Friday, 24 May 2013

Prehistory and Fiction: "Undreamed Shores" One Year On

My debut novel, Undreamed Shores, was published a year ago today. At the time it was available only as an e-book, but my publishers, Crooked Cat, who had been in business for less than a year, soon expanded their operation to include paperbacks. They are publishing my second novel, An Accidental King, later this year but, if I appear to be churning them out at a rate of one a year, it's an illusion. I started work on Undreamed Shores in 2006, and penned the first sentences of An Accidental King in 2009. It's just that it takes a whole lot longer to edit a book than it does to research and write it, and I'm not sure that spending a whole year just editing (300 words a day or thereabouts) would be good for my sanity, so I've always started on the next book before the current one is ready to submit.

Before I published Undreamed Shores I undertook a brief survey of fiction set in prehistoric times (it's on my website - There's a fair amount of it, but the corpus includes only a handful of truly memorable works. It was interesting, therefore, that, whilst I was writing my novel, two other writers were, quite independently, working on very similar projects. J.S. Dunn's Bending the Boyne came out a year ahead of mine, and J.P. Reedman's Stone Lord appeared soon afterwards. The three books are set within a few hundred years of each other (between 2500 and 1900 BC), and the paths of our protagonists cross repeatedly. No doubt we were all inspired by a series of dramatic archaeological discoveries in the early years of this century, which somehow seemed to make the distant past more immediately accessible on a human level. It can hardly be a coincidence that each of the three books includes a character based on one of these discoveries - the so-called "Amesbury Archer" (

The remains of the "Amesbury Archer" (Arthmael in Undreamed Shores), as displayed in the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.

Since the publication of Undreamed Shores, more tangible flesh has been added to the bones of Britain's prehistoric past than words alone can provide. Some of the houses that I describe have been reconstructed ( by English Heritage, and they are pretty much as I imagined them. The boat in which my characters make their epic journey has also been reconstructed ( and, to the relief of all concerned, it does actually float.

A Neolithic house reconstructed at Mouslecomb Primary School, Brighton, on the basis of evidence from Durrington Walls (Wiko-Elawar in Undreamed Shores).

              The reconstructed Bronze Age boat takes to the water in Falmouth.

One of the perils of writing historical fiction based on archaeological evidence, rather than the conventional written history of more recent times, is that one chance discovery tomorrow could change our whole picture of what life was like at a given moment in time. New research on Stonehenge has been published since I wrote Undreamed Shores and, if I had known then what I know now, some of my detailed descriptions might have been a little different.

In broader terms, however, many aspects of the society portrayed by Dunn, Reedman and myself seem to be confirmed by the most recent research: a society poised on the edge of the most profound technological, social and religious change; in which new conflicts emerged as people travelled more extensively than their parents or grandparents had ever done, establishing new relationships between communities that had previously lived separate lives. Such depictions are necessarily "of their time" - I can only present the society of 2400 BC as it is understood in 2012/2013. Someone writing a similar novel in 2050 will probably see things very differently.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publication, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Europe's First Novel? The Satyricon of Petronius

In the week that sees the UK release of Baz Luhrmann's film, The Great Gatsby, it may be interesting to reflect on one of the works that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald's book. Fitzgerald saw in The Satyricon of the Roman writer, Petronius, a reflection of the decadence of his own age. He originally entitled his work Trimalchio, after one of Petronius's characters (the original text remains in print under this title with Cambridge University Press).

The Satyricon (which most scholars now agree was written in the mid-1st Century AD) has a justifiable claim to be one of Europe's first novels (Apuleius's work, Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass, is more than a century later). Whilst there is no direct continuity between these two isolated Roman works and the modern novelistic tradition, it may be more than a coincidence that some of the earliest modern novels (Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones, Moll Flanders) follow The Satyricon in adopting anti-heroic or "picaresque" themes. Printed versions of The Satyricon circulated from the mid-17th Century, and English translations from 1694.

The Satyricon is a first person narrative of a journey made by a former gladiator, Encolpius, in company with a male friend (and former lover), Ascyltos, and a slave-boy, Giton, with whom they are both sexually entangled. The text is incomplete (the surviving fragments add up to a novella, but the original may have been as long as Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu). It includes encounters with a Priapic priestess, an alcoholic witch and a married woman who becomes infatuated with Giton. The most famous passage centres around a lavish banquet hosted by Trimalchio, a fabulously wealthy, but comically vulgar freedman (former slave). Federico Fellini made a film adaptation of The Satyricon, and the relevant scene is available at

                         Trimalchio's banquet in Fellini's screen adaptation.

For me, the most interesting aspect of The Satyricon lies in the insights that it gives into the daily lives of ordinary Romans (although these insights are not unbiased - the author, Petronius, was a courtier, who shared the common aristocratic prejudice against freedmen). Marguerite Yourcenar argued that we know little of the spoken language of the ancient world, but The Satyricon includes dialogue, just like a modern novel:

"Interpellavit tam dulces fabulas Trimalchio: nam iam sublatum erat ferculum, hilaresque convivae vino sermonibusque publicatis operam coeperant dare. Is ergo reclinatus in cubitum: 'Hoc vinum, inquit, vos oportet suave faciatis: pisces natare oportet. Rogo, me putatis illa cena esse contentum, quam in theca repositorii videratis? Sic notus Vlixes? Quid ergo est? Oportet etiam inter cenandum philologiam nosse. Patrono meo ossa bene quiescant, qui me hominem inter homines voluit esse...'"

            A family feast, from a mural of the 1st Century AD, found at Pompeii.

"This agreeable gossip was here interrupted by Trimalchio; for the second course had now been removed, and the company being merry with wine began to engage in general conversation. Our host then, lying back on his elbow and addressing the company, said: 'I hope you will all do justice to this wine; you must make the fish swim again. Come, come, do you suppose I was going to rest content with the dinner you saw boxed up under the cover of the tray just now? Is Ulysses no better known? Well, well! Even at table we mustn't forget our scholarship. Peace to my worthy patron's bones, who was pleased to make me a man amongst men...'" (translated by Alfred R. Allinson, 1930).

I can well understand why Yourcenar chose not to use this as a model for the conversations that may have taken place at Hadrian's court, preferring to leave dialogue out altogether. As far as the Roman Empire more generally is concerned, however, and the 1st Century AD specifically, this is about as close to "tonal authenticity" as one can ever hope to come.

At least two English translations of the full text are freely available online:
The latter displays the Latin text and English translation side by side.
The Satyricon includes material of an adult nature.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed ShoresAn Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Historical Novel and the Roman World: The Genius of Marguerite Yourcenar

"Imagine Machiavelli's The Prince," wrote Joseph Epstein, in The Wall Street Journal, "written not by an Italian theorist, but by a true prince. Imagine, further, that he also lets you in on his desires, his fears, his aesthetic, his sensuality, his feelings about death - in a manner at once haute and intimate, and in a prose any emperor would be proud to possess..." The book that Epstein was writing of, however, was written not by "a true prince," but by a Franco-Belgian female intellectual adopting the persona of one.

Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian is, perhaps, the supreme triumph of historical viewpoint and voice in all of 20th Century fiction, and in any language. It is the fictionalised autobiography of the Emperor Hadrian, as though written at the end of his life in the form of an extended valedictory letter to his eventual successor, Marcus Aurelius. Yourcenar's Hadrian reflects on his accession, his military victories and stewardship of the empire; meditates on the ecstasies and tragedies of his personal life; and provides insights into his character, philosophy and legacy.

Unlike Robert Graves's "Claudius" novels, which were written very rapidly, Yourcenar's masterpiece was the fruit of years of reflection. She began work on it in 1924, left the manuscript in Europe when she left for America to escape the chaos of the Second World War, and only picked it up again in 1948. It was first published in French in 1951, and in Grace Frick's English translation in 1957. "There are books," she later said, "which one should not attempt before having passed the age of forty."

Yourcenar has left us not only the work itself, but also some of her workings, intimations of the process by which she brought it into being. Her two essays, "Reflections on the composition of Memoirs of Hadrian" (reprinted with the Penguin edition), and "Tone and language in the historical novel" (included in a volume of her essays entitled That Mighty Sculptor, Time, translated by Walter Kaiser), offer practical advice to writers of historical fiction, and indeed all fiction.

She points out that we simply do not know what the spoken language of the ancient world would have sounded like, and she therefore does not attempt to reproduce it. Instead, she writes the novel as a letter, without dialogue, taking as her model those formal addresses that have survived from the Roman world. From this is born her representation of the Oratio Togata which, even in the labour of love that is Grace Frick's translation, can never be as close to the original Latin in English as it is in Yourcenar's French.

She was very aware that she was attempting something that had not really been done before:

"Someone will say that Corneille in Cinna, Racine in Britannicus, and Shakespeare in Julius Caesar managed it rather well. But that is because they possessed genius. It is also - and perhaps even more to the point - because they were not concerned with tonal authenticity."

We may say what Yourcenar herself, for fear of hubris, dared not say - that she, too, possessed genius - but she was deeply concerned with tonal authenticity, and this concern, above all, shapes the work. "No other document," Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker, takes us so deeply into the pre-Christian mind."

Mark Patton's novel, An Accidental King, will be published by Crooked Cat Publications later this year. His review and notes on Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian can be viewed, free of charge, at

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Historical Novel and the Roman World: The Genius of Robert Graves

Robert Graves's I, Claudius must have been one of the first adult historical novels I ever read. I was fourteen, I think, and had worked my way through Caesar, Tacitus and Suetonius (all in English translation - neither Latin nor Greek was taught in the schools I attended). I wasn't sure what to read next, but happened to be in the library at the same time as my headmaster, who pointed me in the direction of Graves's book. It was one of those books I couldn't put down, and I went on to read Claudius the God and Count Belisarius within the space of a few weeks.

The publication of I, Claudius in 1934 marked a distinct turning point in the development of English historical fiction. It was one of the first novels to focus on a truly remote time period and, on the basis of assiduous historical research, to present it to the reader in all its fascinating otherness.

                                         The first edition of I, Claudius.

Its first person narration (we are invited to see the 1st Century AD through the future emperor's own eyes) and vivid characterisation (Claudius himself is a more sympathetic character in Graves's hands than he probably was in reality, whilst the Empress Livia is shown as a villain to rival even Lady Macbeth) breaks down the distinction between "literary" and "popular" writing, making available, to a broad readership, a familiarity with a past that previously had been accessible only to those who had the privilege of a classical education.

 The historical Claudius (bronze statue in the British Museum).

Humour is an essential part of this characterisation. Graves's Claudius is a dry, ironic observer, prone to gossip and to speculation, an unreliable observer in a way that is very human and, consequently, engaging. He is by no means a hero but, as a guide to the machinations and insanities of the court, he is both informative and entertaining, constantly whispering asides to the reader. It is so well done that the boundaries between the fiction and the scholarship on which it is based seem to melt away. Several times, when I have been lecturing on the 1st Century AD, I have had to stop myself in mid-flow to check that I really was citing Suetonius or Tacitus, rather than Graves.

Graves seems to have had an ambiguous view of his own literary creations, saying, on the one hand, that the Emperor Claudius had appeared to him in a dream, insisting that his true story be told, and, on the other, that he had written the "Claudius" books to a tight deadline, and simply because he needed the cash.

Robert Graves relaxing with the archaeologist, Jacquetta Hawkes, on Mallorca in 1950.

I suspect that he did not have to do much research in order to write the books (he had studied Classics at Oxford), and certainly they brought him commercial success, but this does not in any way diminish the quality of works which, at the time, won the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction, and which have never since been out of print.

The Claudius who will appear, rather briefly, on the pages of my own novel, An Accidental King, owes much to Graves's depiction of the emperor. However cruel and paranoid he may have been in life (and Suetonius certainly presents him as such), he could hardly have remained emperor for thirteen years if he had not been capable of appearing affable and trusting to those people (and my protagonist is one such) on whose loyalty he depended.

Indeed, this dual nature of a man raised to the status of a god is specifically explored by Graves in the second of his "Claudius" novels, Claudius the God. The gods, Graves seems to say, are inhuman and, by the end of the second novel, godlike power has dehumanised Claudius. Even as he continues with his witty asides to the reader, he is able to stand by impassively as the only true friends he has ever had are destroyed, and, ultimately, as his own destruction is plotted.

Episodes of the 1976 TV adaptation of I Claudius, starring Derek Jacobi, are currently being re-broadcast by the BBC, and at least one episode should be available on BBC I-Player.

Mark Patton's novel, An Accidental King, set in the 1st Century BC, will be published by Crooked Cat Publications later this year. His profile and notes to Graves's I, Claudius are available free of charge at