Posts from March 2014
March 18th, 2014
Our book today is the lusty 1970 historical novel The Kings Of Vain Intent by Graham Shelby, a mid-20th century hack book reviewer who struck historical novel gold with his book The Knights of Dark Renown, the prequel to this present book. Shelby is a largely artless writer, but he knows full well the visceral heart of the story he’s telling, the violent and bloody story of the Third Crusade, and he spares no effort to make his readers feel it all:
Men-at-arms and crossbowmen lept aside as the horsemen thundered toward the surviving Mamlukes. The riders heard shouts from their left, “La ilaha il Allah! There is no God but Allah!” Then ostrich-feathered arrows and cane spears rained down on them. They had been met unexpectedly by Takedin’s contingent and the garrison from Acre. As horses plunged and fell, causing havoc among the tightly-grouped knights, the iron-tipped missiles were replaced by bladders of Greek Fire. The acrid stench of burning flesh mingled with the stirred dust, while hardened Crusaders gagged at the sight of men and horses wrapped in a cloak of flame. Animals collided, splashing the ghastly liquid; riders threw themselves from the saddle in a frenzied effort to avoid contact with their burning comrades.
His King Richard I is an entirely un-nuanced character, a violent hothead who scarcely ever troubles to control himself. When he’s outraged, for instance, by the French king’s emissary William des Barres, he immediately offers simply to brawl about it – a childish suggestion that promptly fills des Barres with scorn:
William snapped, “I’m not out here to wrestle …” but got no further, for the furious, heavily-built king collided with him and seized him ‘round the neck.
By now the onlookers were too embarrassed to laugh. Here was Richard Coeur-de-Lion, the greatest general and strategist in the West – time would tell if he was even better than Saladin – and here was William des Barres, a paramount warrior and one of Philip’s military advisers. Here they were, these giants, reduced to grappling like peasants on a greased log. It was degrading, and it was Richard’s doing.
Had the king released William without further ado, the nobles would have put it down to his hot temper. Had he then apologized, it would have been forgotten. But Richard was Richard, and he hung on.
The Kings of Vain Intent is one-dimensional chewing-gum entertainment, especially compared with fantastic modern renditions of the character from masters of the form like Thorvald Steen or the mighty Sharon Kay Penman. In fact, the book represents fairly accurately the depths to which historical fiction had sunk (always excepting standout figures like the great Alfred Duggan and the sublime Mary Renault) in the decades prior to the 1980s. But even so, you can hardly go wrong with England’s legendary warrior-king: there’s plenty of entertainment here.
February 4th, 2014
Our book today is 1812, a meaty, fantastic 1996 historical novel by David Nevin, who wrote a string of first-rate books in the fifteen years before his death in 2011. 1812 is the dramatic story of fledgling America’s second fight with the British Empire, and it centers on President James Madison and his strong-willed wife Dolley, who resisted the dire option of war for as long as they could and then were forced to flee the presidential mansion and watch helplessly as it was burned by the British (Madison mentally notes that such things aren’t done in ‘civilized’ warfare and wonders if its a harbinger of war’s future shape). Nevin did a mountain of research on all his characters but especially on the Madisons – he captures Dolley’s impossible stubbornness and irritating bravery, and he’s especially good at channelling the weird, almost otherworldly side little James Madison so often displayed. The scene where an arrogant Daniel Webster confronts the President in his sickbed is a good example – it reads like typical historical fiction artifice, but it’s actually a very good representation of the almost-finished, almost-Ciceronian way Madison talked when his dander was up:
“Do not come to criticize me, sir, with your hands black with the tars of Federalism. Do no prate cheap Federalist doctrine blind as the snows of New England. Haven’t you yet learned there’s more to this country than your parochial little corner? Don’t dare to criticize me, sir, when Federalists have done all they could to hobble their nation and cripple it in war …
“It’s your people who undermine their country, who encourage its enemies, who supply the very ships that blockade us – curs licking the book that kicks them, sir! – your governors who refuse their duty, your militia who hide behind governors’ skirts, your courts that connive with venal young men to defraud the government with false enlistments, your bankers who squat on their money like hens on their eggs, your ministers who cry from their pulpits of the devil’s work when young Americans are dying for lack of support – oh, no, sir, do not dare preach to me, do not dare! Now begone, sir! This instant, sir!”
The Madisons share Nevin’s stage with a sprawling cast of characters, many of whom – especially Andrew Jackson, of course (and my favorite in this novel, “Frank” Key) – will be familiar to history buffs. Since Nevin sets himself the task of dramatizing the whole war, his story ranges from the dining rooms of Washington City to the shot-swept decks of warships at sea – to the Niagara frontier in 1814, where we meet Winfield Scott not as the old and slightly ridiculous figure who would be so overcome by the Civil War a whole generation from now but rather in his prime, surveying the men he’ll lead into pitched battle against the British:
They were beautiful, that was the only word for it – three thousand men marching with all the snap and precision of hardened veterans, going through their paces for the last time at Flint Hill. Brigadier General Winfield Scott stole a look at General Brown – hell, yes, the General was impressed. He’d never seen anything like this. As if in confirmation, Brown turned and threw up his fist in a warrior’s gesture.
It was a brilliant day, sun blazing, cool, winy air fresh and tangy. Glad-to-be-alive weather. Scott’s throat was raw from shouting commands as he wheeled his big roan gelding about for each new maneuver. A big man needs a big horse, and the roan he called Rusty was just right, a soldier’s horse that loved the drum and danced when he heard it.
I can’t recommend 1812 strongly enough to fans of historical fiction. Nevin’s books are some of the only ones from roughly his publishing period that I consistently re-read (Max Byrd and of course Steven Pressfield also come to mind) – and every time I do, I wish he were still around to write more.
September 24th, 2013
Our book today is Joseph Markulin‘s big fat new historical novel Machiavelli: A Renaissance Life, which seeks to do for the author of The Prince what Irving Stone did with such resounding sense for Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy half a century ago: dramatize the life of a famous figure in history from birth to death. Machiavelli – published in a bright, light paperback original by Prometheus Books, stages the entire life of its subject. Markulin is more than capable of writing a straight-up biography; maybe he chooses fiction for its approachability – and for the fact that ten times as many readers are willing to cast their lot with a work of fiction as with a work of history, in these decadent times.
Markulin has one of the richest historical eras at his dramatist’s fingertips, and he revels in it – this is, before anything else, an enormously enjoyable book, a warm-fire-and-deep-armchair book that refuses to hurry and is completely confident of its powers. The large cast of A-list historical guest-stars – those naughty Borgias (including Machiavelli’s charismatic pole-star Cesare), Leonardo da Vinci, Savonarola, even Michelangelo himself, and dozens more – are brought vividly to life, as is our hero himself, with a little help from the fact that by historical accident we happen to have a portrait of him by Santi di Tito:
His most salient feature, however, the one that most struck people upon meeting him for the first time, and the one that stayed in their minds afterward as characteristic of him, was the expression on his face. He could not easily rid himself of a sarcastic twist that played continually about his mouth, curling and uncurling his lips. The same sardonic signals flashed from his eyes, and it gave him the air of an extremely astute observer – and a very skeptical one as well. Even drunk, his powers of observation were constantly engaged, and little escaped his detection …
Tricky but permissible to generalize from what amounts to a snapshot, but Markulin always explores deeper, always expands his portraits to include the smells and sounds no painting can convey:
When he talked, Niccolo Machiavelli talked too fast – not a nervous or unsure kind of fast, but a breathless, excited fast. It was as if the rushing words were trying in vain to keep pace with the thoughts that were flying, one after another, through his head at tremendous speed.
The novel follows Machiavelli from his boyhood, through his education, his encounters with the gruntwork of statecraft, his tangles with a Church in turmoil, his political successes, his political downfall (and, harrowingly, torture), his hard-won wisdom – and Markulin fleshes out all of it with street color, spills of wine and more poisonous beverages, bellows at night, and a refreshing number of scenes set in bordellos, like the one in which our hero learns something very important and very disturbing about Cesare:
It was near the end of their conversation when Niccolo had leaned close to him, very close, that his suspicions were confirmed. In the subdued light of the brothel, they had been barely discernible, obscured and hidden among the curly growth of beard that wreathed Borgia’s mouth. But the yellow pustules were there. The disease had taken root. It’s inevitable, destructive rush to madness and death was underway.
Because Markulin is in no hurry (Prometheus has allowed his book to run to over 700 pages, and I’m betting his readers won’t want it to be any shorter – I certainly didn’t), you can be sure that a mention of something like those tell-tale pustules will occasion a factual digression. These would ordinarily be lethal to the narrative of any good historical novel, but our author is such a winning, genial host that in this case they’re included with buttery smoothness. I could listen to him natter on about STDs until the cows come home:
The Italians generally referred to it as the French Disease. The French preferred to call it the Neapolitan Disease. The Neapolitans, for their part, were inclined to label it the Spanish Disease. No one, it seems, wanted to accept responsibility. It went by many other names as well – bolle, the pox, even plague – but its effects were the same for all, no matter what it was called. It was a rapid, degenerative, and mortal illness.
The first cases of syphilis in Europe were diagnosed in Barcelona in 1493. An outbreak of the disease was discovered among the crew of the recently returned ships of the Genoese navigator Christoforo Columbo, who, sailing under the flag of Spain, claimed to have discovered a new world.
As passages like that one make clear, readers of Machiavelli: A Renaissance Life (once again, I offer my services to all publishers and all authors, anywhere in the world at any time, in coming up with good titles for their books) will come away from the book knowing a whole hell of a lot more about everything connected with the Italian Renaissance than they knew going in. But more importantly, they’ll feel like they’ve spent a long time with the people of Markulin’s grand story, especially with poor idealistic steadfast over-intelligent Niccolo himself. This big fat book is every bit as good as The Agony and the Ecstasy – or even, in its winking humor, a bit better. It’s a whale of a good time, and no hungry reader of historical fiction should miss it.
September 6th, 2013
Our book today is another Victorian masterpiece of melodrama, Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur. Sub-titled A Tale of the Christ, it was an immediate hit upon publication, sold in record-setting numbers on four continents, and was very quickly translated into virtually every language on Earth (several different classes of college undergraduates vied for the dubious honor of being the first to translate the whole thing into Latin, of course, and there’s been at least one Gaelic version). It tells the story of handsome young Judah Ben-Hur, a “prince of Jerusalem” during the earliest years of the Roman Empire, who lives in a palace with his mother and his sister Tirzah, and whose best boyhood friend princeling, a well-born young Roman named Messala.
The two were once inseparable best friends (and, oddly, lookalikes) while playing together in Jerusalem, but then Messala was sent away to finishing school in Rome itself, and when he came back, Judah found his opinions quite changed:
“By the drunken son of Semele, what it is to be a Jew! To him there is no backward, no forward; he is what his ancestor was in the beginning. In this sand I draw you a circle – there! Now tell me what more a Jew’s life is? Round and round, Abraham here, Isaac and Jacob yonder, God in the middle. And outside the circle’s little space, is there nothing of value? Painting, sculpture? To look upon them is sin. Poetry you make fast to your altars. Except in the synagogue, who of you attempts eloquence? In war all that you conquer in the six days you lose on the seventh. Satisfied with the worship of such a people, what is your God to our Roman love, who sends us his eagles that we may compass the world with our arms?”
Needless to say, this sort of thing ends their friendship (although, in one of Wallace’s many unjustly overlooked narrative subtleties, Messala remains high-spirited and likable even post-fascism). And in an abrupt crack in the story, we next find Judah Ben-Hur as a rowing slave on a Roman vessel. We learn that he was falsely accused of trying to assassinate a Roman official, and that Messala himself arrested his old friend and banished him to slavery, shuttered the palace in Jerusalem, and cast Judah’s mother and sister into a dank dungeon, promptly forgetting about them. While in the dungeon, a creeping horror overtakes Judah’s loved ones, described with Wallace’s perfect combination of clinical detachment and melodramatic pacing:
Once – she could not have told the day or the year, for down in the haunted hell even time was lost – once the mother felt a dry scurf in the palm of her right hand, a trifle: which she tried to wash away. It clung; yet she thought but little of the sign till Tirzah complained that she, too, was attacked in the same way. The supply of water was scant, and they denied themselves drink that they might used it as a curative. At length the whole hand was attacked; the skin cracked open, the finger-nails loosened from the flesh. There was not much pain, chiefly a steadily increasing discomfort. Later their lips began to parch and seam. One day the mother, who struggled against the impurities of the dungeon with all ingenuity, thinking the malady was taking hold of Tirzah’s face, led her to the light, and saw with anguish and terror that the young girl’s eyebrows were white as snow.
Speechless, motionless, the mother was capable of but one thought – leprosy!
Meanwhile, Judah is moving from one adventure to the next. Readers encountering Ben-Hur for the first time will be struck by the weird, seemingly unconscious way Wallace fluctuates between a kind of clean, readable, slightly archaic diction and the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ of the more torrid historical romances of the day – and seeing that fluctuation, those readers will probably think Ben-Hur could be quite a slog. But re-reading the book really brings home the fact that the pace never appreciably slows down – we carom with Judah from galley slavery to prosperity in Rome to the crash and flash of competitive chariot-racing to the visceral crunch and dodge of the gladiatorial arena. Judah isn’t a particularly contemplative sort; his main goals in life are determining the whereabouts of his family and extracting some kind of vengeance on Messala. Along the way, he meets the prosperous merchant Simonides (whose previous connection to Judah’s family is evoked, again, with more subtlety than any thousand readers would ever credit to this author), his lovely – and Judah-smitten – daughter Esther, the boisterously vulgar Sheik Ilderim, and a host of minor characters who are often brought effectively to life merely through snatches of dialogue. Also along the way, in the template for The Life of Brian, we see Judah’s life intersect with that of Jesus Christ at various key points; the two come closer and closer to each other (needless to say, Jesus has a trick up his sleeve about all that leprosy business), until finally, in the book’s final third, this really does become what it most certainly hadn’t been before: a tale of the Christ.
In many ways, it’s a deeply odd story, conflicted on its most basic levels, and to that extent it probably mirrors the internal state of its author. Ben-Hur made Wallace rich, but long before he wrote it he was already famous – infamous, more like it, dating from the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 when he inexplicably bungled some fairly simple but vital marching orders from Ulysses Grant. When everybody in the North was later appalled by the sheer scope of the carnage at Shiloh, Grant promptly blamed Wallace and kept right on blaming him – in print – for the rest of his life (despite hat-in-hand personal appeals Wallace made to the great man on more than one occasion).
It was a mark of Lew Wallace’s stubbornness – or maybe his patriotism – that although this public flaying over Shiloh made him incredibly distressed (toward the end of his life, you could hear his stomach ulcers from clear across a crowded room) it never made him bitter; he kept on serving under Grant, and he kept on giving, as the popular parlance has it, 110 percent. This was never more evident than in 1864 when Wallace, in command of 5000 untested and homesick troops, realized he was the only thing standing between Confederate General Jubal Early’s 15,000 men and Washington, D.C. Staring in horror at his maps, Grant had hastily ordered reinforcements to the capital, but Early was going to get there first and deal an immeasurable psychological blow to the Union but draping the Confederate flag out the White House windows.
Wallace didn’t hesitate. He took in the horrific logistical nightmare of the terrain available to him, stretched his men out like a shoe-string between the two ends of Early’s most likely approach, and dug in.
It was hopeless, and even a relatively small flex of Early’s force soon crumpled Wallace’s line and sent him fleeing – but his men gave a good fierce account of themselves. Early was unsettled by the encounter. Not only was he unwilling to leave such a fighting force still active in his rear, but the fighting itself had cost him just enough time to make the whole thing undoable. Like Moses, he could glimpse the Promised Land (in this case, being able to see the Capital through his field glasses), but he couldn’t enter it. He withdrew, and the South never got that chance again.
Wallace should have been feted as the hero of the war, but his shame over Shiloh continued to gnaw at him. And you can tell that from Ben-Hur even if you don’t know what you’re looking for. The book is one long aria of disillusionment; Judah, though brave and idealistic, has one injustice after another heaped upon him, always with salvation just out of reach. One of the Three Wise Men is speaking a Lew Wallace credo when he says “The happiness of love is in action; its test is what one is willing to do for others.” And you can have a clear, one-shot view into Wallace’s entire concept of himself (justified or not) but another baldly-stated platitude: “As a rule, there is no surer way to the dislike of men than to behave well where they have behaved badly.”
Grappling with these personal demons may have given Lew Wallace a generally unhappy life, but the sheer energy of the struggle made Ben-Hur one hell of a compelling book. Then and now.
May 30th, 2013
Some Penguin Classics get the royal treatment – whether they deserve it or not. By ‘royal treatment’ I of course mean not only induction into the Classics line itself, honor enough though it is for one lifetime, but the bestowal of one of Penguin’s gorgeous “Deluxe” volumes, extra-sized, deckle-edged, supremely aesthetic re-packagings that not every Tom, Dick, and Diderot gets.
The Deluxe Classic in question today is the one Penguin published in 2005 of Sigrid Undset’s famous historical fiction trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, with a new translation by Tiina Nunnally and an Introduction by Brad Leithauser. The translation is meant to replace the much earlier one done as a hobby by the indefatigable Charles Archer in the 1920s because, as Nunnally somewhat astringently points out in her Translator’s Preface, “Accuracy and faithfulness to the original tone and style are both expected and required” in modern translations. So when old Lavrans takes his young daughter on a pleasant ride upland, Nunnally gives us this:
High up on the grassy slope they came to a small hut. They stopped near the split-rail fence. Lavrans shouted and his voice echoed again and again among the cliffs. Two men came running down from the small patch of pasture. They were the sons of the house. They were skillful tar-burners, and Lavrans wanted to hire them to do some tar distilling for him. Their mother followed with a large basin of cold cellar milk, for it was a hot day, as the men had expected it would be.
“I see you have your daughter with you,” she said after she had greeted them. “I thought I’d have a look at her You must take off her cap. They say she has such fair hair.”
Whereas Archer gives us this:
High up the mountain-side they came to a little croft. They stopped by the stick fence; Lavrans shouted, and his voice came back again and again from the mountains round. Two men came running down, between the small tilled patches. These were both sons of the house; they were good men at the tar-burning, and Lavrans was for hiring them to burn some tar for him. Their mother came after them with a great bowl of cooled milk, for the day was now grown hot, as the men had foretold.
“I saw you had your daughter with you,” she said when she had greeted them. “and methought I must needs have a sight of her. But you must take the cap from her head; they say she hath such bonny hair.”
Setting aside textual considerations (Archer omitted some passages, all of which Nunnally implies are crucial to the trilogy), I don’t have much hesitation as to which I prefer, and even gentle Leithauser can’t be completely condemnatory:
Nunnally unquestionably brings us closer to the heart of the book than Archer did. While I have a lingering fondness for the Archer translation – he was the museum guide who first led me to the tapestry – on the grounds of lucidity and authenticity the nod must go to Nunnally, who has surely done as much as anyone in recent years to bring Nordic literature to this country.
“It’s the fate of most long books never to be revisited,” Leithauser writes, and he’s sadly correct. Deluxe format or no Deluxe format, it’s permissible to wonder just how many new Undset fans Nunnally’s artlessly accurate translation (one short, bald declarative sentence after another, like rocks pelting a wall) created. Certainly Archer’s version – florid ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s notwithstanding – created quite a few. Who knows? Maybe one day that translation will get a Penguin Classic of its own, far from the power-washed asphalt of expected and required. It would have lots of fairly distinguished company. George Chapman could make the welcoming toast.
April 12th, 2013
Our book today is the tense and yet lush Tudor novel My Enemy the Queen, which that champion quiller of historical romances, Victoria Holt, wrote in a free afternoon one day in 1978. ‘Victoria Holt’ was a pseudonym for an Englishwoman named Eleanor Hibbert, who was born in 1906, endured a brief, tedious interval learning how to walk, talk, and feed herself, and then spent the next 70 years (she died in 1993) writing novels in the way that other people exfoliate dead skin cells. We may never know how many books she wrote, nor how many pseudonyms she used to write them – “Victoria Holt” was one of her most famous, but then, so was “Jean Plaidy” and “Philippa Carr,” and there were at least half a dozen others, many of them containing little private jokes, each of them writing in a slightly but noticeably different register (as often happens with prolific writers who work under different names). She wrote in her lifetime more books than most people read in a lifetime, and that would ordinarily be astonishing achievement enough, but she went it one better: all her books are soundly good, and a dozen or so of them are considerably better than good.
My Enemy, The Queen is one of her best books. It’s the story of Lettice Knollys, who was the childhood friend of Princess Elizabeth and later became a lady-in-waiting when Elizabeth became queen. For decades she thus occupied that unenviable (and extremely rare) position, an old friend to a Tudor. She was tall and shapely and witty, and she enjoyed for a time great influence in Elizabeth’s court. She married Walter Devereux, the Earl of Essex, and commanded money and property of her own when he died.
Then she made the colossal blunder of falling in love with another old friend (and long-time quasi-paramour) of Elizabeth’s, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. The two courted in secret, consummated in secret, and married in secret, and when Elizabeth inevitably found out, she was furious. She poured imprecations of violence on the couple’s heads and banished Lettice permanently from court.
Our author’s tireless historical research revealed to her that Lettice Knollys lived into her 90s, a ripe old age indeed in a time before medicine, and the winning idea of crafting a book as the reflections of Lettice looking back on her long life sprang naturally to mind. At one point an older and wiser Lettice warns her son “One does not consider personal affronts when dealing with monarchs,” but she’s not a good follower of her own rule and spends most of her book brooding on just such personal affronts – and not only those she received from Elizabeth. One of the book’s subdued triumphs is its chilling success in conveying how secondary Lettice’s marriage to Leicester would have been to him once he was intent on regaining and retaining the favor of the Queen. He had to be almost constantly in attendance on Elizabeth – and so, absent from Lettice herself. When he talks to her about Elizabeth’s reluctance to execute Mary Queen of Scots, he does so as one court ally to another, never dreaming his wife might resent him:
Leicester was impatient with her [the Queen], and I reminded him that not so long ago he had thought of making terms with the Queen of Scots when he thought there was a possibility of Elizabeth’s dying and her coming to the throne.
He looked at me in amazement. He could not understand my lack of understanding of political expediency. Previously I should have been with him in what he suggested. Oh yes, indeed I was out of love.
“If she does not take care,” he cried vehemently, “there will be an attempt to rescue Mary and it may succeed.”
“You would not then be in an enviable position, my lord,” I commented wryly. “I believe Her Majesty of Scotland is very fond of lapdogs, but she likes to choose her own, and I am sure have no house room for those who once pleased the Queen of England.”
“What has happened to you, Lettice?” he asked, bewildered.
I retorted: “I have become a neglected wife.”
There are similarly good turns of scene all throughout the novel, and a great deal of the historical research is remarkably sound (our author provides her sources). It’s true that the narrative never soars, never really makes Lettice into a person, much less an old, bitter person, but re-reading it and being swept up again in the old familiar story, you can’t help but wonder if today’s new crop of Tudor novelists were swept up in these same pages, when they were young girls as thirsty and impressionable as sponges. That’s a debt-worthy service, if so – and that’s on top of the fact that the originator still makes fine afternoon’s reading.
January 5th, 2013
In 2012 more than in any previous year, I found myself playing catch up at my beloved Boston Public Library, the best public library in the world. Some of you will already know of my affection for the sumptuous solidity of the McKim building – and especially for the soaring beauty of Bates Hall, under whose towering windows and glowing green lamps I’ve written three novels, ten short stories, and roughly a thousand book reviews. The BPL (both the gorgeous old McKim half and the less-than-gorgeous newer Johnson half) is one of the basic cornerstones of my Boston existence (along with the Atheneum and of course my beloved Brattle Bookshop)(at the latter of which generous gift certificates can always be ordered in my name …); for years, I’ve prowled its shelves in happy times and sad, and I never leave empty-handed.
But just recently, just in the last year or so, I’ve found myself gravitating more toward the newer books, constantly reminded of the dozens and dozens of new titles that simply eluded me in 2012. Through Open Letters Monthly and my various other reviewing homes, I manage to cast a wider net than I ever have before – I’m constantly hounding my publicist friends for review copies and then lugging them home from the Post Office (the review copies, not the publicists). But even so, plenty of books get by me – and I see them all lined up at the BPL like just so many enticements! So from time to time I’ll be combining those two favorite things of mine – the Boston Public Library and reviewing new books – to do some catching-up here at Stevereads. Starting today with:
The Time of the Wolf
by James Wilde
Pegasus Books, 2012
James Wilde is the pseudonymn for Mark Chadbourn, the British author of (among other things) the quite good fantasy novels The Silver Skull and The Scar-Crow Men, the first and second volumes in the “Sword of Albion” series (with the third, The Devil’s Looking Glass, set to make its US debut in mere moments), which are set in a not-quite England shot through with sorcery and presided over by a lethal, larger-than-life hero, Will Swyfte. The American covers of those novels feature brooding male model Paul Marron dashing about in doublet and hose, which he seldom dons in real life. Under the name James Wilde, Chadbourn published a novel in the UK called Hereward: The Devil’s Army which in 2012 got a hardcover American edition retitled (and better titled) The Hour of the Wolf, and a glance at its cover – a dark, eye-catching design by Jeff Miller at Faceout Studio – is enough to warn that more things have changed than just the author’s nom-de-plume. The product-description, “A Novel of Medieval England,” accompanies the grim image of a hooded man holding a broadsword as though it were a chalice. Not a doublet in sight.
And yet, not so much has changed. The Time of the Wolf takes place deep in the midst of the 11th Century English fen country and surroundings, which were reputed to be just as full of sprites, faeries, and demons as anything in The Silver Skull – and might well have been, for all we still know about the day-to-day realities of the time. Turmoil was the watch-word, turmoil was everywhere. The year is 1062, and England is a bloodstained chessboard of competing powers. The nominal king is Edward, but he’s weak and distracted, and several of his earls are jostling for more power. The Church watches warily for any chance to increase its power. Vikings maraud, the ones in this book lead by the unrefined but intelligent Harad Redteeth. And most ominous of all, just across the Channel a ruthless warlord named William the Bastard is busily building an army and a navy, intent on nothing less than the conquest of England. Such is the board, but what individual pieces – the spies, the priests, the over-powerful noble families, the humble village-dwellers – were doing at any given time is almost as much a matter of conjectural fancy as the stuff found in Chadbourn’s (very well-researched) fantasy novels.
Even more so the character James Wilde chooses as his conflicted hero: Hereward, the indomitable warrior posthumously nicknamed “the Wake” (meaning alert, watchful). Even in his own time, Hereward was very nearly as mythical a figure as Will Swyfte: exiled by his own father (and declared an outlaw by the King) for rowdy behavior when he was still a teenager, larger-than-life adventuring in many countries before returning to England in 1069 and taking up arms against William and his conquering Normans, sacking Peterborough Abbey and fighting William’s forces at the head of a motley little army. Hereward offered himself as a focal point for local resistance to the Normans – and Wilde became convinvced, we’re told, that this story should be the basis for a novel (no mention is made of Charles Kingsley’s best-selling 1866 novel Hereward the Wake, but I thought – perhaps over-hopefully – that I detected an echo here and there in Wilde’s book).
Certainly in The Time of the Wolf Hereward gets a novel after his own heart. The thing is swimming in blood up to its (probably gouged) eyeballs. Wilde may not mention Bernard Cornwell by name, but it’s hardly necessary: Cornwell’s trademark hysterically omnipresent hideous violence speaks for itself. Even in the first pages, in an opening scene that culminates with Hereward rescuing the monk Alric from Redteeth and his men, the barrage of glass-shards and police sirens is unrelenting:
“He’s defenseless,” the monk stuttered.
“Good,” Hereward angled his sword above the mail shirt and drove it into the man’s chest until the tip protruded from his back. The Northman gurgled, eyes frozen wide in shock. When Hereward withdrew the blade, hot blood trailed from the body where it had been opened to the air.
There are quieter moments scattered throughout (some of the best of which involving exchanges between our Dark Ages Odd Couple of Hereward and Alric), and even the furtive, utterly doomed gesture at a romance. The sources for the outline of Hereward’s life suggest a three-dimensional invidvidual, and occasionally Wilde tries to show us that person – before lapsing back to his favorite single-dimension, the Realm of Evisceration. This sub-genre of historical fiction – call it yore gore – has been undergoing a steady expansion since Cornwell re-introduced it to modern bookstores nearly two decades ago. Conn Iggulden, Steven Pressfield, Ben Kane, Giles Kristian, Simon Scarrow, and the rest of their blood-spattered peers (no peeresses, since no sane woman would write this way in a million years) may serve as the models or prods, but with The Time of the Wolf Wilde has proven that he can hack and slash with the best of them.
The book leaves open the possibility of sequels, and history is uncertain what eventually happened to Hereward, so the potential for a nice meaty series is there. Wilde’s particular vision of his hero – a man as tormented by his own homicidal rages as he is by the evildoers who elicit those rages – is compelling enough to make readers of this first volume hope for many more.
With apologies to Charles Kingsley, of course.
July 24th, 2012
Our book today is Soldiers of ’44, a taut and tightly-focused WWII novel by Bill McGivern, who published it in 1979 to some enviable reviews (the Atlantic Monthly called it “altogether a remarkably fine book,” and the indefatigable John Barkham said it was “combat writing raised to the level of literature”). It’s the story of a small group of soldiers detailed to a gun section in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, and even the casual reader might notice the stylistic influence of Michael Shaara’s incredibly successful American Civil War novel The Killer Angels, which had appeared a few years earlier. Shaara’s book has gone on to a well-deserved immortality, continuously stocked in bookshops and assigned in schools. The very limited scrap of immortality that clings to Bill McGivern is his string of hard-boiled noir novels (culminating in the intense but almost comically bad Rogue Cop), and that’s a shame, as is the noticeable echo of Shaara: Soldiers of ’44 is far and away the best thing McGivern ever wrote, and its quality isn’t dimmed one candle by any resemblance to any other book. If Shaara set a template for a certain school of modern historical fiction, good for him – but templates are open proving-grounds for talent, not exclusive country clubs.
Soldiers of ’44 has not been immortalized, far from it: it courts its own dismissal by hewing fairly close to some of the hoariest cliches of WWII-fiction. There’s the tough but kind-hearted commander, in this case Lieutenant Buell “Bull” Docker, and there’s an alluring, exotic civilian woman, and there are philosophical (but evil) Germans:
“Armies gain glory in victory but they achieve immortal character in defeat. From this moment on, Jaeger, you must think and speak and act as if you are under surveillance by generations of unborn Germans. What you think will be known, what you speak will be heard, what you do will be seen. Always keep that foremost in your mind.”
And Docker’s gun group is made up of the usual Hollywood assortment of guys – there’ll be the lazy one, the clueless one, the one called “Shorty” who’s from Brooklyn and lives to be ninety, and there’ll be the bad apple, the insubordinate lout who can corrupt a whole regiment if he isn’t culled and ritualistically humiliated. God only knows if real WWII combat groups had such a rigorous roster (our grandfathers are all in the ground – and they wouldn’t have told us anyway), but they’re a staple of fiction, and staples of fiction are as good or as bad as you make them. McGivern, writing after a very busy lifetime of generating prose for all occasions (and earning a respectable fortune whoring his talents in Hollywood), came to this novel – which had been germinating for a quarter of a century, as ambitious historical novels tend to do, certainly as Shaara’s did – with all his considerable gifts for dialogue and pacing at their sharpest. Bull Docker must deal with the Nazis who have his position surrounded and are very nearly able to overwhelm it, but he must also deal with the aforementioned bad apple, a soldier named Haskell (McGivern having a little fun with his memories of the quintessential bad-apple-in-the-making from “Leave it to Beaver”?):
Docker stared at the mechanics standing behind Haskell, remembering their names – Dolan, Granowski, Lenny Rado, but nothing else about them because now they were only ugly reflections of Haskell to him, and for the waste and stupidity they represented he felt an anger that was different from what had gripped him when he had looked at the personal effects of his dead soldiers. This anger had no loneliness or pain or compassion mixed in it … it was pure, a destructive feeling that denied Haskell and his men even contempt or bitterness. “You’re not listening,” he said. “It’s over now.” There were touches of color high in his face, and behind the masked alertness in his eyes an evidence of something so violent that when Haskell recognized it his smile changed and he rubbed a heavy hand over his lips.
In a canny tactical decision, McGivern shifts the action at the book’s climax from the battlefield to the courtroom (the trial scenes are protracted, and readers won’t want them any other way – the world lost a first-rate writer of legal thrillers when McGivern decided to concentrate on dames and molls, and to write dialogue for “Kojak”), and he winds things up with the kind of “what ever happened to …?” afterword that Shaara uses to such poetic effect in The Killer Angels. The whole thing is imbued with feeling and compulsive readability and all the humanism McGivern had to offer. All those glowing reviews are very much deserved. so
May 9th, 2012
Our book today is the pebble that started an avalanche: Sir Walter Scott’s 1814 novel Waverley. In its ponderous, irresistible pages dealing with heroic young Edward Waverley, living through the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 (the book’s ‘subtitle’ was ’tis sixty years since’), Scott did what so many great male creators have done throughout human history: he took some things women had thought up and refined them into something bombastic and compellingly provocative.
The women – figures like Maria Edgeworth and especially Miss Jane Porter, author of the wildly successful The Scottish Chiefs that was on everybody’s reading table in 1810, enthusiastically broke the ground of transforming history and folklore into vibrant, detail-heavy historical romance. Despite the fact that Scribner’s once created a gorgeous edition of The Scottish Chiefs complete with illustrations by the great N. C. Wyeth, Porter is scarcely read by anybody today, but those few who wander into her wonderful pages wander out again wanting to write stories just like hers. Scott did that, and the popularity his work eclipsed hers and everybody else’s.
Waverley creaks today, as, to be fair, it did then. There are great chunks of undigested moralizing, frequent apostrophes of the kind that historical novelists these days try to avoid making quite so directly:
“Yes, I have indeed acted towards you with thoughtless cruelty. I brought you from your paternal fields, and the protection of a generous and kind landlord, and when I had subjected you to all the rigour of military discipline I shunned to bear my own share of the burdens, and wandered from the duties I had undertaken, leaving alike those whom it was my business to protect, and my own reputation, to suffer under the artifices of villainy. O indolence and indecision of mind! If not in yourselves vices, to how much exquisite misery and mischief do you frequently prepare the way!”
But the essential magic tricks of all the best historical fiction to follow are on display here, from the successful blend of factual research and impressionistic sweep:
On the opposite bank of the river, and partly surrounded b y a winding of its stream, stood a large and massive castle, the half-ruined turrets of which were already glittering in the first rays of the sun. It was in form an oblong square, of size sufficient to contain a large court in the centre. The towers at each angle of the square rose higher than the walls of the building, and were in their turn surmounted by turrets, differing in height, and irregular in shape. Upon one of these a sentinel watched, whose bonnet and plain streaming in the wind declared him to be a Highlander, as a broad white ensign, which floated from another tower, announced that the garrison was held by the insurgent adherents of the House of Stuart.
To the mundane human touches (and pawky humor) that Scott is so little remembered for today, as when our young hero Edward Waverley comes upon the stock comic figure of Mr. Duncan Macwheeble:
Before him was a large bicker of oatmeal-porridge, and at the side thereof, a horn-spoon and a bottle of two-penny. Eagerly running his eye over a voluminous law-paper, he from time to time shovelled an immense spoonful of these nutritive viands into his capacious mouth. A pot-bellied Dutch bottle of brandy which stood by, intimated either that this honest limb of the law had taken his morning already, or that he meant to season his porridge with such digestive; or perhaps both circumstances might reasonably be inferred.
The formula of Waverley looks so basic to modern eyes that its canny originality can often be overlooked. In the book, a young hero leaves his family, becomes enmeshed in famous historical events, meets famous historical personages, but the whole time is pursuing his own destiny and, inevitably, his own love. The effect on the reader is immediate and effective: they’re not only learning about history (hence the ‘sacred duty’ school of historical fiction that ranks verisimilitude as the highest of the virtues), they’re invested in it, since their hero is walking through the black-and-white events of dry history books bringing them alive through his own involvement. Scott’s decision to use public, historical props to tell a private, unknown story gave birth to the historical novel as we know it today in all its forms, and virtually every one of the great 19th century novelists now routinely taught in schools as being entirely, almost categorically superior to Scott (Tolstoy and most certainly Jane Austen, to name but two) absorbed his ‘historical romances’ like oxygen and re-spun all of Scott’s original axiomata into all the dozen ways historical fiction talks to both history and fiction. All of it – everything from the Brontes to Graham Greene, from J. R. R. Tolkien to Hilary Mantel – all of it is the School of Scott, and Waverley was the first lesson.
January 24th, 2012
Our book today is Marilyn Durham’s massive 1982 novel Flambard’s Confession, which takes the form of a one long deathbed confession by Ranulph Flambard, who’d been a nominal priest and legendarily rapacious revenue agent for the wave of invading Normans to take over England in the 11th Century, William the Conqueror and his sons. The central figure of this long confession is William II, the Conqueror’s third son and England’s second new ruler after his father died in 1087. William II was often called some variation of ‘William the Red’ or ‘William Rufus’ because (among other reasons) his fair skin flushed easily and vividly when in the grip of strong emotion – which, for this very choleric man, was often. Contemporary chroniclers to a man hated him, but there’s also ample evidence of the loyalty he engendered in those closest to him (his kennel-keeper and sometime chief mercenary, for instance, loved him in his youth with a love that surpasseth that of women), and in the present day Red William’s great biographer Frank Barlow established a far more sympathetic picture of a man who never expected to be king but who energetically seized every chance that fortune put in his reach.
He fought with his brothers; he fought with his administrators; he fought with rival armies on all sides of his new kingdom – but he had no guile in him and was just as quick to make amends. In the summer of 1100 he was infamously murdered while out hunting in the forest and left in the dirt as raven-food while all the rival claimants to his throne (several of whom had been out hunting with him that day) rushed away to start plan-making.
A contentious, fascinating figure, then – and a completely marginalized one. The Conqueror has had the predictable amount of attention through the centuries, as has Red William’s successors, Henry I, the Empress Maud, King Stephen, and of course Henry II and his brawling family and priestly friend Thomas Beckett. But William Rufus, like the Roman emperor Claudius before him, waited until the 20th Century to get the romantic epic he deserved.
Marilyn Durham’s novel is long and heavily detailed, and when it appeared in 1983 it – let’s be blunt here – sank like a stone. This was a novelist who’d burst upon the literary scene a decade earlier with the runaway best-seller The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, which was made into a popular movie. That book – following along the trail blazed by David Wagoner’s Where is My Wandering Boy Tonight? and Charles Portis’ True Grit – was simultaneously tough and tender, so redolent of saddle leather and frontier menace that it hardly seemed possible it could have been written by a housewife from Evansville, Indiana. Durham’s publisher offered her prompt studio money to write a follow-up western, and Dutch Uncle appeared in 1973.
There’d be nothing else for ten years, but it would be wrong to call Flambard’s Confession her third book. Writers reading this will be familiar with the phenomenon: there’s almost always that one work, the true receptacle of your heart’s deepest passion. You do all the other writing you need to do – the kinds that get your name out there or pay the bills, and if you’re worth your salt you do it conscientiously, but there’s almost always that one work lurking in the back of your imagination, stealing time and day-dreaming away from all the more pressing stuff. For most novelists, in my experience, that work is a historical novel of some kind – usually something huge and ungainly and, practically speaking, unsellable. These books maintain their claim on their author’s heart (Mark Twain went to his grave loving Saint Joan more than any of his other works), but they seldom strike either aesthetic or financial paydirt with their author’s audience (there are exceptions, of course – both M. M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions and Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth are not only their best-selling books but their best books). Usually, these white elephants see print through the literary version of a extortion: an author who’s made some money for his publisher then calls in some favors to get his real book into bookstores.
I have no idea if Marliyn Durham had to resort to such tactics (and I have no idea whether or not she’s still alive to ask – although Harcourt, Brace at that time was still a fairly classy establishment, so one hopes they at least drummed up the appearance of enthusiasm), but it didn’t matter: most critics couldn’t finish Flambard’s Confession, and most readers didn’t start it. And this is a shame, because the book is exactly what I’m sure Durham knew it was: her masterpiece.
It capitalizes on Flambard’s life-long relationship with William Rufus, which extends from when the Conqueror’s son was just a callow (but well-intentioned) boy:
Young Will had never known battle, though he’d been in his father’s army at the siege of Dol, as squire to Earl Montgomery. He hadn’t needed to win his equipage from a corpse, or had to marry for it. His family and sponsors had supplied all, quietly: the sword, from his father; the helm and shield, from his uncles, Robert of Mortain and Odo of Champagne; the horses, from Odo of Bayeux; and the shirts, tunics, baldric, and other accessories, rather like bride’s gifts, from his mother and sisters.
Flambard is at first conscripted by those uncles to spy on his royal charge, but even in the early stages of that frustrating endeavor, he’s beginning to feel the pull of Rufus’ open, oddly endearing character – it’s a conflict that leads him to start playing double games of his own:
I had more offices than I could fill. I was the chaplain of a young man who stinted his prayers and ignored me. I was a spy for Odo, with no intelligence to report. I was an advocate without influence for Cormac. I tried to make the best of things: Rufus folded his hands morning and night, while I said the prayers for him. I wrote a nonsensical letter for Carileph to send to Odo, outlining his nephew’s character as if his uncle had never before clapped eyes on him. I thought it would show I was observant if not particularly useful. Young William might know every impulse and plan that coursed through his great father’s brain, but if he did, he didn’t prattle about them to me, or to anyone else, so far as I could tell.
Once Red William came into his own, he felt more relaxed in making open displays of the warm and easy affection he tended to feel for most people – and the sexual passion he could so easily feel for handsome young men, including the young Irish bravo Cormac mentioned in that excerpt. But kings make enemies just by breathing, and the factions that quickly developed at Rufus’ court were happy to impute the king’s desires to everybody associated with him – including Flambard, who encounters the spectre of it many times throughout this book, as in conversation with powerful courtier Robert Bloet, in which Flambard protests that he can’t do anything to curb William’s Continental war-making with his brother Robert. Bloet isn’t satisfied with that answer:
“Have you tried? You’re closer to him than any of these -” He left that unfinished. “Closer than anyone except the Atheling since -”
“Since Cormac? I think I shall grow tired of that comparison one day, Robin. I am the king’s confessor. I am his tax collector. I humbly believe myself to be his friend, but I’m not his confidant in matters military. He told me so.”
“Yet you’re the only person who’s ever with him entirely alone, in bedchamber and chancel – no, don’t walk away from me like that!”
I stopped. “Your Grace?”
“I’m sorry, Raf. You know I didn’t mean that as – as it sounded. I’d never accuse you, God knows, of what there are plenty of others to do for him. But there are men in this court who think you have special consideration of him and hate you for it. You could win friends for yourself if you used your influence with him to better ends.”
“What, should I prove nasty suspicion by compromising myself for them? You make me laugh! Let these upright fellows make their own pleas. What I say to the king on the matter of war and taxes is, ‘Yes, Your Grace. I hear and obey, Your Grace.’ On matters of fact I may give him opinions, but on matters of his opinions I hold my tongue.”
I love the masterly ease of the writing there (it’s everywhere on display in this mighty novel), the way we see the actions of the men through their speech, done so confidently the author never needs to break the actual back-and-forth of the exchange, and I love the natural tenor of the dialogue, totally free of anachronistic ‘ye olden times’ phrasings, yet formal enough to feel invitingly non-contemporary. Every dramatic decision in this 760-page book is made perfectly – you’re hooked right away, and you read it hungrily to the end. It’s a great performance, intimidated critics notwithstanding – a feast of a historical novel, one that belongs on the same shelf with equally-neglected classics like Hilda Lewis’ I am Mary Tudor or James Goldman’s Myself as Witness.