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.