Monday, 27 October 2014

The Historical Novel and the Roman World: The Genius of John Williams

In two blog posts last year, I explored the Roman novels of Robert Graves and Marguerite Yourcenar. There are now a great many authors writing novels set in Roman times, but the works of Graves and Yourcenar were pioneering in their time, and have probably been more influential than most. I would certainly acknowledge their influence on my own writing.

John Williams's Augustus has not had a comparable influence on subsequent writers, but many of us are now starting to wonder why. It did, indeed, enjoy a brief moment of recognition, sharing the American National Book Award for 1973 with John Barth's Chimera, but was then forgotten, along with Williams's other novels, Nothing but the Night, Butcher's Crossing and Stoner. It was the publication of Anna Gavalda's French translation of Stoner last year that sparked a renewed interest in Williams's work, The New Yorker describing it as "the greatest American novel you've never heard of."



It was, therefore, with a sense of anticipation that I picked up a copy of Williams's Augustus earlier in the summer, a book which nobody I knew seemed to have read (though many have done so now). In terms of quality, my judgement is that it is right up there with Graves and Yourcenar. Williams was, of course, writing after them, and was doubtless familiar with their work. He consciously adopted a different approach. Whilst I Claudius, Claudius the God, and Memoirs of Hadrian are narrated from a single first-person viewpoint, Williams's Augustus is an epistolary novel, with multiple viewpoints. The voice of Augustus himself becomes predominant only towards the end of the book, in a long letter written to a distant friend.

The Emperor Augustus, statue in the Vatican Museum. Photo: Till Niermann (licensed under GNU).

Many of the characters in Augustus will be familiar to modern readers, whether from primary texts, such as Suetonius's Lives of the Twelve Caesars, or from the novels of Robert Graves, Robert Harris or Colleen McCullogh. Julius Caesar is there, along with Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Cicero, Augustus's scheming wife, Livia, and wayward daughter, Julia. Some of these (Cicero being the prime example) are relatively easy to characterise, since they have left us so many documents in their own words. Others, especially the women, are much more difficult.

Graves's Livia, a villainess to rival Lady Macbeth, is a glorious literary creation, but I have never quite been able to believe in her historicity. Williams's Livia, on the other hand, rings true to me. She is emotionally manipulative, but no more so than certain people I have known in the real world: she doesn't need to be - she has the ear of the most powerful man on Earth, which the people I have known did not.

The Empress Livia Augusta, statue in The Louvre. Photo: ChrisO (licensed under GNU).

Julia is also handled sympathetically (her diaries, from her exile on the remote island of Pantaderia, form an important part of the book). She is intellectually sophisticated, but politically naïve, and, having been forced into a series of loveless marriages, she decides to chose her own path, she is drawn into intrigues that stretch much further than she can understand.

Julia the Elder, daughter of Augustus, as imagined by Pavel Svedomskiy (image is in the Public Domain).

Ultimately, the figure that is most difficult to grasp is that of Augustus himself. Has there ever been, in human history, an individual who has so transformed himself, and his public image: from brutal warlord to peaceable father of his nation, and ultimately a god?

The Ara Pacis, Augustus's Altar of Peace in Rome. Photo: Ben Demey (licensed under CCA).

Williams has here imagined that transformation, as seen by those closest to the man himself. The Augustus that emerges is a heroic figure, since he chooses the interests of Rome (and, by implication, civilisation) over his personal happiness, but the path he chooses comes at a heavy price, not all of which he can bear himself. His final thoughts, however, are optimistic:

"Rome is not eternal; it does not matter. Rome will fall; it does not matter. The barbarian will conquer; it does not matter. There was a moment of Rome, and it will not wholly die; the barbarian will become the Rome he conquers; the language will smooth his rough tongue; the vision of what he destroys will flow in his blood. And in time that is ceaseless as this salt sea upon which I am so frailly suspended, the cost is nothing, is less than nothing."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.





Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Historical Fiction as Conceptual Art (or Conceptual Art as Historical Fiction)

Conceptual art is not everyone's cup of tea, and it isn't always mine, but the curatorial team at London's Hayward Gallery have a remarkable track record of identifying and showcasing the very best of it, so I was excited, yesterday, by the opportunity of seeing their latest exhibition, Mirrorcity.

The Hayward Gallery. Photo: Graham Parker (licensed under CCA).

"London artists on fiction and reality," is the subtitle of the exhibition, and sums up neatly what the exhibition seems really to be about. The contributing artists were also asked to "explore the effect the digital revolution has had on our experiences," but they seem to have interpreted that part of the brief very widely indeed and, for what it is worth, I think the exhibition is far more interesting as a result.

As in all such exhibitions, I found some works more appealing than others, but the one I was most immediately drawn to was Lindsay Seers's Nowhere less now 4, iamnowhere. It takes the physical form of part of an upturned ship, and we are told that it represents a specific ship, HMS London, which served, in the late 19th Century, as part of a flotilla working to eradicate the Arab controlled slave trade in the waters around Zanzibar. The visitor is invited to "board" the ship, and a collage of images and sounds is played out before us.

HMS London in 1881. Photo: Illustrated London News (image is in the Public Domain).

Seers's starting point is biographical. Her great-great uncle, George Edwards, served in this flotilla (although on HMS Kingfisher, rather than HMS London). She links fragments of her own family story with fragments of other stories, including that of Princess Sayyida Salme, the daughter of the Sultan of Oman, who, in 1866, became pregnant by her German lover, and was carried to safety on a Royal Navy frigate (Seers has even created a "figurehead" for her HMS London, as a likeness of Sayyida).

Sayyida Salme, with her husband, Rudolph Heinrich Ruete, and their two children. Rudolph was killed in a tram crash in 1870, and, to offset financial worries, she published her memoirs and letters.

One of the "characters" in Seers's "neo-narrative" is also one of her collaborators, the Swedish dancer, Ina Dokmo. Ina recalls watching, with her English father, Daniel, a German silent movie (Arnold Fanck's Der heilige Berg), including a dance scene. The scene remained in her mind, and would ultimately inspire Ina herself to become a dancer.

The dance scene from Der heilige Berg (image is in the Public Domain).

Only years later did Ina realise that the dancer in the scene was the young Leni Riefenstahl, who would subsequently go on to become a photographer, film-maker and Nazi propagandist. This becomes the launching point for a visual, verbal and musical odyssey, which takes us from Zanzibar to Heligoland (where the film was made, and where Ina performs the dance for us), and explores the moral legacy of the slave-trade, colonialism and the Holocaust.

There is a twist, in that Ina and her father (at least in this version of their lives - the boundaries between fiction and reality are deliberately blurred) are both schizophrenic. Their illness gives them a different grasp on reality (moral, as much as physical), and a different set of emotional responses to memory, so that we see the world through the prism of an unfamiliar viewpoint (just as we do when we read a novel).

Lange Anna, Heligoland, which features both in Fanck's film and in Seers's. Photo: Unukorno (image is in the Public Domain).

This is, it seems to me, a work of historical fiction at the same time as being a work of art: just like a historical novel, it explores general themes through the eyes of specific characters (who are, inevitably, fictionalised, even if they are based on historical individuals); it is based on research (Seers made use of the National Archives - where she and I may well have been sitting at the same table - and visited the key locations). There is, indeed, a book accompanying the art work: it is half-novella, and half-dialogue (with the travel writer and novelist, Nick Maes, whose comments on the text Seers includes rather than responding to or incorporating).

The book has this comment on its back cover:

"The work of Lindsay Seers cannot be understood or enjoyed in any manner other than being present, one's physical presence is obligatory, as no photograph, no video, no clip nor description can convey its effect or intention. It is in no way reproducible and thus remains a sacrosanct experience, a personal engagement, in an age in which most artists' oeuvre can be clicked through on a website."

Having experienced it, I can do no more than endorse this comment.

The exhibition, Mirrorcity, is at the Hayward Gallery, and is open daily until Sunday 4th January.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Friday, 17 October 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 20 - "Shipwrecks," by Akira Yoshimura

Mention Medieval Japan, and the world that is conjured up, for many people, is that of Shoguns and Samurai. The lives of most Japanese people of the time, however, were far removed from this world, just as those of most people in Medieval France were far removed from Eleanor of Aquitaine's "Court of Love."

Samurai boarding enemy (Mongol) ships in 1261 (image is in the Public Domain).

If Akira Yoshimura's novel, Shipwrecks, is set in Medieval Japan, precisely where and when in Medieval Japan is quite unclear (Yoshimura's writing style here resembles that of Jim Crace), because the setting is a remote fishing village. Life in such communities probably changed little between 1000 AD and 1917, when the American photographer, John Wells Rahill, recorded village life for us in a series of images that seem uncannily familiar to me, having read Yoshimura's novel.


A Japanese fishing village in 1917. Photo: John Wells Rahill (image is in the Public Domain).

My best guess is that the novel may well be set during the Ashikaga Shogunate (1336-1573), when trade flourished between Japan and China's Ming Dynasty, Japanese wood, sulphur, copper ore, swords and fans being exchanged for Chinese silk, porcelain, books and coins. It hardly matters, since the village of Yoshimura's protagonist, Isaku, is far from the ports where the trade was taking place.

A 16th Century Japanese ship (c1538), Musee Guimet (image is in the Public Domain).

Isaku is, at the beginning of the novel, a nine-year-old boy, learning to fish himself, at the same time as teaching his younger brother. His father is absent, an indentured labourer for a shipping agent, so the boys are looked after by their resourceful mother, in a village watched over by a local chief. The threat of starvation is never far from the lives of the villagers. The fish they catch is supplemented only by what rice can be obtained by those, like Isaku's father, who work away from the village. At nights, the villagers light fires on the beach, to heat cauldrons of sea-water in order to extract salt. This activity, however, has another, secret purpose: the villagers hope that their fires will lure passing ships onto the rocks, so that they can plunder the cargoes, a rare but eagerly hoped-for occurrence which the villagers call "O-fune-sama."

The morality of this activity is never questioned by the villagers (even though the crews are butchered), but we are far indeed from the black and white moral universe of Daphne Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn: Yoshimura's skill as a writer takes us so deeply into the lives of these people, that we feel what they feel, and understand only too well why they act as they do.

"Old conical hats made of sedge moved in the line of surf. Spray shot up from the breakers, first at the end of the reef-lined shore, and then closer and closer as the waves rushed in, until the water where Isaku was standing swelled up and smashed onto the rocks before streaming back out again. The surface of the water was foaming white from the fierce rain.  mixture of raindrops trickled down through the hole in Isaku's hat. There was only a sliver of sandy beach on this rockbound coast, and there, too, people in sedge hats were busy collecting driftwood ... "

Japanese fishermen in 1917. Photo: John Wells Rahill (image is in the Public Domain.

"Flames rose from under the two cauldrons, flickering in the wind off the sea as sparks scattered on the sand. Isaku watched the flames as he sat next to Kichizo on a log inside a makeshift wooden hut ... A wave of drowsiness suddenly hit Isaku as he warmed himself by the fire. His body was numb, and his eyelids started to feel heavy. If he nodded off, no doubt he would be removed from salt-making duty, and his mother would fly into a rage and beat him ..."

"Soon they reached the top of the promontory. This was the first time Isaku had set foot there ... Down below they could hear the thunderous waves breaking on the rocks ... They could see the water seething white around the reef, and they had a clear view of the wrecked ship. It was an excellent spot to post a lookout ... The fleet of small boats converged on the stranded ship, eventually surrounding it just like a horde of ants around a caterpillar. Several boats drew up alongside the ship, and he could see people climbing aboard ... "

A 16th Century image of Japanese ships (image is in the Public Domain).

There is a twist in this particular tale, an unforeseen consequence of the villagers' opportunism which changes the course of this coming-of-age story, dashing Isaku's hopes for the future. He is alive, and he is reunited with his father, but quite what future lies ahead of them is left, in the end, to the imagination of the reader.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.







Monday, 13 October 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 19 - "Baudolino," by Umberto Eco

Although Charlemagne was crowned as Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III, in 800 AD, the position remained within his family for less than a century, and was afterwards contested between various Italian claimants. In 962 AD, a German Prince, Otto I, adopted the title, presenting himself as Charlemagne's successor. From this point onwards, the office was elective among German prince-electors, each successive emperor having the difficult task of holding together a patchwork of around 1600 individual German principalities.

In 1152, Frederick Duke of Swabia was elected King of Germany. Three years later, he was crowned Roman Emperor by Pope Adrian IV. His approach to the challenge of Empire was to emphasise both the "Holy" and the "Roman" dimensions of his rule, subjugating the states of northern Italy and transferring sacred relics from Italy to Germany.

Bust of the Emperor Frederick "Barbarossa," Church of St John the Evangelist, Coppenburg. Photo: Montecappio (licensed under CCA).

The Shrine of the Magi in Cologne Cathedral, perhaps the largest Medieval reliquary ever made. The remains believed to be those of the Magi were removed by Emperor Frederick from Milan, and gifted to the Bishop of Cologne. Photo: Arminia (licensed under GNU).

Together with King Philip Augustus of France, and King Richard I of England, Frederick launched the Third Crusade in 1189. Frederick would not live to see either the partial successes, or the ultimate failure, of the crusade: he drowned in the River Saleph (now the River Goksu) in Turkey in June 1190.

The death of the Emperor Frederick, as depicted in the Gotha MS of the Saxon Chronicle. Image is in the Public Domain.

Umberto Eco's novel, Baudolino, begins fourteen years later, with the sack of Constantinople by the forces of the Fourth Crusade. An Italian knight, Baudolino, rescues the (historical) Byzantine administrator, Niketas Choniates, and conveys him to safety in the house of a Genoese merchant.

The sack of Constantinople, as depicted in "La Conquete de Constantinople," by the 14th Century chronicler, Geoffreoy de Villehardouin. Image is in the Public Domain.

The Byzantine administrator and historian, Niketas Choniates, as depicted on a manuscript owned by the National Museum of Austria. Image is in the Public Domain.



Baudolino proceeds to tell Niketas the story of his life: how he was born to a peasant family; how, during the course of a war, he encountered a stranger who was lost in a forest, a stranger who turns out to have been the Emperor Frederick; how Frederick adopted him, had him educated at Paris, and how he later became a trusted minister at Frederick's court, accompanying him up to the moment of his death. He tells, also, of the journey that he subsequently made to seek out the mysterious kingdom of "Prester John," and of the strange creatures he encountered along the way.

"At the edge of the clearing the grasses finally parted, and a creature appeared, thrusting the ferns aside with his hands, as if they were a curtain. Hands they certainly were, and arms, those of the being coming towards them. For the rest, it had a leg, but only one. Not that the other had been amputated; on the contrary, the single leg was attached naturally to the body, as if there had never been a place for another, and with the single foot of that single leg the creature could run with great ease, as if accustomed to moving in that way since birth ..."

A skiapod, as depicted by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1515) in the Nuremburg Chronicle. Image is in the Public Domain.

"They could tell that the city was active and populous from the crowds that animated what were not the streets and squares but, rather, the spaces between peak and spur, between massif and natural tower. It was a multi-coloured crowd, in which dogs and asses mingled, and many camels ... some with one hump, others with two, and still others even with three. They saw also a fire-eater, performing before a cluster of inhabitants whilst holding a panther on a leash. The animals that most surprised them were some very agile quadrupeds, trained to draw carts: they had the body of a foal, quite long legs with bovine hoofs, they were yellow with great brown spots, and, above all, they had a very long neck surmounted by a camel's head with two little horns at the top. Gavagai said that they were cameleopards, difficult to capture because they fled very swiftly, and only the skiapods could pursue them and rope them ..."

Baudolino is, by his own admission, a skilled and accomplished liar, and there are stories within stories, and lies within lies, in Eco's dazzling combination of history and myth. The fabulous creatures of Medieval manuscripts seem to leap off the page and, along the way, Eco provides fictional solutions to various historical conundrums, including the circumstances of Emperor Frederick's death, and the origins of the Shroud of Turin. At the end of the book, Baudolinio and his companions go their separate ways, each committed to telling his own story in his own way until, a companion of Niketas suggests, "a greater liar than Baudolino" comes along to tell the story afresh.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Monday, 6 October 2014

The Prehistory of the Family - Engaging with real lives in the distant past

Every so often one opens a newly published book and discovers, to one's surprise, that someone else has been thinking along the same lines as oneself. This happened to me, most recently, when a review prompted me to buy a copy of Francis Pryor's Home - A Time Traveller's Tales from British Prehistory (Penguin). Although I have long been aware of Pryor's archaeological work in the fenlands of East Anglia, our professional paths intersected only at occasional conferences. We both studied Archaeology & Anthropology at Cambridge (not at the same time), but our careers then diverged, he as a professional field archaeologist, I as an academic.



Francis Pryor and I have both produced our share of conventional archaeological monographs, but Home is not one of these, any more than my novel, Undreamed Shores, is one of them. We both reached a point, it seems, at which we saw the need for a different sort of engagement with the human past, through fiction in my case, and through a different sort of non-fiction in his.

"One of the aspects of archaeology that had irritated me," Pryor writes, "was what seemed like an obsession with object classification ... very few researchers seemed at all concerned with the human beings who made and used the things. There was even less concern with what the objects might have meant to people living at the time."

One of the enduring metaphors in archaeology is the "ladder of inference" set out by Professor Christopher Hawkes. Starting from the archaeological record, it is relatively easy to make inferences about prehistoric technology, somewhat more difficult to make inferences about prehistoric economies or social organisation, and almost impossible to make inferences about the belief systems or the emotional lives of people in the distant past. Often, as an archaeologist, I found myself tottering about on the top rungs of this "ladder" and, more than once, a colleague compared my arguments to the musings of a historical novelist. It was, perhaps, inevitable, that I would eventually rise to the challenge and actually write a historical novel.



Pryor is especially critical of what he sees as a "top-down" approach to the past, focussing on "the acts of kings and queens." His starting point, instead, is the "simple notion that, even way back in prehistory, the idea of home life ... mattered to people," and that archaeology is uniquely well-placed to explore the domestic lives of ordinary people in the distant past, since they have left physical traces in the ground, even if they were very unlikely to have been documented by historians.

"My argument," he continues, "is that, in their quiet, unassuming manner families have always been the main source of ideas and innovation for local communities, whose emerging institutions ... have reflected this fact."

In his search for a "less hierarchical" view of the past, Pryor was inevitably going to come up against specific evidence for the existence of hierarchies. One such example is the burial of the "Amesbury Archer" ("Arthmael" in Undreamed Shores). This man was an outsider (chemical analysis demonstrated that he had grown up in central Europe), who lived in the immediate area of Stonehenge at just the time it was being built, and he was buried with many more grave-goods than most of his contemporaries.

The burial of the "Amesbury Archer." Photo: Wessex Archaeology (reproduced with permission).

Copper knives from the grave of the "Amesbury Archer," some of the earliest metal objects found in Britain. Photo: Wessex Archaeology (reproduced with permission).

The Amesbury Archer was discovered in 2002, but similar discoveries have been made in the past, and were often seen as evidence for "invasions," in this case of the "Beaker People." Such ideas were already discredited when I studied at Cambridge in the 1980s, and we were taught to think in terms of social categories, the emergence of "Big Men" or "Chiefs." Throughout the 1990s my books and articles were peppered with such terms, but somehow they always seemed empty: they were, after all, categories, and I wanted to talk about people. The family, as an institution, was not a conscious starting point for me, as it was for Francis Pryor, but it quickly came to the fore when I sat down to write the novel. I wanted my characters to seem like real people, and real people have parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, friends and rivals.

The Amesbury Archer, as displayed in the Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum. Photo: Pasicles (licensed under CCA).

"I'm in little doubt," Pryor writes, "that there were new arrivals, but these people settled within, and were accepted by, local communities who would, of course, have benefitted from the new technologies of metalworking they brought with them."

I had not read this when I wrote Undreamed Shores, but I had certainly reached the same conclusion, and I went on to think about the circumstances of Arthmael's arrival and acceptance, the nature of his relationships with local people, and also some of the tensions that might arise. As an archaeologist, I tended not to think in these terms: I knew that I wanted to, but I also knew that the archaeological evidence could not provide answers to the questions I wanted to pose.

The grave of the "Boscombe Bowmen" was discovered in 2004, close to that the "Amesbury Archer," and the circumstances of this discovery (a mass-grave, with only one articulated skeleton) were so unusual that an element of the storyline immediately suggested itself. They too, became characters (Engus, Fodri, Eyan & Derog), enmeshed in their own networks of relationships.

The grave of the "Boscombe Bowmen." Photo: Wessex Archaeology (reproduced with permission).

I can certainly recommend Pryor's Home as a book which explores the prehistory of Britain in a new and exciting way: it is discursive, anecdotal and very personal, but it is also rooted in real archaeological evidence. The conclusion that he and I both seem to have reached independently is that, to have a full understanding of the human past, our own life experiences have to be admitted as evidence, something that "scientific" archaeologists find it very hard to do. Inevitably, that involves an embrace of subjectivity, which may lead us in different directions, but may also allow us to bring new insights to the sites and monuments that fill our landscape, and the objects that fill the cases of our museums.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.






Monday, 22 September 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 18 - "Samarkand," by Amin Maalouf

During the course of the 11th and 12th Centuries, a powerful new empire emerged in central Asia, that of the Seljuk Turks. Arising in the territories that now comprise Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, the Seljuks, under Sultan Alp Arslan, annexed Armenia and Georgia in the 1060s, and then embarked on a series of wars with the Byzantine Empire. By the middle of the 12th Century, the Seljuk empire stretched from the Hindu Kush to eastern Anatolia, and from central Asia to the Persian Gulf, giving its rulers effective control over the trade in silks and spices between China and India in the east, and Europe and north Africa in the west. New cities grew up along these trade-routes: Samarkand, Bukhara, Isfahan, Tabriz.

The Bibi Khanym mosque in Samarkand, photographed by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokodin-Gordskii in 1903 (image is in the Public Domain).

Sunni Islam was the religion of the empire's rulers, but, among their subjects were significant minority communities, including Shiites, various Sufi sects, Jews and Zoroastrians, giving rise to tensions that sometimes spilled over into violence. In the courts of the Seljuk rulers, however, medicine, mathematics and poetry thrived, in many cases building on the Hellenistic traditions that had flourished in the region since the time of Alexander the Great.



Amin Maalouf's Samarkand is, in effect, two related novels bound in a single cover. The first of these is spans the late 11th and early 12th Centuries, and is a fictionalised biography of the Persian poet, mathematician and philosopher, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131). Khayyam's poetry is notoriously difficult to translate, and history has recorded few biographical details, so the novelist has a good deal of flexibility in creating his character.

The Rubaiyaat of Omar Khayyam, as produced by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones (image is in the Public Domain).

He is here presented as a man devoted to learning, whose advice is greatly valued by the most powerful men of his day, but who is, himself, wary of political power. Central to this characterisation is the passionate affair between Maalouf's Khayyam and a (fictional) woman poet of the Seljuq court.

"On a table under an awning of vine stood a long-necked carafe for the best shiraz white wine with just the right hint of muskiness and all around a hundred bowls burst into a riotous feast. Such was the ritual of a June evening on Omar's terrace ... A soft wind from the yellow mountains blew through the orchards in flower. Jahan picked up a lute and plucked one string and then another ... Omar raised his goblet and inhaled deeply ..."

This idyll, however, is not destined to last, for over it hangs the threat posed by Khayyam's one time friend, but ultimate nemesis, Hassan-i Sabbah, the leader of a fundamentalist sect.

In the second half of the novel, we meet the supposed author of the first, the (fictional) American orientalist, Benjamin O. Lesage, who visits Iran in the first decade of the 20th Century, in search of the original manuscript of Khayyam's Rubaiyaat, and is drawn into the country's Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911).

Morgan Shuster and his team of American financial advisers, appointed by the constitutional government of Iran in 1911, but subsequently dismissed in the face of diplomatic intervention by Britain, and military threats from Russia.

It is a time of hope both for the country, which has adopted a democratic constitution, and appointed a team of American advisers to manage the transition to modernity, and for Lesage personally, who not only finds his manuscript, but also meets the love of his life. Lesage's affair with Princess Shireen closely mirrors Khayyam's relationship with Jahan, but is similarly overshadowed by politics, as 20th Century Iran's infant democracy is strangled by Russian and British Imperial ambitions.

"It was a privilege to be present at the awakening of the Orient. It was a moment of intense emotion, enthusiasm and doubt. What ideas, both brilliant and monstrous, had been able to sprout in its sleeping brain? What would it do as it woke up? ... Shireen was jubilant: 'Last Friday,' she wrote, 'some young mullahs tried to raise a mob in the bazaar. They called the constitution a heretical innovation and tried to incite the crowd to march on ... the seat of the Parliament - but without success ...I can hardly believe it - fanaticism is dead in Persia.'"

From the outset, we know how the novel is going to end:

"At the bottom of the Atlantic there is a book. I am going to tell you its history. Perhaps you know how the story ends ... When the Titanic went down on the night of 14 April 1912 ... its most eminent victim was a book, the only copy of the Rubaiyaat of Omar Khayyam ..."

RMS Titanic at Southampton Docks (image is in the Public Domain).

Published in 1988, long before the toppling of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, or the disappointments of the 'Arab Spring,' Samarkand is a poignant and prescient novel, which gives a valuable historical insight into the origins of the conflicts between Asia and Europe; between Shia and Sunni; and between tolerance and fundamentalism; which have overshadowed the world for centuries, and continue to do so today.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Historical Fiction on the Stage: "Sly Movements in the Shadows"

"But turn away from the light of reason and you catch, out of the corner of your eye, sly movements in the shadows. They are faint, flitting archetypes: the fool and the sorcerer, the virgin and the whore. You can hear the wheel of fortune creaking, and the gods giggling behind their hands ... " Dame Hilary Mantel.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the RSC productions of Mike Poulton's adaptations of Mantel's novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and last night, at a function organised by the Royal Society of Literature and Intelligent Life magazine, I saw Mantel in conversation with the actress, Dame Harriet Walter and playwright, Timberlake Wertenbaker, about (among other things) the relationships between fiction and drama.



"In our time," Marguerite Yourcenar once wrote, commenting on her novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, "the novel devours all other forms; one is almost forced to use it as the medium of expression. This study of the destiny of a man named Hadrian would have been cast in the form of a tragedy in the Seventeenth Century, or of an essay, perhaps, in the period of the Renaissance."

This is very much a Francophone perspective, of course: in the English tradition it is more likely to have been cast in the form of a tragedy in the period of the Renaissance (Marlowe might have got around to it had he lived a little longer), and as a satirical poem in the later Seventeenth Century. Even allowing for this, however, the novel has never been the only literary response to the past. A few years ago I saw Dame Harriet in the Donmar Warehouse's production of Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart, and the tradition of the history play, which goes back to Shakespeare, has recently been given new life in Rona Munro's cycle "The James Plays" which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival this summer.



Nobody, of course, takes Shakespeare's history plays seriously as "history," and this seems to have rubbed off in the way in which the genre more generally is perceived. When I suggested, recently, to a friend that Arthur Miller's The Crucible could be seen as "historical fiction" in much the same way as my novel, An Accidental King, is historical fiction, his response was that I took the history itself far more seriously; that, for Miller, the historical context was simply a device for exploring modern themes (the McCarthyite "witch hunts" of 1950s America).



I was far from sure about this, having seen the play at the Old Vic earlier in the summer, and am even less sure now, having read Miller's essay "The Road to The Crucible." In it he describes his visit to Salem, the time he spent examining the original court records, the way he used these to shape the dialogue in his play, his tracing on the ground the footsteps of his characters:

"The tourists pass the books, the exhibits, and no hint of danger reaches them from the quaint relics. I have the desire to tell them the significance of those relics. It is the desire to write."

Abigail Williams's testimony from the Salem witch trials of 1692 (image is in the Public Domain).

That sounds very much like my own process of research and writing and, if Miller had the events of his own times in his mind as well, then so did I: An Accidental King was, in part, a response to 9/11 but, more importantly, it stems from a realisation that events in different periods reveal more profound truths about the human psyche and its interactions with the world of events.

Certainly Miller made some historical mistakes (I try to avoid them, as he probably did), and he also made some deliberate changes to the historical circumstances (changing the ages of some of his characters, for example, which I wouldn't personally do - but each writer must, in Margaret Atwood's phrase, negotiate their own compact with the dead), but his project does not seem to me to be so different from my own.

It remains the case, however, that whilst successful novels are often adapted for stage and screen, it is much less common for plays or films to be adapted as novels (there are plenty of novels about the Salem witch trials, but nobody has ever tried to adapt Miller's play). The novel does seem, pace Yourcenar, to be the default option when we seek an understanding of the past through stories.

Adapting a novel for the stage, as Poulton has done with Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, is a different enterprise from the writing of history plays such as The Crucible or The James Plays. The fictional world has already been created; the gaps that, in Mantel's words, history is "hiding in its sleeve" have already been filled by the novelist. There were certain passages in the novels that I struggled to imagine how they would transfer to the stage-script:

"The Cardinal's scarlet clothes ... cannot be wasted ... you will see a glimpse of them in a man's inner sleeve, or in the flash of a whore's petticoat ..." (Wolf Hall).

"His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretches behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist ... " (Bring Up the Bodies).

In fact, Poulton makes no attempt to replicate either scene. Plays and novels are different things, and what works in one format does not work in another. In the first instance, the memory of Cardinal Wolsey is kept in the mind of the audience through the ghostly presence of the actor playing him at key moments during the second play (Thomas Cromwell, similarly, is constantly visible to the audience throughout both plays, even when he is not visible to the other characters on stage). In the second instance, Poulton has created an entirely different opening: the actor playing Thomas Wyatt comes on stage and recites a subtly modified version of the historical Wyatt's sonnet, Whoso lists to Hunt, I know where is an Hind.

"It is not easy to turn a novel into a play," Mantel tells us, "and it requires insight and technique that I myself could not have supplied. But I am happy to have been part of it. I'm not dispossessed of my novel. I'm not evicted; we're just moving to another part of the wood."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.