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.

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