards, so you need to acclimate yourself. The perfect way to do that? Find yourself a copy of the old Viking Portable Victorian Reader and spend some time rummaging its marvelous contents. By the time you know that volume inside and out, you’ll be ready for everything the Victorians can throw at you – Trollope, Darwin, and yes, Rawlinson.

November 16th, 2010

Blue at the Mizzen!

Our book today is an inadvertently sad one, Patrick O’Brian’s Blue at the Mizzen from 2000 – sad because it’s the last of the great Aubrey/Maturin novels. I scorn utterly the pathetic fragment that was pulled from the author’s dead hand by his greedy publishers, and I say further that despite the implications of that fragment, O’Brian was very consciously ending his long series with this book, which accounts for its sadness even though the actual events of the book itself are both happy and, paradoxically, cheering.

The story is populated by so many of our old friends: bluff, enormous Commodore Jack Aubrey, grizzled and hyper-intelligent doctor and spy Stephen Maturin, many tried and familiar hands aboard the Surprise (now ostensibly a privately-commissioned hydrographical survey vessel, but a mighty well-armed one), and in fact the Surprise herself, a trifle long in the tooth but wonderfully spry. There’s a voyage to South America, and there are doldrums, and there are the terrors of rounding the Horn, and there’s Jack cuckolding an admiral, and there are long, interminable letters being written to loved ones on the other side of the world, and there are lovely interludes ashore both at home in England and in far-off marshes and swamps where Maturin (and the new object of his awkward affection) goes exploring. There are action sequences of superb excitement, and there are wonderful character bits and routines that practically glow with our long-standing affection.

And yet, there’s a sadness that permeates the book, and perhaps it’s not all inadvertent. O’Brian takes many opportunities to let readers know that even in his Napoleonic Lothlorien, time touches his characters. Not only are all of them older and scarred from their various adventures, but some of them are absent, dead, and keenly missed (not only Bonden, Jack’s stalwart subordinate, but also Stephen’s endearing potto, the sight of whose carefully-preserved bones briefly chokes him up at one point in the book). And there’s a young new generation springing up all around them – in this book most winningly portrayed in the form of engagingly deferential ensign Horatio Hanson, who might just be the bastard son of the Duke of Clarence, the future idiot-king William IV.

Despite the numerous fantasy elements of his huge epic, O’Brian was enamored of a certain realism, and he periodically spruces up his various chapters by slowly advancing Jack Aubrey through the chain of command in the British Navy. Since the one thing we’re guaranteed from the very first book is that our two main characters will prosper in the end, there’s only one real destination for all those assignments and promotions of Jack’s: the admiralty (and unlike in the case of James T. Kirk, there’ll be no going back from that august rank). And there’s something even a grass-combing swab can intuit about the admiralty: its members (again, not including Jim Kirk) don’t go haring off on wild adventures. They’re august and well-salaried bureaucrats, especially when there’s no Napoleon to fight.

So when in Blue at the Mizzen we see Jack fretting over whether or not he’ll ever become a ‘blue’ admiral, we know, even without the assurance of the book’s title, that he shall become exactly that, and soon. And such knowledge can’t help but cast everything in the book in a valedictory light. When Stephen Maturin is briefly at Jack Aubrey’s home in England, touring the neighboring fields with his daughter, the beauty of it all is the beauty of a long, lingering sunset:

What pleasant days they were – an English summer at its best, and English countryside at its best, enough night-rain in the hills to keep the trout-streams fine and brisk, and there were reports of a hoopoe seen three times at Chiddingfold parsonage. This year was happy in unusual numbers of birds (nesting-time had been particularly favourable) and Stephen and Brigid wandered along the smooth hay-meadows, by the standing corn, and along the banks, he telling her the names of countless insects,l many birds – kingfishers, dippers, dabchicks, and the occasional teal: coots and moorhens, of course – as well as his particular favourites, hen-harrier, sparrowhawk and kestrel and once a single splendid peregrine, a falcon clipping her way not much above head-height with effortless speed. A hare in her form: two dormice: an infant weasel, unalarmed: and such quantities of butterflies.

“The sea,” we’re told, “if it teaches nothing else, does at least compel a submission to the inevitable which resembles patience.” And certainly the last six or seven Aubrey/Maturin books at times required patience – shot and incident became distinctly rarer, and more and more pages were given over to O’Brian’s sharp and lilting but occasionally stultifying social comedy. Whole books would elapse without anything in the way of exciting happening, which can be a trial no matter how entertaining the author is. Blue at the Mizzen, fortunately, doesn’t suffer from that – hell, it opens with the nautical equivalent of a hit-and-run, and it seldom slows down after that. There’s political intrigue, romantic interludes, and plenty of action to keep the reader engrossed. And as always there’s the O’Brian humor:

Jack Aubrey pushed back his chair, loosened his waistcoat, and said, “I had no idea I was so hungry: I am afraid I must have eaten like an ogre.”

Killick could be seen to smile: Jack’s appetite always pleased him – his one deviation into amiability.

But even while you’re reading along, pleased beyond measure at seeing the thing done so supremely well, there’s that persistent melancholy. The book’s last paragraph runs like this:

After the last salute Jack glanced aloft – still the sweet west wind – an then he looked fore and aft: a fine clear deck, hands all at their stations and all beaming with pleasure; and turning to the master he said, ‘Mr. Hanson, pray lay ma course for Cape Pilar and Magellan’s Strait.’

All that’s missing is a ‘and they lived happily ever after’ to choke you up a bit yourself.

November 11th, 2010

Penguins on Parade: Gregory of Tours!

Some Penguin Classics do their level best to promote their subjects to the front ranks of old books, and when they’re right, they get all my support. Needless to say, this support certainly applies to Gregory of Tours, the Metropolitan bishop of Tours from 573 to his death in 594, and to his magnum opus, the Historiae Francorum, the History of the Franks. It’s nothing less than criminal that this book isn’t better known, and Penguin Classics has been doing their part to change that fact, publishing Lewis Thorpe’s hugely engaging translation in an affordable, accessible paperback since 1974.

As with the best Penguin Classics, everything you need in order to read and enjoy the classic at hand is presented to you in one volume. In a fifty-page introduction, Thorpe provides a masterful overview of Gregory’s life and times, from his illustrious senatorial genealogy to his complex and sometimes contradictory character (Thorpe makes a fairly convincing case that Gregory himself was a kind-hearted and even “lovable” man). Sixth century Gaul – indeed, sixth century anywhere – was no place for the faint of heart; Thorpe, delightfully, makes this clear early on:

The History of the Franks is spattered with blood and festering pus, it re-echoes with the animal screams of men and women being tortured unto death: yet Gregory never once questions this effective method of extracting confession, implicating confederates, or simply satisfying the blood-lust of Queens and Kings.

Gregory’s text was famously disparaged by Gibbon and has too often been characterized as a barren annal fit only for historiographical ransacking, but Thorpe consistently displays a marvelous sensitivity to seeing Gregory the man in the text, as when he refreshingly points out the bishop’s proclivity for quipping:

… he had a wry and pawkish sense of humour, which to my knowledge has never been noticed before. Time and time again, usually at the conclusion of some most serious passage, of some stomach-turning description, he adds an amusing comment, often a sly quip at himself.

Certainly no popular translator had ever noticed that side of Gregory’s book before, and the fact that Gregory could spare the energy for wit is remarkable. Bishops in his day were incredibly powerful figures in their community, overseeing their vast clerical fiefdoms with an authority not yet pithed by populism. Gregory dealt personally with four Merovingian rulers – Sigibert, Chilperic, the regent Guntram, and Childebert II (and their often fiercely powerful wives, daughters, and mothers) and had to do his best to protect his sphere of power from everything that cold and unrefined age could throw at it, from warfare and brigandage to widespread epidemics of plague and dysentery to oddities like the time a wolf was found wandering around inside the walls of Poitiers (don’t look at me – I was living in Ireland at the time).

Science was still more than a thousand years in the future, so Gregory’s time was perforce a time of wonders and signs. He himself was a small man with a picky stomach, so it’s not surprising that his work is suffused with physicality – it’s one of the book’s most consistently fascinating themes, made all the more so by the obvious fact that Gregory himself was unaware of it. His account of the brief tenure of one Pappolus as bishop of Langres amply displays not only this characteristic but the chatty warmth Thorpe so rightly points out – and a first-rate ability to write dramatic prose:

I have heard it said that his behaviour in Langres was extremely bad, but I will not record his evil deeds, for I do not wish to appear to be a denigrator of my fellow churchmen. I must, however, tell you the manner of his death. In the eighth year of his episcopate, when he was carrying out a visitation of his parishes and the villas belonging to his see, Satin Tetricus appeared before him one night as he slept. The Saint’s face was threatening and he said: ‘What are you doing here, Pappolus? Why do you befoul my diocese? Why do you rob the Church? Why do you scatter the flock which was entrusted to my care? Off with you, resign your bishopric, leave this neighbourhood and go somewhere else far away!’ As Tetricus said this he struck Pappolus a mighty blow on the chest with his staff which he held in his hand. Pappolus woke up. While he was wondering what all this meant, he had the impression that his chest had been pierced and he suffered excruciating pain. He could not bear the sight of food and drink, and he made ready for the death which he felt was near. What more can I say? On the third day he vomited blood and died.

Gregory’s History of the Franks is everywhere as gripping and fascinating as in that passage, and yet the work is unknown today outside of a very limited academic circle, despite the fact – which should surely tip the scales! – that I myself have praised it to the skies once before. Gregory was a devout individual, but perhaps he had seen too much blood and pus in his life to trust the things he cared about entirely to divine providence, and this accounts for the charmingly human admonition with which he concludes his great book:

I, Gregory, have written the ten books of this History, seven books of Miracles, and one on the Lives of the Fathers. I have composed a book of Commentaries on the Psalms. I also wrote a book on the Offices of the Church. I know very well that my style in these books is lacking in polish. Nevertheless I conjure you all, you Bishops of the Lord who will have charge of Tours cathedral after my unworthy self, I conjure you all, I say, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Judgement Day feared by sinners, that you never permit these books to be destroyed, or to be rewritten, or to be reproduced in part only with sections omitted, for otherwise when you emerge in confusion from this Judgement Day you will be condemned with the Devil.

His holy brethren did their part, and more: editions of the History of the Franks are plentiful. And Penguin Classics has also done its part, giving the reading world this splendid volume filled with Thorpe’s boisterous Englishing of Gregory. All that remains is for readers to see the light.

November 8th, 2010

All Roads Lead to Murder!

Our book today is Albert Bell’s 2002 mystery novel All Roads Lead to Murder, and it’s a perfect illustration of a fact that might sometimes get obscured in the omnivorous whirligig of Stevereads: there are countless books out there I’ve never read! Countless books, in fact, that I’ve never even seen. Every single trip I take to the Boston Public Library is a voyage of discovery for me – and I’ve been prowling their aisles since the days when I was lunching regularly with Oliver Wendell Holmes (translation for the rest of you: a long time). Part of the vertiginous joy of reading for me is that very knowledge that there’s so much more out there.

Perfect case in point: in Open Letters recently, while reviewing a murder mystery starring ancient Roman dilettante and letter-writer Pliny the Younger, I opined that it was amazing no writer had thought to make him the star of a murder mystery before now. I’ve read a vast, heaping number of novels set in ancient Rome (and written one! Prospective publishers may begin their bidding war now!) – in my hubris, it never occurred to me that I might have missed one, when in fact I’ve doubtless missed many thousands.

The one I missed was a doozy! After my review appeared, I was duly informed that at least one other author had, in fact, written a murder mystery starring Pliny the Younger: Albert Bell. His novel All Roads Lead to Murder appeared in 2002, and, prince that he is, he sent me a copy (most writers in such a circumstance would have sent me their dog’s latest nighttime surprise in a plastic baggie – but then, I suspect Mr. Bell is a good deal more civilized than most writers)(not that this is difficult …).

I’m glad he did, for the best, simplest reason: All Roads Lead to Murder is fantastic.

And Pliny the Younger is indeed the star: the novel takes place when he’s still a young man, still making his way in Roman society (and still grieving the recent loss of his famous polymath uncle, Pliny the Elder, in the Vesuvius disaster) – but already set in a lot of his ways, as young men will be. The story finds him and his traveling companion Tacitus – the great Roman historian, only here still comparatively young and known mainly as the son-in-law of the famous governor of Britain Julius Agricola – traveling to Smyrna in a group that includes all kinds of future suspects: the adherents of an exotic religious cult, two old Jews who might just belong to a religious cult themselves (the elder is a certain doctor named Luke, if that gives you any hint), a well-to-do Roman lout, his slaves, and his various cronies, etc. The group has no sooner settled in lodgings in Smyrna than one of their members is found dead in his room with his heart carved out of his body. The provincial governor is away, and for local administration Smyrna has the usual bureaucratic mess characteristic of that part of the world even today – so Pliny (dragging Tacitus along) takes it upon himself to investigate.

Bell does every single thing right in this engrossing book, starting with keeping his star player believable. Pliny the Younger published a large collection of his correspondence during his lifetime, and although all of it was pumiced and holystoned as close to self-aggrandizement as he could make it, the collection is still infinitely revealing – and the person it reveals was, shall we say, fallible. It would be a capital mistake to change that for the sake of producing a more conventional hero, and Bell never comes near to doing that. Instead, his Pliny is given to offhand comments like “Slaves and horses – they both have to be broken to be useful. But you don’t want to crush the spirit.” When one character calls him a “high and mighty bastard,” we can’t help but agree. Hell, almost on the book’s first page, the easy-going Tacitus asks him, “Why can’t you just relax and stop being such a prig?” It’s a line good for a chuckle, because Pliny never does relax in the course of the book. You get the impression he wouldn’t know how; it’s a trait he shared with his illustrious uncle, whose memory hovers over this book like a ghost, as when Pliny contemplates his memories of the man:

What difference does it make? The end of both men – of all men – is the same. The day will come when Apelles’ wife and children will no longer remember just what he looked like, what his voice sounded like. He will ‘live’ only in the name which his son bears. Poor Cornutus didn’t leave even that much to keep his memory alive. I find each day that my uncle’s visage is dimmer in my mind. He was fortunate to have written so much. He is ‘alive’ even for people, like Luke, who never met him. That kind of legacy is the closest we can come, I think, to immortality. It’s what I hope to achieve with my life.

Pliny and Tacitus have a wonderful chemistry – it’s a brilliant choice in Bell’s part to give the ‘sidekick’ role to a man very likely more intelligent than Pliny himself: it forces us to concentrate on Pliny’s other characteristics, like his tenacity and the unconventional modes of thinking he learned from his uncle. The inconvenient fact that the pre-modern world had nothing much in the way of forensics or investigative procedure is handled with perfect deftness – Pliny goes about tracking down the truth much as you or I would, with his hands and his brain and his best guesses, and it’s all wonderfully convincing.

Bell is a classicist and a scholar of the ancient world, and when I read that, I trembled. Such men are dangerous – they have lean and hungry looks and often take a dagger to dramatics without even meaning to. But even after a single chapter, I breathed easier – Bell knows his facts, yes, but his primary concern here is storytelling.

The best illustration of this comes half-way through the book. The governor of the province has returned to take over the murder investigation, and a beautiful slave-girl has been fingered as a likely source of information. She and her family have a tangled and tragic history with Pliny and his uncle, and he feels both guilty and intrigued by her strength of character, so he’s horrified when the course of Roman justice begins to take the path it always does: whenever a crime happens to a person of quality, the first thing you do is torture the slaves for information. So we get a scene in which, over Pliny’s protests, the governor orders the slave-girl strung up right there in the room to be whipped.

Reading that far, I groaned inwardly – because Bell had painted himself into a dramatic corner. The facts of the Roman world make only one outcome of such a scene possible – but the far older dictates of drama say: your hero doesn’t stand idle while the innocent suffer. When the Roman soldier raises his fist with the whip in it, I knew the only thing Bell could have Pliny do was nothing at all.

So imagine my pleasure when he has his Pliny do the only thing he should do first: he grabs the hand holding the whip. It’s a little moment, passing quickly (after he’s admonished, he leaves the room and the torture commences), but a classicist with no ear for the stage, no heart for drama, wouldn’t even have seen how crucial it was, much less worked it right. I’m not sure, but I may have applauded just a bit, the first time I read it.

All Roads Lead to Murder was followed in 2008 by a second Pliny-Tacitus adventure, The Blood of Caesar. This one takes place in Rome itself and features an Emperor Domitian who’s every bit as monstrous as history portrays him and yet recognizably human as well (it’s a beguiling bit of characterization, and there are many, many bits like it in the book). The plot involves twists and turns of high statecraft reminiscent of I, Claudius, and all the dramatic strengths of All Roads Lead to Murder are here again, only sharpened and strengthened.

I can’t recommend these two books strongly enough. Any fan of fiction set in ancient Rome will love them; any murder mystery aficionado will love them; any classicist who’s head isn’t firmly up their aqueduct will love them. I missed them fair and square (effective self-promotion, rather charmingly, doesn’t seem to be our author’s strong suit), but you now have no such excuse: go to Amazon or BN.com right now, today, and buy a copy of each – buy a couple of copies, because I guarantee you’ll want to give them to readers you know.

And while you’re at it, kindly help me to correct the only problem I can find with these books: there are only two of them! In a publishing world where so many murder mysteries aren’t fit for lavatory duty, Albert Bell has seen fit to give readers only two adventures of young prig Pliny and his surprisingly libertine friend Tacitus, and that’s just not right. So email the author and tell him to write a third book in the series post haste. Nag him via snail mail. If you live near him, harangue him at the Piggly-Wiggly. A writer of his caliber (and playfulness! All Roads Lead to Murder has dozens of impish anachronistic allusions, including a hilarious little nod to “The Tell-Tale Heart”) must have no rest, no relaxation: he must be firmly in harness all the time in the service of his demanding readers.

I’m now one of those readers, and all I want for Christmas is another one of these fantastic books.

November 7th, 2010

Sick-bed comforts!

Sometimes, when you’re not feeling all that good, only a certain type of old friend will serve. When you’re walking around town or waiting at an airport or trying to pretend you’re not at a poetry reading, your best old book-friends are just who you want to help you out – for me, these are my big guns, the unchanging voices I listen to over and over (I’ll spare you all the list, especially since its names are fairly obvious by this point).

But when you’re feeling sick, when you’re laying on the couch swaddled in blankets and basset hounds, those very best book-friends feel wrong. You worry that in your present condition, you’d be wasting their time (yes, I know that makes no sense – book-people aren’t very sensible). No, in such miserable circumstances, you reach for a different kind of friend entirely. Voices at once more casual and more comforting.

My list of such second-tier book-friends is very, very long, but this weekend I reached for five that will serve very well as a thumbnail for all the rest:

The Code of the Woosters – P.G. Wodehouse is, I suspect, on many and many such a list as this one, and deservedly so: absolutely nobody writes more cheering-up books than he does, and this 1938 classic is, in my opinion, his single best. I have the paperback with the J. C. Leyendecker cover, and this weekend I smiled again to read the adventures of hapless, good-hearted Bertie Wooster and his all-knowing valet Jeeves. The Code of the Woosters involves a vicious little dog, a disastrous flirtation with the M-word, a touchy French cook, and a ghastly little cow-creamer, but no matter how dire the circumstances seem to be, nothing serious is of course ever at stake, as you can tell from the caliber of curses Bertie’s feisty Aunt Dahlia calls down upon her foe:

May green flies attack his roses. May his cook get tight on the night of the big dinner party. May all his hens get the staggers. May his cistern start leaking, and may white ants, if there are any in England, gnaw away the foundations of Totleigh Towers.

Strong stuff, as Bertie comments, and I trust I may not be misconstrued when I say the book is full of it.

The Daughter of Time – Naturally, when bedridden, there’s nothing that answers quite so well as a murder mystery (I once had an old friend who used to contrive being bedridden, solely to stimulate this feeling); they feel so neat and controlled right when we ourselves are feeling anything but. And this 1951 staple of the genre is quite possibly the best murder mystery ever written, despite being so preposterous it ought to provoke appreciation only for giggles, not craft. It’s the story of Inspector Grant, who’s laid up in the hospital with a broken leg but can’t stop investigating – so he turns his deductive powers to one of the greatest mysteries of British history: what happened to the Princes in the Tower? Did Richard III have his nephews killed so that he could seize the throne? Grant spends a great deal of time reading books of history, and it’s a testament to Tey’s narrative ability that she makes it all as exciting as a Glasgow car-chase:

He [Grant, of course – the book is very nearly a one-man show] reached for More’s History of Richard III. It had as preface a short life of More which he had not bothered to read. Now he turned to it to find out how More could have been both Richard III’s historian and Henry VIII’s Chancellor. How old was More when Richard succeeded?

He was five.

When that dramatic council scene had taken place at the Tower, Thomas More had been five years old. He had been only eight when Richard died at Bosworth.

Everything in that history had been hearsay.

And if there was one word that a policeman loathed more than any other it was hearsay. Especially when applied to evidence.

Well, OK – that does prompt some giggling, but still – it never fails.

Probably understandably, most nonfiction won’t work in circumstances like the ones we’re talking about here, but the books of Stephen Jay Gould are happy exceptions – probably because they’re largely composed of short columns he wrote for a smart popular audience during the heyday of Natural History magazine, so they’re primed to entertain. The first of these volumes, 1977’s Ever Since Darwin, has been one of my go-to sick-books for thirty years now, mostly for bright-eyed segments like this one on the growth of the human brain:

But what about our preoccupation with ourselves; does anything about the history of vertebrates indicate why one peculiar species should be so brainy? Here’s a closing item for thought. The most ancient brain cast of a primate belongs to a 55-million-year-old creature named Tetonius homonculus. Jerison has calculated its encephalization quotient as 0.68. This is, to be sure, only two-thirds the size of an average living mammal of the same body weight, but it is by far the largest brain of its time (making the usual correction for body weight); in fact, it is more than three times as large as an average mammal of its period. Primates have been ahead right from the start; our large brain is only an exaggeration of a pattern set at the beginning of the age of mammals. But why did such a large brain evolve in a group of small, primitive tree-dwelling mammals, more similar to rats and shrews that to mammals conventionally judged as more advanced? And with this provocative query, I end, for we simply do not know the answer to one of the most important questions we can ask.

The King Must Die – This brawny 1958 historical novel by Mary Renault is now a staple of school reading assignments, so who knows but that it might not become immortal, but my affection for it dates to well before it achieved such deification – although really, like with Wodehouse, I’ll reach for any Renault when I’m feeling under the weather. This novel tells the story of wily young teenager Theseus, recasting all his mythological adventures from Edith Hamilton into a authentic-feeling evocation of pre-historical Greece. Renault is a pleasingly subtle writer, and that subtlety is stamped on every page of this great book, including the end of a riveting scene where young Theseus hosts the slightly older king Pylas at an outdoor feast and incites the curiosity of his followers as the night winds down:

The fire crumbled; the ashes grew red and gray with a few sparks of gold; the dogs mumbled their bones full-bellied. As it grew quiet, we leaned and fell to whispering; I could seem more than one of my Minyans lying awake to watch if he would make love to me. We agreed together to press for war that autumn rather than wait for spring … He laughed and promised. Then we slept; I on my face, because my back was sore. Next morning when we all set off home, he gave me his gold-rimmed cup as a guest gift. The Companions stared, and wondered if they had stayed awake long enough.

See the joy of the intellect at play there? See the winking hints, so entirely adult in a genre that produces so much pap for children? We’re told a practical reason why Theseus sleeps face-down, but no other reasons are excluded; we’re told his Companions wondered if they’d stayed awake long enough not to miss some lovemaking, but we’re not told they didn’t miss something – Renault assumes there are some things her readers might like to decide for themselves. It’s entirely refreshing, especially when you’re curled on a couch lost in effluvia.

Collected Sonnets – that state of being lost in effluvia is conducive to a bit of self-pity, and when you’re feeling so inclined, nothing quite caps things off like somebody else’s self-pity. And nobody strikes that old lachrymose note quite as beautifully as the great second-rate poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her performances of these sonnets had to be seen to be believed, but even the unaided works drape down upon the reader like a fine shroud:

Not that it matters, not that my heart’s cry

Is potent to deflect our common doom,

Or bind to truce in this ambiguous room

The planets of the atom as they ply;

But only to record that you and I,

Like thieves that scratch the jewels from a tomb,

Have gathered delicate love in hardy bloom

Close under Chaos, – I rise to testify.

This is my testament: that we are taken;

Our colours are as clouds before the wind;

Yet for a moment stood the foe forsaken,

Eyeing Love’s favour to our helmets pinned;

Death is our master, – but his seat is shaken;

He rides victorious, – but his ranks are thinned.

See? “Our common doom”? I feel better already.