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

Monday, 8 September 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 17 - "The Wake," by Paul Kingsnorth

When I first started this series, I was determined to avoid an undue bias on specifically British history, and some of the works that I might otherwise have included (Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, for example) were therefore left out. There are some events, however, which have such a profound impact on world history that it would be perverse to ignore them; and the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 is surely one of these, shaping the future of Europe rather than simply that of Britain, and with an influence that endures down to our own times.

The history of the invasion itself is well known. The Norman Duke, Guillaume le Batard, landed at Pevensey, fortified Hastings, and defeated the English army at Battle. What remained of the English force fell back on London, where Edgar the Atheling was proclaimed king, but he and his earls surrendered at Berkhamsted, and the Saxon Archbishop of York, Ealdred, who had previously crowned Edgar, was forced to crown Guillaume in his place. That, however, is very much a satellite view of history.

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, showing the construction of a castle (image is in the Public Domain).

England at the time was sparsely populated. Between London and the South Downs, for example, there was scarcely a farmstead that merited a mention in the Domesday Book of 1086. Most people lived in scattered rural communities, where some owned land, and others worked the land owned by others.

A reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow, Norfolk. Photo: Ron Strutt (licensed under CCA).

In 1066, they would have been surprised by the arrival of a Saxon thegn arriving to muster men of fighting age, many of whom would never return. Some months later, they might have caught their first sight of the invaders themselves, as they burned, pillaged and raped their way across England. By 1086, almost all the land was in foreign hands, divided up between 200 of the new king's Norman followers, the landscape itself permanently marked by the physical symbols of the new reality: the Norman castles and churches, abbeys and cathedrals.

Hallaton Castle, near Leicester, its earth mound and surrounding enclosure typical of the first generation of Norman castles in England. Photo: Tim Heaton (licensed under CCA).

Ely Cathedral. Photo: Bob Jones (licensed under CCA).

Page from the Domesday Book, covering land ownership in Rutland (image is in the Public Domain).

Paul Kingsnorth's Booker long-listed novel, The Wake, looks at these events through the eyes of one man in one such community in Lincolnshire. Buccmaster of Holland is a socman (a free landowner), whose two sons join Harold's army, whilst he himself remains on the land, determined to wield his grandfather's sword in defence of his own land.

Like Cerdic Elesing in Alfred Duggan's Conscience of the King, Buccmaster is a morally ambiguous character. Violence is often his first rather than his last resort (and not only in his dealings with his mortal enemies); he is typically na├»ve; frequently paranoid; sometimes deluded; and there may be several dark secrets in his past. Difficult as he may be to admire, we can certainly understand his determination to maintain some measure of control over his own destiny in the context of a changing world which he struggles to understand, let alone influence.

Ormesbury Little Broad, Norfolk, a fenland setting similar to that on the novel (the Lincolnshire Fens that Buccmaster might have known have been almost entirely drained). Photo: Craig Tuck (licensed under CCA).

The novel is narrated from Buccmaster's own viewpoint, and here Kingsnorth rises to one of the greatest challenges that any author can take on, in successfully inhabiting the mind of someone very much less educated and sophisticated than himself. The "shadow tongue" which he has developed "to convey the feeling of the old language by combining some of its vocabulary and syntax with the English we speak today" is, to my mind, the least challenging aspect (from the reader's point of view) of the book:

"songs yes here is songs from a land forheawan folded under by a great slege a folc harried beatan a world brocan apart. all is open lic a wound unhealan and grene all men apart from the heorte. deofuls in the heofon all men with sweord when they sceolde be with plough the ground full not of seed but of my folc

aefry ember of hope gan lic the embers of a fyr broken in the daegs beginnan broken by men other than us. hope falls harder when the end is cwic hope falls harder when in the daegs before the storm the stillness of age was writen in the songs of men

so it is when a world ends

who is thu i cannot cnaw but i will tell thu this thing

be waery of the storm

be most waery when there is no storm in sight

feoht tell them feoht"

The true challenges to the reader are on the moral and emotional planes. With almost every twist and turn of the story, I found that I would have taken a different decision to that taken by Buccmaster (disturbingly, some of the killings are exceptions); and in almost every case, I would have been less likely to survive. This is fiction doing one of the things that fiction does best: leading us through situations in which most of us have never been placed, and which none of us would ever wish to face in the real world.

Just as Buccmaster predicts the catastrophe to come (even if he does not know the form it will take), so Kingsnorth, in the manifesto of his Dark Mountain Project, predicts the collapse of our own civilisation (without suggesting either the timescale or the precise mechanism, although climate change is clearly a part of it, as is a loss of public confidence in the institutions of government, and in "the stories we have told ourselves" about our own past). I have not lost confidence in the stories I have told over a lifetime of teaching, writing and political engagement, but here is a new story, told in a very different way. Its cadences will go on reverberating in my mind for many years to come, but so will the challenges that it poses.

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.