Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Historical Fiction At Its Best


Robert Harris needs to write more novels. The former journalist and BBC reporter has but seven fiction titles to his credit. Considering how well-researched (at least they seem so to me) and how well-written they are, though, maybe that does constitute a lot of books.

But still, I'm greedy and want to read more of his stuff.

I recently read Conspirata, known everywhere outside of the United States as Lustrum, because apparently publishers think we Yanks are too dumb to be interested in a book named after an obscure Roman concept of time. Lustrum - ahem, Conspirata - is the second in a planned trilogy about none other than the greatest orator of all time, Marcus Tullius Cicero. This book, Conspirata, chronicles his year as consul and the following four turbulent years of Cicero's life, while the preceding volume, Imperium, gives a rollicking account of his rise to power. I can only assume the final book will be about Cicero's exile, few remaining years, and (SPOILER ALERT) execution.

Imperium and Conspirata are both wonderful books that bring a fascinating period of history to life, and while one can easily draw parallels between the events in these stories and political happenings of today, Harris does a good job of not forcing any comparisons. Both stories are told through the eyes of Tiro, Cicero's faithful slave, who is credited with, believe it or not, the creation of shorthand. Tiro as a narrator is mostly passive, reminding me of some of Dostoevsky's narrators, who mostly observe and rarely cause any major things to happen in the story. Though Tiro does manage at times to be important to the story and offers Cicero sagely advice from time to time.

I've read some of Harris's other books, including Archangel, The Ghost, and Pompeii, this last one being about Mount Vesuvius's eruption and destruction of the eponymous city. I've enjoyed all these books immensely, but Harris takes him game - to borrow one of the many overused sports' cliches - to the next level in his stories about Cicero.

____

I've blogged before about Bernard Cornwell, whom many consider to be the best historical fiction writer working today. Cornwell is a great writer, who really excels at describing combat tactics and bloody battles. And like I said before, I consider the Warlord Trilogy to be one of my two favorite trilogies of all time.

Harris, on the other hand, excels at telling cerebral stories brimming with political intrigue. Is one writer better than the other? It would be unfair to compare the two, since they're trying to do different things with their stories, but needless to say, I recommend both authors to all fans of historical fiction.

(Interesting tidbit: Harris's book, The Ghost, was recently made into the movie, The Ghost Writer, directed by none other than Roman Polanski.)

(Interesting tidbit 2: I share a birthday with Cicero. Now if only I shared his wit, eloquence, and oratorical skills.)

26 comments:

Nathanael Green said...

Brain, thanks for the recommendation. I picked up some Cornwell after your last recommendation and thought it was fantastic.

Now it looks like I'm adding Harris to my to-buy list, too!

-Nate

seana said...

It's nice that your friend Nate calls you Brain, isn't it? Maybe you are a reincarnation of Cicero after all.

I've only read one Robert Harris Archangel, but I liked it and have always intended to read more. Here's my interesting tidbit contribution: Robert Harris is Nick Hornby's brother-in-law. Nick has given him a couple of compliments over time in his Believer Magazine column.

marco said...

It's nice that your friend Nate calls you Brain, isn't it?

Maybe Nate is Pinky.

Nathanael Green said...

*sigh*

There could be all sorts of comments about Freud and my subconscious.

But really, I should just know by now to proofread.

seana said...

Right. But it's more amusing when you don't.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Nater -

Glad you liked the Cornwell, thought that would be right up your alley.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Seana -

Archangel was a good one too!

Didn't know he was Nick Hornsby's brother till I read that wiki article. I enjoy Hornsby also. Style and content wise, I don't think Hornsby and Harris could be any more different.

And no, I am definitely not a reincarnation of Cicero. My short-lived litigation career is proof enough of that.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Marco -

You know what me and Nate are going to do tomorrow?

The same thing we do everyday - try to take over the world.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Nate -

Clash of the titans is out tomorrow.

Nick Hughes said...

Hello, Brain. I enjoyed your post about historical fiction. Unfortunately I don't read books, so I will not be picking up any Cornwell. Is historical fiction similar at all to alternate history fiction?

Remember when we used to do that podcast?

seana said...

I am no longer sure whether it's Brian or Nate who will rue that typo more...

marco said...

Is historical fiction similar at all to alternate history fiction?

All historical fiction is alternate history fiction. Just by virtue of being fiction, it cannot be 100% historical.

Nathanael Green said...

Actually, I don't think most people would classify historical fiction as alternate history. Even though, yes, fiction is by definition untrue, I think if we're defining genre, the two would be separate.

Historical fiction sets an untrue (or at least fictionalized) story within the context of real, historical events or time period.

On the other hand, alternate history is set in a world where there's a major divergence from our actual historical events.

It's the difference between a novel set in 10th-century Britain (ala Cornwell) and a novel that supposes that the Vikings had conquered the world with an empire that lasted until the 20th century.

By the way, Nick, I miss that podcast. Any chance of getting another one?

marco said...

Actually, I don't think most people would classify historical fiction as alternate history.

Statistics say that most people are wrong most of the time.

On the other hand, alternate history is set in a world where there's a major divergence from our actual historical events

In other words, it's merely a matter of degree and suspension of disbelief. As soon as you invent a minor character, you're deviating from historical events.

seana said...

Marco, will you concede that the people who write 'historical fiction' and the people who write alternate history at least think they are setting out on different trajectories? Or not?

I happen to think it's a different set of writers and a different audience. But that's just me.

marco said...

Marco, will you concede that the people who write 'historical fiction' and the people who write alternate history at least think they are setting out on different trajectories? Or not?

I happen to think it's a different set of writers and a different audience. But that's just me.


Depends. If you take extreme examples, you may have a genre of writers who strive to give an ILLUSION of historical accuracy and a genre of writers who give us universes in which the Americas were discovered and colonized by China. In the middle, differences are much less clear and it's often marketing that decides who belongs to whichever camp.
To most mainstream authors who happen to write an historical novel because of their interest in a particolar situation, conflict or time period, the question history/alternate history is inconsequential. Adherence to historical accuracy is generally a function of the needs and purpose of the story.
For example, many of Eco's historical novels introduce anachronistical/fantascientific elements. Many so called historical novels acknowledge in the notes the historical liberties they took. Between one of the many novels featuring an encounter between two coeval historical figures who never met in reality and an alternate history in which all major historical events are secretly guided behind the scenes by the Illuminati there's only a difference of degree.
Then there are those historical novels who are consciously set in a fictionalized version of history: Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White is not set in Victorian London, but in Dickens Victorian London.
And of course nearly all historical novels are anachronistic in the sense they make their characters feel and act like contemporaries.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Marco -

Come on, admit it. You're just upset a bloke is writing about ancient Rome.

jk

Brian O'Rourke said...

Nick -

As you know, I've been trying to forget about that podcast ever since you guys made fun of my Jersey accent.

You and Nate can be so cruel sometimes, you bastards.

seana said...

All fiction is illusion, of course. Some people would go as far as to say that all historical writing is illusion as well. But genre is about direction and intent. I think including elements in the plot that include things either are not known or cannot be known--the fairy realms or space travel in the future ask for a different degree of suspension of belief than historical novels do. I think Henry James said something to the effect that all historical fiction was rubbish, probably for many of the reasons Marco cites. I am not as clear about definitions as I am about my experience as a bookseller of people being drawn to distinct types of books. And I think writers are probably better served by trying to understand the difference between those audiences than by trying to get those audiences to expand their horizons to other genres, as laudable as that goail might be.

I'm getting the feeling that I would pay good money for that podcast...

marco said...

You're just upset a bloke is writing about ancient Rome.

No,I'm just channeling my inner Cicero.

I think including elements in the plot that include things either are not known or cannot be known--the fairy realms or space travel in the future ask for a different degree of suspension of belief than historical novels do.

Some alternate histories include space travel and the fairy realms. Their audience may be closer to that of classical fantasy or science-fiction.
Many AH however are simply what if- experiments set in a world which mirrors our own.
Furthermore, historical fiction and alt-historical fiction aren't really genres in the sense that they have unified an intent and direction. Some of them are romances in (alt-) historical setting. Some of them are military or adventure novels in (alt-) historical settings. Some of them are widescreen novels about a given historical period.
Etc. etc.
In each case, the actual intent is more important than the history/alt-history question.
The audience of "romance" historical novels is pretty much the same of that of "romance" alt-historical novels; the audience of "military" historical novels is largely coincident with the audience of alt-historical military novels.
If a novel uses a what-if scenario as a means to better explore the forces at work in a determinate period, it will likely be read by those those who are interested in that period.
Case in point,Harris first novel, Fatherland - clearly alternate history - a huge best seller, and almost always read and discussed in the context of historical novels rather than science-fictional ones.

seana said...

It's funny, because I was thinking of Fatherland as pretty much the only exception. I guess I can't say so definitively for readers. I can only say that alternative history in the U.S. is usually almost entirely shelved with science fiction, where military space fiction is shelved. Or I should say I assume this both from our store and from the way they appear in publisher's catalogs. There is probably another big book or two that would be shelved otherwise, but I am not thinking of them if so.

Somewhat off topic, The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald is one of the few books I've read that has been praised for rendering the actual sensibilities of the period(that of the early German Romantic poets), and though I don't know if she did or not, it is certainly about a different consciousness from ours. I think it's a very beautiful book.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Wow, great debate here. Thank you Nicklas for asking what you probably thought was an innocuous, straight-forward question.

But I still don't forgive you for making fun of my Jersey accent.

You bastard.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Seana -

Oh dear God no, you absolutely wouldn't want to pay for that podcast for two reasons:

1) It's free
2) They don't actually make fun of my accent on air. That happened off air.

If I'm feeling particularly courageous, I'll put a link up later.

seana said...

Be brave, my friend.

adrian.mckinty said...

We may have to agree to disagree on Harris. I read Archangel and thought the plot was nuts. And I read Fatherland and thought it was a rip off of The Man in the High Castle, SSGB etc. bloody etc.

Maybe I'll try one more but its only going to be one.

adrian.mckinty said...

Brian, Marco,

When I was in law school I had to read Cicero's Murder Trials which were his defenses to a series of capital charges. They're really interesting, if quite unhinged by our standards.

I admire Cicero's prose and some of his philosophy, but as I've grown older I've come to think of him as a bit of a prig and fussbudget (if such a word exists).