Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

Ulugh Beg and historical fiction (again)

July 8, 2018

51kf4K3tuJL._AC_US160_This is the novel that prompted my reflections on historical fiction a few days ago; I’ve now finished reading it, and I quite enjoyed it, but I’m still not quite there with my approach to historical novels. There is no plot! And then, I realised, that if you’re writing a novel, almost completely peopled by real characters who actually lived, and the places they lived and worked, and their times, then there can’t really be a plot in the way we usually understand it unless a novelist is going to play fast and loose with the truth… there’s a whole can of worms here!

What I enjoyed about Luminet’s book – I hesitate to call it a novel, though he does, in a brief post-face – is the fleshing out of the historical facts about the world of Arab science in the time of the early Renaissance. There is local colour, description of places, characters and events are sketched out. But only sketched, never really developing beyond outlines, and never really feeling like fully developed characters, again because to do so would be to invent and superpose on a historical truth which we can never know, because we don’t have those facts to go with the real people. I’m interested in the Middle East, the past of those countries, their achievements, Islam as a religion and the ways it resembles and does not resemble the Christianity of our world.

But the lack of a plot is a real issue. We don’t even get a clear and logical explanation of the progress of Arab science at this time, and the book is populated by a wide range of characters who we lose track of, and need to remind ourselves about from time to time using the helpful index of persons, rather like the huge lists at the start of various lapidary Russian novels. Nothing unifies the text other than the idea of science, which can’t really sustain a novel.

The times, in the wake of Tamburlane and Genghiz Khan and various other empire-building characters, were chaotic, with all sorts of princelings jostling for power and advantage; there was also religious fundamentalism which Luminet explores, of the same kind that was to hamper the researches of Galileo in the Christian West; in short, not times conducive to unhampered and free scientific work. And if one of the key scientists is also meant to be the emperor and neglects the empire, then things will quickly unravel. No difference between the Islamic and Christian world, then.

Although I’m glad I read the book, I can’t see it’s one I’ll go back to, because of its deficiencies. But I will dig out again a history of Islamic science I read a few years ago…

On historical novels

July 2, 2018

What, exactly, is a historical novel? I realise that I’ve probably been quite snooty about them at various times in the past, and dismissive of the genre, as not being ‘proper’ literature. But recently I’ve been thinking, particularly as I suspect I’ve been reading and enjoying them without realising…

What I mean is, does any novel set in the past count as a historical novel? Does it depend on how historical personalities and events are integrated imaginatively into the plot? And what, if anything, makes one of these novels count as ‘proper’ literature? I’m not interested in novels populated by kings and queens, aristocrats and royalty, for instance, and I didn’t choose to read Hilary Mantel’s recent novels set at the time of the English Reformation. But that is a historical period I’m interested in, and the novel by Marguerite Yourcenar I reviewed recently was set then, and certainly involved some real persons from those times, as was the case with Luther Blissett’s Q, which I also drew attention to in that same post.

I found myself questioning my attitude because of a novel I’m currently reading, set in the Middle East and Central Asia at the time of Tamburlane, but centring on a number of Arab scientists rediscovering the knowledge of the ancients, as well as pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge. And Jean-Pierre Luminet’s Ulugh Beg isn’t that good: almost non-existent characterisation, and tenuous plot that seems to exist just to flesh out the history of Arab science. I was reminded of John Banville’s novels featuring scientists from history; I tried the one about Copernicus but was so annoyed I gave up. On the other hand, Gilbert Sinoué’s novel about Avicenna I found thoughtful, detailed, interesting and quite moving at times; I got a real picture of people, places and science of the times he was writing about.

Back to my question: is War and Peace a historical novel? Yes, obviously, and so much more. There are real people from history in that novel just as there are, for example, in Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, or Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy; all three of those novels go into my – for want of a better word – ‘proper’ literature category.

So I find myself wondering about proportion. You can have a story set in a particular historical context, but with fictional characters; a great deal of care will ensure its plausibility. If you don’t try and weave in too many real characters and events, a reader will suspend disbelief sufficiently for the story to have the author’s desired impact; too many historical characters, as in Luminet’s novel, and I may as well be reading a history book. Thus, for example, Rybakov uses a few carefully crafted and plausible scenes involving Stalin and some of his henchmen, but most of his story involves imagined characters plausibly deployed in accurate background which accommodates them without challenging the reader’s response or credulity too much. With too many historical characters, we perhaps begins to feel more as if a writer is developing a fantasy involving real people and we start to think, would Tamburlane really have spoken/ acted like that? The sense of proportion is wrong and the reader is jolted into noticing that something here isn’t quite right… our credulity is over-stretched.

The imaginative effort also counts for something here, both on the part of reader and writer, I feel. I’m rarely reading a historical novel to escape into the past, I’m reading because I hope the writer’s imagination will be powerful enough in her/ his creation to develop my understanding of a particular time and place in history, to flesh out what I’d have got from a textbook, in the same way that, for instance, a poem by Wilfred Owen develops my understanding of the experience of the Great War.

I’d be very interested in any thoughts on this topic from you, dear readers: it’s quite a new area of reflection for yours truly…

Ursula Le Guin: Malafrena

September 4, 2017

416GC-gCGbL._AC_US218_This is a curious novel, a work of historical fiction from a master of science fiction, set in an imagined country, Orsinia, which is clearly in Central or Eastern Europe, and blends elements of several countries. It’s set in the early nineteenth century; it was once an independent kingdom, but has come under the autocratic sway of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So, a fictional setting with a background of real events, against which canvas she develops her characters, their philosophies and their lives.

And yet: the same issues as are revealed in her science fiction are revealed in Malafrena, and are explored: individual freedom, individual autonomy, how to respond to power, and what can one person hope to achieve? What is possible? The same questions confront her characters in this novel as face the characters in her utopian novel The Dispossessed; the difference is that in Orsinia they discover how they are circumscribed by realpolitik, whereas there is the chance, in the more open setting of Anarres and Urras, that a different way of doing things, of being, can be explored and developed.

It’s an unnerving novel, I found, because so often it seems disarming. A series of apparently insignificant encounters and conversations a lot of the time, but charged with more power and more significance as connections are made, both in the tale itself and in the reader’s mind. At times there seem to be too many characters to keep track of, at time’s it’s infuriating how a strand of the story I found interesting was just dropped, characters fell off the page: the vastness of the canvas underlines individual insignificance in the face of world events, perhaps? And we know, because of history, that the collective will for change that bursts forth across Europe in 1830 will not succeed, so the author’s purpose must be leading us in other directions: what is real happiness? what do we really want? what would really make the world a better place?

At various points I found a contrast being drawn out, between a young man who thinks that revolution is possible and will make a better world, and an old man who has tried, and who thinks, maybe knows that it’s not possible, it’s not what he had imagined it would be like. There’s something Conradian in either the futility of revolution, or the ways in which revolution warps itself by taking on a life of its own…

And it’s a very good novel, too: once I’d stopped trying to categorise and tame it in my mind and just went with the flow, as it were. I shall certainly come back to it, and soon. This edition appends a series of short stories with the same setting – the Orsinian Tales, but at various different time-points in history, which helps solidify and imaginary place, if that makes sense, and is surely a forerunner of Le Guin’s vast Ekumen, the organisation of worlds across the universe in which her Hainish stories are set. Again, the big ideas are to the fore, and the format allows her to explore many possibilities from many angles. Here is a writer who I think is still underestimated.

Reading in a rush…

August 30, 2017

I know there are people who only ever read books once; there are books I only ever read once, but, as many of my readers will know, there’s greater and added pleasure in going back to a favourite novel over and over again as the years go by. Every time, there’s something different that we can latch on to, observe, follow, and our appreciation of an author is undeniably enriched by such re-reading.

I can remember introducing this idea to students at school, pointing out that our first read-through of a novel is inevitably plot-driven, as we are keen to know what happens, and how everything turns out; when we know that, we will slow down and be capable of noticing different things on a second and further subsequent reads. Clearly, this is also a helpful tactic when it comes to revision.

And now I find myself victim of that first read, gripped by a novel so that I’m conscious of cantering through it, and aware that I’m missing quite a few things, but at the same time happy with this in the knowledge that I’ll re-read the book again soon, more slowly and carefully. That novel is Ursula Le Guin‘s Malafrena, which I should have read years ago and have finally got around to. It’s not a science fiction or a fantasy novel as one might have expected, but a historical one, and I’m keen to see where she gets with both plot and characters in a novel that’s far from predictable. I’ll write about it when I’ve finished.416GC-gCGbL._AC_US218_

So, this ex-teacher and something of an expert on literature is, in the end, no different from any other reader, despite my knowledge and skill-set: plot grips me just like anyone else. And, preparing this post, I remembered other books I’ve raced through: all four books of Philip Reeve‘s Mortal Engines series – it’s time to come back to them – and both of Anthony Horowitz‘s Sherlock Holmes pastiches, both of which I re-read within weeks, Harper Lee‘s Go Set A Watchman, which it’s also time to go back to and reflect on with a bit of hindsight. And, of course, when the new Philip Pullman comes out early in October, I shall have my copy on Day 1 and set aside everything else to rattle through it… can’t wait!61f7iyJLzGL._AC_US218_

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