Sunday, 3 July 2011

Top Ten Historical Novels

In The Guardian’s online book discussion last week (www.Guardian/co/uk/Books), novelist Andrew Miller produced a “top ten” list of historical novels. His list, for those who missed it, was:

The Eagle of the Ninth           Rosemary Sutcliff
I, Claudius                             Robert Graves
Kepler                                   John Banville
The Baron in the Trees           Italo Calvino
The Blue Flower                    Penelope Fitzgerald
The Leopard                          Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Memoirs of Hadrian               Marguerite Yourcenar
Rites of Passage                     William Golding

A Place
of Greater Safety      Hilary Mantel
The Siege of Rathnapur          J.G. Farrell.

Some commentators thought it “predictable,” others described it as “Anglo-centric,” although the latter criticism doesn’t really hold, given that two of the titles are translated from other languages (Euro-centric, perhaps).

Such lists are always subjective, of course, so here is mine (in no particular order).

The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff.

Predictable, perhaps, but it was actually the first work of historical fiction I ever read, when I was still in primary school, and it left me with a hunger to read more. If there’s a better reason than that for celebrating a book and its author, I have yet to think of it. I haven’t included Michelle Paver in my list, but I have a feeling that the next generation may include her works with as much predictability as Miller and I include Sutcliff’s.

Claudius the God, Robert Graves.

Here I’m being deliberately perverse, since most people would no doubt follow Miller in listing I, Claudius. For me the two books come as an item, and the second has sometimes been neglected in favour of the first. I Claudius explores how a basically decent man, as disinterested in the pursuit of power as he is ill-equipped for it, becomes, by accident, Rome’s fourth Emperor. It is only in the sequel that we see how even he is compromised and corrupted by power; how, in the process of becoming a god, he sets aside his humanity.

Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar (translated by Grace Frick).

Yourcenar may not be a household name as Graves and Sutcliff are, but those who write as well as read historical fiction greatly value her work. In her French original, Yourcenar went to great lengths to capture the cadences of the elaborate Latin speech that would have been used at Hadrian’s court. It is extraordinarily difficult to render this into English, but the labour of love that is Grace Frick’s translation comes as close as it is possible to come. It is worth pausing to celebrate the translator’s art as well as the writer’s.

The Inheritors, William Golding.

The best historical fiction, like the best science fiction and fantasy writing, has the potential to take the reader into a world that is utterly unfamiliar. Here Golding does precisely this, going further back in time (around 30,000 years) than any of the other titles in my list or in Miller’s. His subject is the encounter between fully modern humans and the last of the Neanderthals, but the breathtaking boldness of his approach is that he shows us this encounter, and the world in which it takes place, from the perspective of the Neanderthals, imagining (since, unlike Yourcenar, he had no means of reconstructing) the rhythm of their lives and language.

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens.

We tend to think of Dickens as a chronicler of his own times, but he set this book, arguably one of his greatest works, almost a hundred years in the past. It has one of the most memorable opening lines in the whole canon of English literature (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...”) and Dickens goes on, at the end of the first paragraph (“ short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for ill, in the superlative degree of comparison only...”) to address, more directly than many other writers have done, the most fundamental relationship in historical fiction: that between the past he is writing about and the present in which he is writing.

Shipwrecks, Akira Yoshimura (translated by Mark Ealey).

This is another book that takes the reader into an entirely unfamiliar world, not only because it is set in Medieval Japan, but also because its protaganist, Isaku, lives in an impoverished coastal village, far from the heroic world of shoguns and samurai which other writers have taken as their milieu. Its theme is the struggle for survival as Isaku comes of age, learning not only to fish, but also to take part in the other source of income for the villagers, o-fune-sama, the deliberate wrecking and plundering of ships.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel.

The court of Henry VIII and, specifically, “the King’s Great Matter,” has generated so much fiction that one might have thought it had been done to death. Hilary Mantel, however, manages to offer something entirely new, both through her choice of protaganist (Thomas Cromwell) and, most particularly, through her extraordinary use of the present tense throughout the book. Lesser (or less experienced) writers should not try this at home!

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (translated by Louise & Aylmer Maude).

It would be difficult to leave this out of a top ten list, although the fact that it was published in the 19th Century makes it easy to forget that it was, even then, a work of historical fiction. Like Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, but to an even greater extent, Tolstoy uses multiple viewpoints to show the reader both the broad sweep of history and the lives of those caught up in it, princes and princesses but also soldiers and peasants. Like Dickens, also, he consciously used historical drama to explore themes of relevance to the present in which he was writing. The thoroughness of Tolstoy’s research for the novel stands as an example to historical fiction writers today (he sought out people who had lived through the events he was writing about, and read hundreds of letters and journals).

The Night Watch, Sarah Waters.

The Second World War, like the reign of Henry VIII, has inspired plenty of fiction but Waters, like Mantel, manages to bring a fresh perspective to bear on it, focussing on the home front, and on the lives of women caught up in it. Interestingly, for a historical novel, it is written “back to front,” with three parts, the first set in 1947, the second in 1944 and the third in 1941. The same characters appear in the three parts, but their relationships shift and change, so that the process of reading the novel is almost akin to following the progress of an archaeological excavation, peeling back first one layer, then another, to reveal what lies underneath.

The Sea Road, Margaret Elphinstone.

I wanted to include one “wild card,” a book that might not appear on other peoples’ lists, written by a contemporary author who has not yet received the acclaim that I think she may deserve. It didn’t take me long to settle on Elphinstone as the author, but I did have to think quite seriously about which of her books to list here. The Sea Road tells the story of the Norse settlement of Greenland and Newfoundland through the eyes of a historical woman (Gudrid Thorbjornsdottir), as recounted to an Icelandic monk at the culmination of a pilgrimage to Rome. It deals with big historical themes (the role of women in Viking society, the relationship between paganism and Christianity, the interactions between Europeans and Amerindians) without seeming remotely didactic, and is a triumph of both characterisation and the lyrical evocation of place.

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