Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Great Books of 2014 - My Personal Choices

2014 has been a great year for books, and especially for historical fiction, so I hardly know where to start. Those that I have enjoyed the most I have already reviewed, either here on my own blog, or elsewhere, so I thought that I would provide links to those reviews, rather than repeating the content here, and instead reproduce the opening paragraphs as an enticement to other readers.

My favourite book of the year is Ali Smith's How to be Both. There are two intertwined stories, which can be read in either order. The story that I read first brings a 15th Century character, invisibly, into the modern world. I won't attempt to reproduce the extraordinary prose poem with which it opens (a tribute, I suspect, to the late, great Edwin Morgan), but here is what follows:

"A boy in front of a painting. Good: I like a good back: the best thing about a turned back is the face you can't see stays a secret: hey: you: can't hear me? Can't hear? No: My chin on your shoulder right next to your ear and you still can't hear, ha well, old argument about eye or ear being mightier all goes to show it's neither here nor there when you're neither here nor there so call me Cosmo call me Lorenzo call me Ercole call me unknown painter of the school of whatever you like I forgive you I don't care - don't have to care - good - somebody else can care ... "

Hannah Kent's Burial Rites was actually published in 2013, but it was published late in the year, and I, like many other readers, did not get to read it until the New Year had begun. It is a stunning evocation of a time and place (19th Century Iceland).

"They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke. I will vanish into the air and the night. they will blow us all out, one by one, until it is only their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then?"

Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake takes the reader into an England devastated and laid waste in the months following the Norman invasion of 1066. It is a book that has divided my friends, much as it seems to have divided the judging panel of the Man Booker Prize (it made it onto the long-list, but not the short-list), some finding it unreadable, but others (including myself) dazzled by the author's use of the English language.

"the night was clere though i slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still

when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after after and for all time. a great wind had come in the night and all was blown then and broc. none had thought a wind lic this colde come for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleeman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when there seems no end to its deopness."

Lucy Pick's Pilgrimage intrigued me from the outset because she was writing about the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela at the same time as I was (my 12th Century story in Omphalos is set just a generation or so after hers, and, by coincidence, one of my characters is actually descended from one of hers).

"'It doesn't seem natural how that girl can make her way around so well when she can't see.'

Gebirga strained her ears to hear the group of nuns, taking a break from their tasks to mutter outside in the July sunshine. Sweat plastered the thin wool of her dress to her back, though the day was barely warm. She imagined the nuns standing there, casting sidelong glances as she entered the monastery gate. She held her head high as she made her way through the courtyard toward them, a strong grip on the lead of her dog, Liisa, and a bundle under her other arm. Liisa would make sure she avoided the worst of the mud puddles from last night's rain, not yet baked dry by the weak northern sun."

Judith Starkston's Hand of Fire takes us onto the familiar ground of the Trojan War, but shows it from the unfamiliar perspective of an Asiatic (Luwian/Hittite) woman.

"Antiope's breath rasped like a distant wave scouring a rocky shore. Too faint to sustain life. Briseis squeezed her mother's hand, then balanced her mother's limp hand on her own, shifting each finger until the two matched up. When had her fingers grown as long as her mother's? It didn't mean she was ready to take on her mother's work alone. She rubbed gently, but Antiope's hand remained slack. Briseis shifted closer to her mother on the bed and adjusted the fleeces cushioning her mother's shoulders from the leather straps pulled across the bed's wooden frame. No response. What should I do, Mama? Tell me how to save you. You've taught me to be a healer from birth, but I don't know this, the one thing I have to know. Tell me."

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

Thursday, 18 December 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 21 - "The Abyss," by Marguerite Yourcenar

In a very real sense, the 16th Century saw the birth of the modern world. As Portuguese, Spanish and British navigators circumnavigated the globe, the map of the world was gradually metamorphosing towards its modern form. The rapid growth of mercantile capitalism opened up new trade routes to the east and to the west.

Francesco Rosselli's map of the world, 1508 (image is in the Public Domain). The eastern coasts of Brazil and Newfoundland are shown, as are the Caribbean Islands.

The "Fool's Cap Map of the World," 1580-90 (image is in the Public Domain). The western coastlines of North and South America can now be seen.

In the field of ideas, Humanist scholars re-engaged with the art and literature of classical antiquity; Christian refugees from fallen Byzantium found work as tutors in the courts of Renaissance Italy, bringing with them not only a knowledge of Greek, but also works by Plato and Aristotle that had not been read in western Europe for almost a thousand years. The dogmas of the Catholic church were called into question, not for the first time, but in a far more comprehensive way than had ever been the case before, with Europe increasingly divided between Catholic and Protestant states.

There were, however, false dawns as well as true ones. The 16th Century was also the golden age of alchemy, combining elements of what we would recognise today as chemistry with elements of mysticism and (by modern standards) pseudo-science.

An alchemist's workshop of c1580 (image is in the Public Domain).

Marguerite Yourcenar's novel, "The Abyss," opens in Flanders with a chance meeting on the road between two young cousins. Both are leaving home to seek their fortunes in this rapidly changing world: Henry Maximilian Ligre, the legitimate son of a wealthy banker, to become a mercenary captain; Zeno, the illegitimate son of the banker's sister, abandoning a career in the church to learn the art of alchemy.

"I'm sixteen," proclaimed Henry Maximilian. "In fifteen more years we shall see if, perchance I'm a second Alexander. In thirty years we'll know if I'm equal or not to the defunct Julius Caesar. Why should I spend my life measuring cloth in a shop in Woolmarket Street? One wants to be a man ... I'm heading for the Alps."

"And I," said Zeno, "for the Pyrenees ... Look there," he said, pointing ahead, "beyond this village, other villages, beyond that abbey, other abbeys ... Beyond the Alps, Italy. Beyond the Pyrenees, Spain ... And farther, still, the sea and its vast expanse, Arabia and the Morea, India and the two Americas. Everywhere valleys where herbs may be gathered, rocks where metals hide, each symbolising a single moment in the Great Transmutation; everywhere magic formulas placed between the teeth of the dead ..."

More than a decade later, again by chance, the two cousins meet again in Innsbruck. Henry Maximilian has proved himself in battle (though not, it seems, as an equal of Alexander), and Zeno (the central, but not the only protagonist of the novel) has worked as an alchemist and physician, variously in Montpellier, in Paris, in Constantinople and in the service of the King of Sweden. Often he has travelled and worked under false names, his published treatises on alchemy having earned him the enmity of senior figures within the church.

Alchemical treatise of Ramon Llull (16th Century, image is in the Public Domain).

Zeno lives in constant fear of torture and violent death, not only because of his alchemical investigations, and the "atheism" inferred from them, but also because of his homosexuality.

" ... one fear was ever present, that of torture. That men should be paid to torment their fellow men systematically was a hideous fact that never ceased to appal this man, whose calling it was to heal. Long since, he had steeled himself, less against the pain of torture (which in itself is hardly worse than what a wounded man feels when operated upon by a surgeon) than against the horror that such pain should be deliberately inflicted ...

Bruges - the execution of monks found guilty of sodomy, 28th June 1578 (image is in the Public Domain). This real event features in Yourcenar's novel.

Yourcenar's narration in this novel follows a model that is, today, somewhat unfashionable - entirely in the third person, and fully omniscient. In some scenes we follow Zeno, and in others we follow one or other of the minor characters (we follow Zeno's step-father, for example, into the 1534 Anabaptist rebellion in Munster). The book is based on meticulous research, over many years, and Yourcenar certainly does not reveal everything she knows. The reader is left to join up many of the dots, but I do not know of a novel that better evokes the spirit of Europe in the first decades of the modern era.

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

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Real Mr Turner

I recently saw Mike Leigh's film, "Mr Turner." It is visually beautiful, recreating, on the cinema screen, some of Turner's best-loved masterpieces, including "The Fighting Temeraire," "Snow Storm," and "Rain, Steam and Speed," and Timothy Spall's performance in the title role is mesmerising, and yet there was something about the film that did not quite convince me. Yesterday, walking through the galleries of Tate Britain's "Late Turner" exhibition, I realised what that something was.

The film is, in part, an exploration of the artist as Demiurge, a man so completely devoted to his art that he cannot find the emotional space to be fully human in his personal relationships. It was not this, however, that I found unconvincing. The Turner of the film has an exclusively visual sensibility, and is wholly adrift in the world of words. The Turner whose world I shared yesterday, on the other hand, was a man who comfortably dined with royalty, and an artist whose paintings engage directly with the written works of Ovid, Virgil and Goethe.

"Glaucus and Scylla," by J.M.W. Turner. The painting depicts a scene from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Photo: Kimbell Art Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

"The Departure of the Fleet," by J.M.W. Turner. The scene depicted is from Virgil's Aeneid, with Aeneas's fleet sailing away from Carthage. Photo: Tate Britain (image is in the Public Domain).

"Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory)," by J.M.W. Turner. Photo: Tate Britain (image is in the Public Domain).

In an exhibition that is very largely drawn from Tate Britain's own permanent collection, I was taken aback at just how much there was new to me, including Turner's "Blue Rigi" paintings, a theme to which he seemingly returned as frequently as Cezanne did to the Montagne-Sainte-Victoire.

"Blue Rigi," by J.M.W. Turner. Photo: Tate Britain (image is in the Public Domain).

At the same time, however, I was drawn to look anew at works I have known since my teenage years. As I research my novels, I always endeavour to see the world through the eyes of my characters, and to exclude any more recent influences, but, looking at Turner's "Modern Rome - Campo Vacino," I now realise that, as he sketched the preliminary drawings for it, he must have been sitting in almost exactly the same spot as I sat to write the first draft of this passage from An Accidental King:

"I stood on the edge of the hill as the sun sank in the sky behind me, looking down on the magnificence of the temples below, with their tall, glowing columns, triangular pediments and gilded statues of the gods. Everything was symmetrical, everything smooth and elegant ... a city planned and laid out by men aspiring to be gods ..."

"Modern Rome - Campo Vacino," by J.M.W. Turner. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: Rosemania (licensed under CCA).

Is this coincidence, I wonder, or was it a subconscious memory of Turner's painting (glimpsed in reproduction - I saw the original for the first time yesterday) that prompted me to sit down on that precise spot and open my notebook?

Similarly, when I wrote these words in Omphalos, I did so on the basis of much research into Medieval near-death experiences, and yet still I have to ask myself whether Turner's "angel standing in the sun," the original of which I had seen many times, does not lie behind them, positioned somewhere in the recesses of my mind?

"He is on a hill, beside an apple tree in bloom. Below him, a deep and raging torrent flows beneath a narrow bridge into a cavern. From where he stands, three paths diverge. One leads across the bridge, into a meadow filled with fragrant flowers. A second runs along the river and descends with it into the gloomy cave ... He turns away. A figure stands beside him, shining like the sun. He thinks, perhaps, it is Saint Michael. With sword outstretched, the figure points his way along the third path, which leads over mountains and deserts to a distant city on a hill, with a bridge of gold extending from it ..."

"The angel standing in the sun," by J.M.W. Turner. Photo: Tate Britain (image is in the Public Domain).

Walking through the exhibition yesterday, the Turner I encountered was a man who walked many of the paths that I have walked myself, preoccupied with many of the same concerns about history, mythology, literature and what it means to be human; exploring these themes through pigments as I explore them through words; never fully satisfied with the canvas he had just completed, but always striving for new ways of depicting a reality at once physical and metaphysical.

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

Thursday, 4 December 2014

"Omphalos" Publication Day

My third novel, Omphalos, is published today by Crooked Cat Publications. The first review is available on Richard Abbott's webpage, and previews of the six stories that make up the novel can be found below, in my November blog-posts. There are also visual previews on Pinterest.

"Omphalos is a beautiful book ... elaborately structured ... peeling layers of history back successively from the present day back to the time of Undreamed Shores, then returning, layer by layer, to the present day ... " Richard Abbott.

"Patton does an admirable job of giving his reader a real sense of each time period ... Nuggets of the over-arching story could be discovered in each tale, subtle, unearthed, as I read through the pages. It was like being on an archaeological dig - something I've always wanted to do." LuAnn Braley.

As of today, I am embarking on a virtual book-tour, the stopping points of which are listed below.

Friday 5th December: Review at Back Porchervations.

Friday 5th December: Review on Nancy Jardine's blog.

Friday 5th December: Introducing one of my characters at English Historical Fiction Authors.

Monday 8th December: Guest post and giveaway at Words and Peace.

Tuesday 9th December: Guest post on Jane Bwye's blog.

Wednesday 10th December: Interview at Back Porchervations.

Thursday 11th December: Guest post at Just One More Chapter.

Monday 15th December: Review at Book Nerd.

Tuesday 16th December: Review at Svetlana's Reads and Views.

Thursday 18th December: Guest post at What Is That Book About.

Friday 19th December: Review at Diary of an Eccentric.

Sunday 21st December: Interview with Maria Grace.

I hope to catch up with some old friends along the way!

La Hougue Bie, Jersey, the "omphalos" of the title. Photo: Man Vyi (image is in the Public Domain).

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

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

"Omphalos" - A Preview of the Sixth Story - "The Song of Strangers"

The sixth and final story in my forthcoming novel, Omphalos, is set in around 4000 BC. If you are wondering why there is such a large time-gap between the fifth and sixth stories, all I can say is that it should be clear by the time you reach the end of the novel!

"The Song of Strangers" is, in a sense, a "prequel" to my first novel, Undreamed Shores, in which one of the characters recites a mythologised poem about a journey made by his distant ancestors:

"Towards the setting of the sun they rowed,
Each day departing with the ebbing tide,
Until they reached a river's gaping mouth,
Beneath the shadow of a stony mound,
A place fresh water might be had, and rest,
Climbing the headland, they approached the mound,
And saw that it was built by human hands,
Of stones piled up on stones, piled up on stones.
Into the side of it were caverns wrought,
Eleven caverns built with massive slabs,
Each guarded by a dark-haired sorceress,
And each one took a rower by the hand.
But one of these was lovelier than the rest,
Egraste with her tresses raven-black,
Txeru's hand she took, and led him in,
Into the cavern deep inside the mound ..."

In "The Song of Strangers," I take the reader closer to the world of Egraste and Txeru themselves: they are the protagonists, but there may already be some mythologizing, since the story is recounted, as an oral tale, by Egraste's three-times great-grand-daughter. It is already clear in Undreamed Shores that the version of the story told by the men differs from that told by the women, and now the reader can discover some of the reasons for this. Unreliable narration aside, the mound in question is that of Barnenez, near Morlaix in northern Brittany. Built in at least two phases, the mound covers eleven "passage graves" of varying construction.

The Neolithic cairn of Barnenez, showing the entrances to the passage-graves. Photo: New Papillon (licensed under GNU).

One of the exposed stone chambers at Barnenez. Photo: Schorle (licensed under GNU).

Just what was a "passage grave," and what happened in them? I have spent much of my academic career trying to work this out, and written several books on the subject. Human remains are found in some, but not all passage graves, and, when they are found, they are often fragmentary. They probably were not permanent repositories for the remains of the dead, and they may have been used by the living for a variety of ceremonies in which the ancestors were invoked.

Jadeite and fibrolite axes from Brittany. Photo: Calame (licensed under CCA).

"The Song of Strangers," however, is not just a story about passage graves (they only really feature at the beginning and the end): it is the story of an epic journey; of transgression and reconciliation; of the lengths that men will go to get their hands on "treasure" (in this case, elaborate axes made from precious stone); of truth and lies, and trust stretched to breaking point.

"Egraste walked along the beach as the first streaks of morning light appeared in the autumn sky. She had left Txeru asleep, hoping to escape the memories that haunted her dreams, but now she had another vision to contend with, that of a woman she had never met, her head smashed open with her father's axe, because of Txeru, because he had tricked her.

Laida was not the one he had loved, Ostargi had said. Presumably that meant that she, Egraste, was the one he loved, but what was his love worth, this man who had abandoned Laida to her fate? Who had, perhaps, fathered a child on Nahia, and returned to her village without a word to say to either of them? He could abandon her just as easily."

Saint-Guirec, Brittany. Photo: Demeester (licensed under CCA).

A further visual preview is available on Pinterest.

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

Saturday, 22 November 2014

"Omphalos" - A Preview of the Fifth Story - "The Path of Stars"

The fifth story in my forthcoming novel, "The Path of Stars" is set in the 12th Century, and follows a knight, Raoul de Paisnel, and his steward, Guillaume Bisson (both characters are fictional), on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrimage in the high middle ages was very different from the tours offered by Venetian galley-owners four centuries later: most people travelled on foot, and faced serious dangers (robbers, bandits, injury, disease) along the way, but they also believed that the experience could save them from eternity in Hell.

Like many of his fellow pilgrims, Raoul has a dark secret in his past, a sin that needs to be expiated, of which Guillaume has no knowledge, since Raoul has shared it only with his confessor, Master Wascius. The confessor is a historical character (the Anglo-Norman poet, Wace, who was also a canon of the Abbey of Saint-Etienne at Caen). In this story, he guides pilgrims along the pilgrimage route from Mont-Saint-Michel to Compostela.

The primary source for anyone writing about the pilgrimage to Compostela is the Codex Calixtinus, a compilation which claims to have been put together by Pope Calixtus II, but which most scholars believe was actually the creation of a French cleric, Aimeric Picaud. It includes a book of liturgies and sermons; records of various supposed miracles; an account of the miraculous translation of St James's body from the Holy Land to Galicia; and music associated with the pilgrimage. Elements of all of these feature in the story.

A page from the Codex Calixtinus. This is the version held by the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (image is in the Public Domain).

The Codex Calixtinus also includes a "Travellers' Guide," which does read very much like a modern tourist guide, but can hardly have functioned as such: only four copies now exist and, whilst there were undoubtedly more copies in the 12th Century, such manuscripts were expensive, and would not have been carried around on the road. I think, therefore, that clerics must have acted as I have Master Wascius acting: he will have studied a copy held by his abbey, or by that of Mont-Saint-Michel, committing much of it to memory, and perhaps also taking notes, and then guiding people on the road itself.

The monastery of Roncesvalles, an important stopping-off point on the pilgrimage route. Photo: Liesel (licensed under GNU).

"Jacobi propicio,
Veniam speremus,
Et quos ex obsequio
Meriti debemus.
E ultreja! E sus eja!

He, Raoul de Paisnel, does not even know what the last exclamations mean, or whether they are in the language of the Galicians or of the Basque people. He chants them anyway, along with many others, as the throng marches into the town of Compostela, cheered by the local people who have come out from their shops and houses to greet the pilgrims. His confessor, Master Wascius of Caen, marches on his right-hand side, bearing Raoul's staff as well as his own, so that Raoul can balance on his shoulder the heavy block of limestone he has carried from the quarry. His worn fingers stretch around it like the ridges of a scallop-shell. To his left marches his steward, Guillaume Bisson, his constant companion on the road from Mont-Saint-Michel."

Charlemagne and his knights on the road to Compostella, from the Codex Calixtinus (image is in the Public Domain). Stories about Charlemagne and his knights, Olivier and Roland, were told along the pilgrimage route, especially at Roncesvalles, the site of an important battle.

In contrast to the first four stories, I have not attempted to capture the linguistic register of the period. The characters would be communicating in a mixture of Norman French and Latin, which would be impossible to render into meaningful English. I have opted, instead, for a close third-person, present tense narration in modern English.

A further visual preview is available on Pinterest

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


Monday, 17 November 2014

"Omphalos" - A Preview of the Fourth Story - "Jerusalem"

The fourth story in my forthcoming novel, Omphalos, is set in 1517, and follows two men on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. One of these characters, Richard Mabon, is historical, whilst his secretary, Nicolas Ahier, is fictional. It is known that Mabon, the Rector of Saint Martin's Church and Dean of Jersey, did, in fact, make the pilgrimage at around this date, but no account of it has survived, and we don't know who, if anyone, travelled with him.

Mabon was accused, after his death, of contriving false miracles, but this may simply be Protestant propaganda against one of the island's leading Catholic clerics. I have chosen to portray him as an ingénue rather than a fraudster. The story is written in the style of the time, as the sort of document that might have survived, but didn't, taken down by someone who had spoken to Mabon and Ahier, and whose reading, perhaps, of Rabelais and Cervantes had opened his mind to the humorous potential of their various misadventures.

By the beginning of the 16th Century, the Venetian galley-owners had established a near monopoly over the pilgrimage from Europe to Jerusalem, so it is almost certain that Mabon would have travelled by way of Venice, and this is where the story opens. These galley-owners were, in effect, operating the first package tours in history, charging a fee that included passage on the galley, and guiding and accommodation in the holy land, and liaising both with the Muslim authorities there, and with the priory of Mount Sion.

Venetian galleys at Rhodes, from Bernhard von Breydenbach's Peregrinationes in Terram Sanctam of 1486 (image is in the Public Domain). Rhodes, Crete and Cyprus were all stopping points on the journey from Venice to Jaffa (modern Tel Aviv).

A number of genuine accounts of such pilgrimages have survived, including that of an English priest, Richard Torkington, who travelled in 1517 (and features in the story as a minor character), and that of an Italian priest, Pietro Casola, who travelled some years earlier, and I made extensive use of these sources in researching the story.

A prospect of Jerusalem, 1493, by Hartmann Schedel (image is in the Public Domain).

Europe in 1517 stood on the very cusp of the Reformation, but a pilgrim would not necessarily have realised this (and my fictional version of Richard Mabon certainly does not). It was in October of that year that Martin Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses and, after Henry VIII's break with Rome in 1532, it became virtually impossible for British pilgrims to travel to Jerusalem. Luther did not produce the Reformation out of thin air - his criticism of indulgences, and of the veneration of relics, were shared by many people in the early 16th Century. Richard Mabon's dogged adherence to the Medieval form of Catholicism, therefore, would have made him an increasingly anachronistic figure as the century progressed.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the ultimate destination of pilgrims to Jerusalem (image is in the Public Domain).

"On the fifth day of January, in the Year of Grace 1517, our most reverend Father in God, Master Richard Mabon ... resolved to visit the Holy Land on pilgrimage. 'It will not do,' he said to Jeanne, his housekeeper, 'that every week I preach to the people, telling them of places of which I know no more than they do' ... The following Sunday, he discussed his intentions over dinner with his friend and neighbour, Jean Lempriere, the Lord of the Manor of Rozel, who suggested that he should take with him, as his companion and secretary, a certain Nicholas Ahier, the son of a merchant.

'I am sorry to say that he has come before me in the King's Court,' said the lord. 'He does not want for learning, but spends too much time in taverns, pursuing serving-girls, and brawling with any others that do the same. I am sure that the rigours of the journey would improve his character, and that six months spent with you among the holy places would give him more to think on than six years passed among the whores and braggarts of Saint Helier.'"

A further visual preview of the story is available on Pinterest.

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

Thursday, 13 November 2014

"Omphalos" - A Preview of the Third Story - "The Infinite Labyrinth"

The third story in my forthcoming novel, Omphalos, is set at the turn of the 18th and 19th Centuries. "The Infinite Labyrinth" (the title was suggested by a line from William Blake's poem on the French Revolution) takes the form of a diary written by a young Frenchwoman, Suzanne de Beaubigny.

At the beginning of the story, Suzanne and her mother are living peacefully in their Normandy manor. Suzanne's father, a royalist, had been killed some years previously in a skirmish with revolutionary troops, and his widow allows her barn to be used by the Chouans (royalist insurgents). News comes to them one night that they have been betrayed - a carriage and a ship are provided to take them into safety and exile.

On the island of Jersey, Suzanne is drawn into a clandestine world of intrigue and espionage, aspects of which fascinate her mind, but other elements of which trouble her conscience profoundly.

"Sea coast promenade fashion," 1809. I came upon this image after I had written the story, but it is exactly as I imagine Suzanne (image is in the Public Domain).

Although Suzanne is a fictional character, La Correspondence, the spy network of which she becomes a part, is historically documented, and it is known that young women, as well as men, played an active part. At its centre was Philippe d'Auvergne, the Prince de Bouillon, a Jerseyman adopted into a French noble family, and serving as an officer in the Royal Navy.

Commodore Philippe d'Auvergne, Prince de Bouillon. Photo: www.thisisjersey.com (image is in the Public Domain).

"29th August, 1799

... Lieutenant Wilkes arrived to fetch me. I followed him along another labyrinth of corridors and up three staircases, emerging on the crenelated roof of the donjon. The prince was waiting for me there, now in full naval uniform, a telescope in his hand ... The sun was going down, the tide high, and the little flotilla sailed out from the port below us, led by the Atlantic. "Every evening they sail," said the prince, a note of sadness in his voice, "and each time I ask myself why. I will be up here again tomorrow morning, to watch them come back in. He handed me the telescope, and I watched as the topsails were hoisted on the Atlantic ... "All so that King Louis might be crowned. But it will never happen."

Mont Orgueil Castle, Jersey, by Henry King Taylor (image is in the Public Domain). The castle was the headquarters of Philippe d'Auvergne's spy network.

A further visual preview of the story is available on Pinterest.

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

Thursday, 6 November 2014

"Omphalos" - A Preview of the Second Story - "The Spirit of the Times"

The second story in my soon-to-be published third novel, Omphalos, is set during and immediately after the Second World War. "The Spirit of the Times" (the title was suggested by a line from Goethe's Faust) is narrated in epistolary form (each of the six stories takes a different form), the correspondents being Friedrich Werner, a junior officer in the German army, and his wife, children and mother in Germany.

At the beginning of the story, Friedrich is stationed in Jersey, as part of the occupying force. As the war draws to its close (his first letter is dated 3rd May 1944), and later, as a prisoner-of-war in Wales, he is forced to confront the true nature of the regime for which he has been fighting.

In researching the story, I made use of The Von Aufsess Occupation Diary. Baron von Aufsess was an aristocrat, who served in Jersey as a liaison officer with the civil authorities. His diary of the later stages of the occupation gives a very clear and vivid picture of the changing mood of the garrison as time progressed. I take care, in my novels, not to fictionalise the lives of real people in the relatively recent past, but I was able to include the baron as a character without doing so (the words I attribute to him are his own): I was even able to incorporate, as an element in the plot, a specific visit that the baron made to La Hougue Bie, where Friedrich is stationed, in company with a Swiss Red Cross official.

The historical Baron von Aufsess socialised with many young officers, and did not always name them in his diary, so it was easy to make the fictional Friedrich part of this circle, and to make this association the starting point for Friedrich's re-education (the baron was a covert, but committed, anti-Nazi).

"31st July 1944

My Darling Greta,

 ... Baron von Aufsess is here. As I'm sure my mother has told you, up to the time of the last war, her family were in service to his for centuries. Well, I have struck up a friendship of sorts with him and, being senior, he has a better grasp of what is going on. He thinks it likely that, within a matter of weeks, we will be cut off altogether, and mail will no longer be able to get through, so we may be out of touch for some time. He also thinks that the Americans and the British are unlikely to come here ... On the other hand, we worry about running out of food, of coal, of all essential supplies, of a winter without electricity or gas ...

All my love,


A German officer and a Channel Island policeman. Photo: Imperial War Museum (non-commercial License).

The German Occupation remains a sensitive topic for many Channel Islanders, and I am prepared for the possibility that my choice to explore it through the eyes of an occupier, rather than an islander, may be controversial. A novelist, in attempting to make sense of history's greatest conflicts and tragedies, has to be willing to tackle difficult topics, and, where appropriate, to adopt controversial viewpoints. Omphalos has, among its key themes, questions of transgression and reconciliation, and an interest in people who find themselves on "the wrong side of history," and it was in this context that this story-line suggested itself.

A further visual preview of the story is available on Pinterest.

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

Monday, 3 November 2014

"Omphalos" - A Preview of the First Story - "Touching Souls"

My third novel, Omphalos, will be published on 5th December 2014, by Crooked Cat Publications. Final corrections have been made, the cover design agreed, and review copies sent out. The novel itself comprises six stories set in different time periods, nested one inside the other like a Russian doll, and linked by a physical place, by suggested ancestral links, and by specific objects. None of the characters travel in time, but the reader will embark on a journey through six thousand years of history. I have already posted further clues here and here.

Today I am giving a preview of the first of the six stories, "Touching Souls," the title suggested by a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. It is set on the island of Jersey, in the Spring of 2013.

Al Cohen and his wife Naomi are respected members of New York's Jewish community. Al's French mother, Sophie, was a Roman Catholic, but had little involvement with the church during his childhood. His father, Robert, on the other hand, served on the council of his local synagogue and, as a young man, Al himself embraced the religion of his father and most of his friends. Robert died in 2003 and, five years later, on her own deathbed, Sophie dropped a bombshell, telling Al that Robert Cohen was not his biological father. Some years later, Al is contacted by the half-sister he never knew he had, and it is questions about their shared heritage that bring them to Jersey in 2013. Al is naturally curious to know more, but nonetheless apprehensive about the dark secrets that may be revealed.

Saint Helier Harbour, Jersey. Photo: Man Vyi (image is in the Public Domain).

"Al looked out across the harbour mouth to the squat white lighthouse on the other side. The orange glow from the streetlights along the pier illuminated the harbour as if it were daylight, and gulls still flew around in the hope that someone might throw down the crust of a sandwich ... He sat down on the bench and took the letter from his pocket. Removing it from its envelope, he unfolded it, taking care not to damage the brittle yellowing paper, and scanned the French words. They must have been written right here, on the end of this pier ..."

Strangers on an island that none of them have visited before, Al, his half-sister and Naomi, are drawn to the ancient burial mound of La Hougue Bie, the place that, more than any other, links them, as individuals, to their shared inheritance.

La Hougue Bie, Jersey. Photo: Man Vyi (image is in the Public Domain).

A further visual preview of this story is available on Pinterest.

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

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, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.