Thursday, November 8, 2007

Historical Novels - Another Addendum

I love Matt and Akshay's lists and felt compelled to add one of my own. If The Confessions of Nat Turner and The Hunchback of Notre Dame hadn't been mentioned I would definitely have included them on mine.

6. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities – I forget if this is Dickens’ only or one of his two historical novels. It’s wonderfully inaccurate (was it Orwell who complained that Dickens was responsible for making everyone associate carriages with death?), more a pastiche with the French terror as a backdrop, and terribly entertaining. I read it again a few years ago after slogging through it in high school and managed to tear through it in a day. Damn you, Madame Defarge!

5. Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Manor and The Estate – It’s the history of a rich Jewish family in Poland from 1862 until the end of the 19th century, plotted like an 800 page train wreck, with one disaster befalling the tragically imperfect Calman Jacoby and his daughters after the other. From Singer’s introduction: “All the spiritual and intellectual ideas that triumphed in the modern era had their roots in the world of that time – socialism and nationalism, Zionism and assimilationism, nihilism and anarchism, suffragettism, atheism, the weakening of the family bond, free love, and even the beginnings of Fascism.” There’s also a paragraph in the text dedicated to vegetarianism. I don’t think a similar novel of our own time concentrating on “post-modernism and Christian fundamentalism, anti-Islamo-fascism and Obama-fascination,” would carry as great a weight.

4. Philip Roth, American Pastoral – The best American novel of the last 30 or so years may not count as historical, as Roth lived through all the events he describes. But there’s a strangeness with which he recreates the optimism of post-war Newark in the 40s and 50s and then the horrors of the 60s. John complained in a comment on a previous list that he disliked soundtracks that lazily presented the 60s as a wild and crazy time. American Pastoral is the only work of art that has convinced me that it was.

3, Primo Levi, If Not Now, When? – Levi did a great deal of research to imagine an alternative life during World War II, not as a Holocaust detainee, but as a partisan fighter whose suffering seemed to have more meaning and purpose. The Jew who expresses his sympathy for Dresden’s victims felt like a liberal transplant from 1982, when the novel was written, but I was willing to forgive the transgression.

2. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward – Solzhenitsyn wrote a true historical magnum opus about World War I which I haven’t read, but Cancer Ward brings back a very specific moment during the Khruschev Thaw, when Stalin’s victims were just coming to terms with the hell of their camps, and everyone was looking forward, very uncertainly to a less-than-promising future. I’ve met quite a few Eastern Europeans who have told me that this book actually speaks to their feelings right after 1989.

1. Ivo Andric, The Days of the Consuls, a.k.a. Bosnian Story, a.k.a. Bosnian Chronicle – Andric’s claustrophobic book is about a group of second-rate diplomats stationed in Travnik, Bosnia during the Napoleonic Wars. It touches anyone whose ever been an expatriate stationed in a small country, and who comes from an empire about to be neutered.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Historical Novels: An Addendum

Akshay's list is terrific -- a great topic, and fascinating-sounding selections (I say that because, not in spite of, having read only one of his ten honorees). Is it thunder-stealing, or thunder-appreciating, to offer a mini list of my own? I hope the latter.

5. William Gilmore Simms, The Scout. If you don't count Poe -- and there are good reasons for not counting Poe -- Simms is the dean of antebellum Southern novelists. I know, I know, that's like being the dean of Burmese gangsta rappers. But I enjoyed this Revolutionary War novel significantly more than anything historical by Fenimore Cooper, Simms's Northern model in the genre.

4. Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is my version of The Shogun -- I read it at 14, loved it, and don't care to know if it's actually just gassy romanticism.

3. William Styron, Confessions of Nat Turner. Styron's version of the Turner rebellion was historically and politically controversial (OK with Eugene Genovese, not OK with certain black activists), but it works for me. Having read some of the academic history about Turner, I'd have to say this is another example (like Vidal's Lincoln) where brilliant, thoughtful fiction totally outshines workmanlike historical scholarship.

2. John Updike, Memoirs of the Ford Administration. Really a book-in-a-book -- Updike's narrator is an oversexed history prof in the '70s, writing a fictional life of James Buchanan. Both books are good, and Updike's quasi-defense of possibly The Worst President In History is surprisingly compelling.

1. Robert Graves, I Claudius. Along with its sequel, Claudius The God, this is endless fun. A sharp, distinctive, enduring take on all the personalities of the early Empire (partly lifted from Suetonius, but that's OK). Better than HBO's Rome, and I liked Rome. Has anyone read anything else by Graves? He has a 400 page novel on Belisarius which sounds pretty great.

Honorable Mentions:

* William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom. Is this a historical novel? Sure, John C. Calhoun and Robert E. Lee don't make appearences, but this book IS the antebellum South. That should count for something. And if it does count, it has to be #1.

* William Thackeray, Henry Esmond . Surely THE WORST historical novel I've ever read. I loved, loved, loved Vanity Fair, but this -- supposed to be Thackeray's #2 or #3 -- is dry, stilted, and repetitive. Wikipedia says it's about the Jacobite rebellion, but I swear I've forgotten everything about this book. A shame, because the sequel, The Virginians, sounds promising on paper. But after that nightmare, I'm not gonna bite.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Best Historical Novels

Note: there are huge gaps in my knowledge. I haven't read any Graves or Scott or Manzoni, so this is rather incomplete. Also, I'm not sure I have a particularly coherent idea of what actually makes something a historical novel.

1. Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma

(Man, this book was fun to read! I'm not totally sure that it counts as a historical novel, since the events took place during Stendhal's lifetime and he actually did fight with Napoleon. But it has a historical novel air that is somehow missing from, for example, War and Peace. I think Stendhal based a lot of the court intrigue off much older Italian memoirs.)

2. Marguerite Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian

(A really wonderful book, and it weaves its spell not through physical period detail - of which there is surprisingly little - but by recreating habits of thought.)

3. Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower

(A life of the poet Novalis and Fitzgerald's last, great book. One of the saddest last pages in modern literature. Her final three or four books were all wonderful historical novels.)

4. Anthony Burgess, Nothing Like the Sun

(I have a weakness for lives of artists. This one is about Shakespeare, written in a beautiful mix of modern and Elizabethan English.)

5. Virginia Woolf, Orlando

(Proceeds gleefully through three hundreds years of history with Queen Elizabeth and Alexander Pope as main figures, along with a shifting stable of characters who appear to be virtually immortal and keep changing gender. One of the most delightful and baffling and infuriating books I've ever read.)

6. John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman

(I've never quite looked at a Victorian novel the same way after finishing this book, even though some of its narrative tricks annoyed me a great deal.)

6. Gore Vidal, Lincoln

(I haven't read much other Vidal outside the essays, but I did enjoy this book a lot. I'm not sure it's of the same caliber as the other books on the list, but we need some Americans on this list.)

7. J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur

(A wonderful read - immensely funny and exciting and also an interesting meditation on the nature of progress. I was a little offended by how the Sepoys were portrayed, but I got over my outraged national feeling - Farrell's representation makes a lot more sense than a noble Hollywood Sepoy walk-on would have.)

8. Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees

(A delight! Probably the most purely pleasurable book on the list.)

9. Patrick White, Voss

(A rather disturbing tale about the exploration of the Australian outback in, I think, the early 19th century. I read it a long time ago and have forgotten most of it except for the rather horrifying conclusion.)

10. James Clavell, Shogun

(When I was twelve, I was pretty sure this was the greatest book ever written. I'm scared to look at it again because I have no real desire to find out that it's just cheesy epic romance. Anyway, even if it is, it is damn good cheesy epic romance.)