Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Friday, November 29, 2013

"Winter of the World", by Ken Follett (2013)

Winter of the World follows the 2010 Fall of Giants as the second book of Ken Follett's planned "Century" trilogy. Picking up from the 1923 end of Fall of Giants, the second book narrates the years until the first successful Soviet atom bomb test in 1949. Along the way, Follett adds his own versions of many of the most-written-about events of WWII, Pearl Harbor and the Normandy invasion.

The multi-generation, multifamily saga continues to place members of the fictional families in the middle of key historical events. The beauty of the strategy, both for the writer and for readers, is that the second book doesn't need to spend time getting acquainted with the characters. Readers of Fall of Giants already know and care about the Williams, Fitzherbert (now also married into the German Von Ulrich family), Peshkov and DeWar families, and others. Willing suspension of disbelief takes over as Follett constructs "eyewitness" accounts of the 1936 Nazi takeover in Germany, the Battle of Belchite in the Spanish Civil War, the London Blitz, the "Blitzkrieg" German offensive against the French and British, the Russian counterattack before Moscow, the atomic pile test under the grandstand in Chicago, the Labour Party election triumph in postwar Britain, the Berlin airlift and the Soviet espionage that led to acquisition of the a-bomb plans.

Numerous historical characters make cameo appearances, including Roosevelt, Truman, Marshall, Hull and Welles from the US government; Groves and Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project; Chamberlain, Churchill and Ernest Bevin the Labour party leader; and the Soviet leaders Stalin, Beria and Molotov.

The one notable digression (that I found) from historical accuracy comes in the tale of how the Soviets - four years after the Americans - developed their own nuclear weapon. Follett invents a fictional German physicist named Wilhelm Frunze, loosely based on the historical Klaus Fuchs. Frunze gives Soviet spy Volodya Peshkov detailed plans for the "Fat Man" bomb, allowing the Soviets to build a similar bomb by 1949. Frunze and his wife are later found guilty of treason and executed. The real Fuchs was suspected of espionage, but the charge could not be proved. Convicted of a lesser charge, Fuchs served nine years in prison and was stripped of his British citizenship.

The popularity of the pre-to-post WWII time period in historical fiction means there's a lot of path-crossing among the various fictional characters. Frunze might have been interned on the Isle of Man with John Lawton's fictional Rod Troy (Lily of the Field). Follet's fictional Soviet spies in Berlin and Spain must have known those invented by Alan Furst. The DeWars might have met Herman Wouk's Navy officers at Pearl Harbor. Woody DeWar of the 101st Airborne may have known Private Ryan. Greg Peshkov at Los Alamos certainly must have encountered Joseph Kanon's Michael Connolly (Los Alamos) or Martin Cruz Smith's Joe Pena (Stallion Gate).

Maybe one of these authors will someday write a novel where all the surviving fictional WWII characters get together in 1960 for a big reunion. Oh, the stories they could tell.   

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"Fall of Giants", by Ken Follett (2010)

What a pleasure to get back to a historical fiction author who not only studies history but also writes well. The first book of a planned trilogy, Fall of Giants begins in 1914 on the eve of World War One and ends with news of the failure of the 1923 "Beer Hall Putsch" - led by a young Adolf Hitler - a harbinger of things to come in Germany.

Known earlier in his career for wartime-espionage thrillers like Eye of the Needle, Follett established his historical-fiction reputation with The Pillars of the Earth. He has perfected the popular historical fiction plot device of narrating large historical themes through the more personal stories of  multiple generations of interconnected families.

For best effect, this scheme must include fictional families in different places and in different social strata. Fall of Giants follows the Williams family of Welsh coal miners, the Fitzherbert family of aristocratic Welsh landowners, the Peshkov family of Russian peasants, and the DeWar family of the emerging American business-professional-political class. Through these fictional families, we witness many of the most significant events: the war itself, the reluctant American involvement, the Russian Revolution, the "White" counter-revolution, the Versailles peace conference, the women's suffrage movement in Britain - coinciding with the fall from power of the aristocratic landowner class, and the beginning of Prohibition in the US.

Another effective Follett plot device compares and contrasts the fortunes of two family members who choose different paths. The two Peshkov brothers, for instance, are separated by events leading to the October Revolution. One brother escapes the country just ahead of the police, eventually finding his way to Buffalo, New York, and into the beginnings of organized crime bootleggers. The other brother stays in St. Petersburg, becoming a Bolshevik and confidant of Lenin and Trotsky.  

Through the fictional characters, we meet many of the most important historical figures involved in those events, including Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, the young Winston Churchill , Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Alexander Kolchak, and many others.

No need for the "five criteria" to rate Fall of Giants - straight 5s (am I too soft? - maybe). I'm looking forward to the rest of this outstanding trilogy.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

"The Paris Vendetta" by Steve Berry

In my last post, I mentioned the "Cotton Malone" series of thriller-with-a-dash-of-history novels of Steve Berry. The first three in the series offered enough interesting history to keep me going through two more; The Charlemagne Pursuit and The Paris Vendetta. The first of those lacked much historical interest, focusing instead on a pseudo-history tale of a lost civilization and its city under the ice in Antarctica.

The Paris Vendetta was better, despite being a not-so-creative tale of a fabulous lost treasure. Also, lost treasure is a more plausible motivation for all the murder and mayhem than anything in the plots of the first four books in the series. This time, the lost hoard belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte and some bits of interesting Napoleonic history got salted into the mash of cryptic clues and perilous situations.

Unfortunately, Mr. Berry's writing (and his editors' editing) have failed to improve. It's time to leave Cotton Malone and return to authors familiar with the English language. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Cotton Malone series, by Steve Berry

The sub-genre of historical-fiction-mystery (and/or thriller) can be a lot of fun if the author takes the time to study the history. Lately, while waiting for favorite authors like Iain Pears and David Liss (can you hear me, Neal Stephenson?) to publish something new, this impatient reader has turned to less ambitious writers like John Maddox Roberts and Alan Furst, along with less-historically-meaty ones like Joseph Kanon and John Lawton.

Recently, a reference to the Time Odyssey trilogy of science-fiction novels by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter led me to re-read that series (2004-2008). I had mostly forgotten the alternative history aspects, especially in the first of the series, Time’s Eye. In that story, an inscrutable alien race creates a new patchwork Earth in a parallel reality, combining slices of the planet’s past and present into a crazy quilt. Pre-humans rub elbows with ice age Neanderthals, Alexander the Great’s conquering army moving down the Indus valley, Genghis Khan’s Mongol horde sweeping south, a British Afghanistan outpost (complete with Rudyard Kipling) and the city of Chicago (including Edison) from the late 19th-century, 21st-century UN peacekeepers and a returning ISS crew. There’s not a lot of history beyond the initial plot setup, but there are some interesting speculations on the evolution of human thought and psychology.

Imagine my surprise when my next choice also invoked both Alexander and Genghis. For some time, Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone Series had been on the radar, and finally made it to the top of the reading list. The third novel in the series, The Venetian Betrayal, includes a fictional female megalomaniac who aspires to revive the lost Mongol Empire of the Khans. At the same time, she imagines herself as a new, benevolent Alexander, spreading the assumed unifying benefits of empire across central Asia and the Middle East.

The Berry novels present a new and interesting dilemma. On the one hand, as fiction they’re pretty bad: cartoon villains, ludicrous plots and frequent horrific lapses in basic grammar and syntax. Here’s one of my favorite lines: “Iran is a harbinger of terrorists”. And the bad guys all carry “AK-74”s. I hope Berry isn’t overpaying his editors.

The flipside, however, is that there’s a lot of interesting history, in areas I haven’t explored much. The Templar Legacy includes a history of that order of Crusader knights along with the kind of hidden wealth-lost truths-secret society-world domination plot made famous lately by Dan Brown. The Alexandria Link speculates that maybe the famous Library of Alexandria wasn’t destroyed after all. And The Venetian Betrayal mixes in some interesting history of the renaissance-era Venetian Republic, along with the aforementioned Alexander and Genghis.

I’ll hold off on invoking the 5 criteria to rate this series until after reading a couple more. I’m hoping the writing will get better, while continuing to delve into interesting historical subjects.  

Monday, September 2, 2013

"The Seven Hills", by John Maddox Roberts

I don't often get into the fiction sub-genre known as "alternative history". It's sometimes lumped together with science fiction and fantasy (which don't belong together, either). The typical setup is a hypothetical change in the outcome of a crucial historical event, framed as the question, "what would have happened if...". Quite a few of these novels involve ancient Rome.

In the case of The Seven Hills, by John Maddox Roberts, the question asked is "what would have happened if Hannibal had defeated the Romans (218–203 BC) and driven them out of Italy". That part of the story and its aftermath, wherein the exiled Romans establish a new hegemony in the northern forests of Germania, was told in Hannibal's Children (2002). The Seven Hills takes it from there to imagine the Romans' triumphant return, 100 years later, to reclaim the seven hills of Rome and take revenge against Carthage.

Roberts wrote The Seven Hills before beginning his popular SPQR series (see previous post), and the immaturity of style is evident. Even more evident is something I'd never really thought about before - it's really hard to create good fictional characters and "historical" events. Historical fiction writers have an advantage, in that they can start with real historical characters and events, with all their unlikely-but-true human quirks known to posterity. When starting with the tabula rasa of a fictional character and/or event, however, all those complex, idiosyncratic, self-contradictory human traits have to be invented and - even more difficult - made believable to the reader.

Roberts faced that challenge in The Seven Hills - and lost. The fictional Romans, Carthaginians and others are not nearly as interesting as the historical Hannibal and his treacherous family, or Fabius and the rest of the inept Roman generals who opposed the Carthaginian invasion. Roberts' invented course of events lacks the kind of granular detail and unexpected shifts that make historical accounts so interesting.

Unless you're a big fan of Roman alternative history novels, I don't recommend The Seven Hills. The SPQR series is much better, and a big advance for Roberts as a writer.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

SPQR series, by John Maddox Roberts

After Claudius, there doesn't seem to be an obvious next step in my chronological odyssey through the currently available Roman Empire novels. So I opted for an easy and enjoyable side trip into historical mysteries. The SPQR series, by John Maddox Roberts, follow the exploits of fictional but plausible Roman Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger.

There are thirteen books in the series so far, placed in the years 70-45 BC, roughly coinciding with the career of Julius Caesar. Roberts' protagonist, as a fictional member of a prominent family during this period, is well-placed to be privy to many of the most famous happenings of those well-chronicled years. His marriage to a fictional niece of Caesar himself adds even to his insider status.

Having previously read SPQR I-III (Roman numerals, of course), I picked up the series again at number IV, The Temple of the Muses, set in 60 BC; and proceeded in order to number XIII, The Year of Confusion (45-44 BC). The confusion alluded to came about because of dictator Caesar's calendar reforms.

Decius has risen in the Roman world along with Caesar, and by 45 BC is a veteran senator who has followed the cursus honorem as far as praetor. Books XI and XII are set during his year as praetor peregrinus - a sort of circuit judge who dealt with legal matters involving citizens' dealings with foreigners. Book XIV will be titled Dolabella, and will presumably bring in one of the consuls of 44 BC, Publius Cornelius Dolabella.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Roberts gets into a lot of the less-well-explored nooks and crannies of the Roman world, which inspires the reader (this one, anyway) to look for more.
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. These short novels are a little light on the history, compared to Graves or McCullough, but there's plenty in there. Roberts is especially clever at working in a wealth of details about everyday life in ancient Rome.
Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. All Roman historical fiction draws on the same finite set of contemporary writings, so it's not too hard to distinguish the Tacitus stories from the Suetonius anecdotes. Roberts has studied the historical sources, and does a good job of fitting his fictional embellishments into the known events.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Yes, with qualifications. In particular, some of Roberts' physical and personality descriptions contrast sharply with other novelists. That just shows, however, that not much is really known about many of these characters - ones whose faces never appeared on coins or in frescos.  
Score = 4
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Yes. I look forward to Dolabella.
Score = 5

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Mask of Zorro (1998 movie)

While historical novels are the main subjects here, there's room for an occasional tirade directed at one of Hollywood's frequent crimes against historical accuracy - as if real history is not interesting enough or obscure enough to the average moviegoer. It's an old one, but the 1998 Mask of Zorro deserves mention as an especially egregious mishmash of a few historical events and characters thrown into a farcical horse opera plot. It would be entirely unworthy of mention here except for the inclusion of one historical character with connections to my adopted hometown of Santa Cruz, CA.

One of the baddies in the film is Captain Harrison Love, who hunts down and kills the notorious bandit Joaquin Murrieta and his accomplice "Three-Fingered Jack. He then cuts off Murrietta's head and keeps it preserved in a jar of alcohol. This much is historical fact, but pretty much everything else in the story is fiction, including a brother who escapes to become the successor to the original Zorro.

The real Harry Love (1810–1868) was the head of California's first law enforcement agency, the California State Rangers, and became famous for allegedly killing the notorious bandit.  Love later retired to a homestead on present-day Love Creek, near the town of Boulder Creek in Santa Cruz County, CA.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I, Claudius and Claudius the God, by Robert Graves

Colleen McCullough's First Man in Rome series left off with Augustus' final victory over Antony and Cleopatra, which left him as undisputed Princeps over a Roman state that did not yet quite realize that the Republic had ended and the Empire had begun. Idealistic dreams of restoring a perfected Republic no doubt outlived the Julio-Claudian dynasty that began with McCullough's ultimate Roman, Julius Caesar, and ended with the assassination of Nero almost 120 years after the crossing of the Rubicon.

Those idealistic dreams lived on through more than half of those years in the heart of Robert Graves' fictionalized Claudius, the family embarrassment who was made emperor against his will and thought to open the Roman people's eyes to the evils of autocracy by arranging for the succession to pass from him to the worst possible candidate - his nephew Nero.

Rereading I, Claudius and Claudius the God after many years reminded me how seminal the novels were in the now-crowded field of Roman historical novels. Graves literally invented the sub-genre, so much so that he apparently feared that his audience would be put off by use of Latin words (or direct English translations) describing various aspects of Roman life, culture, politics and military matters. Indeed, my biggest criticism of Graves' writing is that the terms he chose to substitute, while undoubtedly more familiar to a British readership of the 1930s, are often highly inaccurate. To cite just one glaring example, a Roman legion was nothing like a British regiment. In other cases, however, Graves chose the obscure over the familiar - assegai instead of spear or javelin. As a poet, maybe he just liked the sound of the word.

That sort of nit-picking in 2013, however, is only possible because Graves showed that readers would pay money for historical fiction set in ancient Rome. As a result, readers who enjoy well-written Roman stories have had an embarrassment of riches over the past 30 years or so and, as a result, we Romanophiles know our aediles from our tribunes - we don't want them lumped together as "officials". For opening up the mysteries of that fascinating age to fiction readers, we still owe Graves a huge debt of gratitude. I've read that Graves did not think much of his own novels; that he only wrote them for the money, etc. It doesn't matter - he's the godfather of Roman historical fiction.

The other literary device that sets I, Claudius apart is the use by Graves of what I call "plausible alternative explanations" for historical events. Such subplots enliven what could otherwise be an unimaginative recital of known historical events, with a veneer of inconsequential fictional action. Speculative "hidden" history is great fun, and is employed to wonderful effect by the best modern hist-fiction authors. In addition, the ability to construct a truly plausible alternative history demonstrates the author's mastery of the history underlying the fiction.

The "hidden" history in I, Claudius is partly in the revealed depths of the Claudius character, but even more in the role of Livia, wife of Augustus. Graves casts her as the prime mover behind dynastic events throughout the reigns of Augustus and Tiberias, and on into Caligula's years before her death. Livia's evil genius is extrapolated from contemporary rumors of her being a poisoner and behind-the-scenes political schemer. The suspicions are entirely plausible and understandable, given the poorly explained deaths of so many of Augustus' designated successors who were not Livia's son Tiberias.

It's not easy to create and sustain dramatic tension in a historical story when everyone already knows how it ends, but Graves accomplishes that feat through Claudius' gradual realization of just how powerful and ruthless his grandmother really was, and his constant fear that he too will come to be seen as a threat to Livia's plans. The crowning irony of Graves' plot comes when it turns out that Claudius is the only one left who can grant Livia's last and greatest desire (no spoilers here).

By contrast, Claudius the God (and his wife Messalina) is weaker on both plot and dramatic development. Right off the bat, the narrative diverges into a background story of Herod Agrippa, a boyhood friend and schoolmate of Claudius who had become the Roman client-king of Judea. After Herod's untimely end, the remainder of the book follows the reign of the emperor Claudius and his aforementioned plans concerning Nero. Graves attempts to cast Messalina in a role similar to Livia in the first book, but with less success.  

Continuing my efforts to keep some factual backup near to hand while reading historical novels, I found an excellent concise history called The Sons of Caesar: Imperial Rome's First Dynasty, by Philip Matyszak. It actually goes a bit farther than Graves to cover Nero's brief reign and the following 'Year of Four Emperors', which was as chaotic as it sounds.

There's not much criticism in the five criteria for these two novels:
  1. Did the novel(s) inspire me to further historical research?
Yes, as they did when I first read them years ago. Score = 5
  1. Did the novel(s) include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. Inclusion/description of historical events and people was actually more comprehensive than in Matyszak's history. Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. I found no significant conflicts with the companion history text. My only criticism, as noted above, is the unnecessarily confusing use of non-congruent descriptive terms. Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Yes, within the normal limits set by contemporary sources. Graves' assignation of subjective judgements of character and motive often differ from Suetonius or Tacitus, but don't require alteration of known facts. Indeed, contemporary sources often differed from one another when assessing historical actors. That's the genius of Graves' fictional "hidden" history - it works without resort to outlandishly implausible behavior or extremely unlikely actions.  Score = 5
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Yes. I haven't read any of Graves' other historical novels, but eventually I will.  Score = 5 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The First Man in Rome, series by Colleen McCullough

Imperium and Lustrum, by Robert Harris, got me back into an ancient Rome groove, but the sudden availability of Istanbul Passage at my local library necessitated a brief detour. After that atmospheric Joseph Kanon read, it's time to get back to my Roman holiday. The First Man in Rome series by Colleen McCullough contains seven of the very best novels of ancient Rome. Having read all seven before, I decided to skip rereading the first two, First Man in Rome and The Grass Crown, to start with Fortune's Favorites, which picks up about where Harris began with Cicero and Caesar.  

It was also useful to employ, once again, the enlightening technique of reading straight biography/history works alongside the novels - first the concise biography Julius Caesar, by Philip Freeman; then Augustus, by Anthony Everitt. While biographers tend to become admirers of their subjects almost as much as novelists, both Freeman and Everitt make careful distinctions between established facts and hearsay in the contemporary sources. That helped me know when McCullough was inventing and/or embellishing, or selecting between conflicting reports by contemporary Roman historical writers who were both less well-informed and less rigorous than modern historians. An additional twist when examining the lives of Cicero and Caesar is that much of what we know about them came from their own pens - both were prolific writers.
Fortune's Favorites narrates the rise and fall of many Roman politicians and military men who competed for the informal title of "First Man in Rome" during the turbulent late-republic years between Sulla's retirement from public life in 79 BC and the commencement of Caesar's Gallic campaigns in 58 BC. Largest among these was Pompey, whose military successes enabled him to chart his own path up the cursus honorum of Roman political life.

One of the many other contenders was Marcus Tullius Cicero, and it was interesting to see him from McCullough's perspective after the Harris treatment. Predictably, Cicero comes off better than Caesar in the Harris biographical-novels, while the reverse is true in Fortune's Favorites, whose parade of notables serves as merely a lead-in to the brilliant and dominating career of Julius Caesar.

Caesar (subtitled Let the Dice Fly) opens in Brittania (54 BC), in the middle of the Gallic Wars. The narrative moves both forward and back in time from that point, mainly in Gaul but continuing through the famous crossing of the Rubicon, the civil war against Pompey, and concluding with Pompey's murder in Egypt (48 BC).

The October Horse picks up from there, covering Caesar's dalliance with Cleopatra and his last years in Rome leading up to his assassination (44 BC). At that point the focus again splits to illustrate both sides of the war against Caesar's assassins, led by the "republicans" Brutus and Cassius. Mark Antony and young Octavian (the future Augustus) become allies to finally defeat them at Philippi, and the book ends as Octavian prepares to return west to Rome while Antony goes east.  

The final book in the series, Antony and Cleopatra, switches back and forth between Octavian in Rome and Antony in Egypt and Roman Asia. As indicated by the title, the queen of Egypt is also a prominent character, choosing to ally herself and her country with Antony against Octavian for ultimate control of the Roman world.

Like many biographical novelists, McCullough's protagonists tend to come across as larger than life - none more so than Julius Caesar. The reader of McCullough's novels gets a portrait of Caesar as the embodiment of the Roman ideals of auctoritas, gravitas, and especially dignitas, an untranslatable concept that combines our ideas of dignity, honor, legacy and personal responsibility. As the exemplar of these most-highly-prized personal values, McCullough's Caesar is also the culmination of all the Roman history that came before. It's not hard to draw parallels between this idealized Caesar and Ayn Rand's leading men, including the consuming jealousy of lesser mortals that ultimately led to the assassination in 44 BC.   

My "five criteria" are unnecessary with the First Man in Rome novels - they get highest marks in all categories. My only quibble is that McCullough characters tend to be idealized, romanticized, and simplified - and so tend to come off as not quite human. That's OK - these are historical novels, not character studies. I'd rather read more about the history and less about the inner emotional struggles.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon

Istanbul Passage is the latest (2012) work by American historical novelist Joseph Kanon. Kanon has carved out a niche for himself in the turbulent days immediately following the end of World War II. Previous Kanon novels set in this time period include The Good German (Berlin), Alibi (Venice), and Stardust (Hollywood). Istanbul Passage revisits those days, but this time in 1945 Istanbul, Turkey.

Protagonist Leon Bauer is an expatriate American working for R. J. Reynolds during the war, buying Turkish tobacco to be blended into American cigarettes. On the side, he does some low-level spy work for the State Dept., while his German-Jewish wife works with the with the Mossad le Aliyah Bet to get Jewish refugees out of Eastern Europe (especially Romania in this story) before the Soviets assume control, and then to smuggle them into Palestine. Then, in 1942, she witnesses the horrific torpedoing and sinking of the refugee ship Struma. She never recovers from the shock, gradually withdrawing into a non-responsive trance and confined to a psychiatric clinic. Bauer stays in Istanbul where he can afford his wife's care, and continues his work and spy tasks.

With the end of the war, however, Bauer's spy contact looks forward to returning home. He has one last job for Bauer before quitting his post - meet a boat carrying an anonymous but apparently important man smuggled out of Europe, keep him safe for a day or two and get him on a plane for the US. A simple job - what could go wrong? Of course, everything goes wrong and Bauer's tidy, somewhat boring world gets turned upside down.

As with Kanon's other historicals, the ambiance of the exotic locale and period detail play leading roles in the story. Ancient, complex and mysterious, Istanbul is a perfect setting for a spy novel. How does it rate in the five criteria?
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Older readers like me remember the novel (and movie) Exodus, by Leon Uris, that told some of this same story about the Jewish refugees, but I'm glad Kanon decided to revisit it now. I was not familiar with Istanbul's central role as a way station for the refugees. Score = 4
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes - although perhaps lacking depth of historical detail. The broad outlines provide an inspiring and cautionary tale about what humans are capable of - both good and bad. However, I can't help but compare this novel to Kanon's Los Alamos, which included a lot more historical detail and characters.  Score =3
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes, although again there's not a lot of detail.  Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
No historical characters have speaking roles. Score = 3
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Definitely. Kanon is always a good read, even when he goes light on the history.  Score = 4.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Imperium and Lustrum, by Robert Harris

Imperium (2006) and Lustrum (2009) comprise the first 2/3 of a fictionalized biography trilogy focusing on the ancient Roman politician Cicero, by British novelist Robert Harris. My first exposure to Harris was his earlier novel (and only previous Roman setting) Pompeii, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Adding to my interest in these two newer works is previous exposure to a fictionalized Cicero, in the Masters of Rome series of novels by the formidable Colleen McCullough. I decided it would be fun, after finishing Imperium and Lustrum, to re-read Fortune's Favorites and Caesar's Women (an unfortunate if accurate title), which contain McCollough's version of Cicero. That gave me two fictionalized portrayals of both Cicero and Caesar to compare.

The main revelation in this exercise was in how a skilled novelist can take a brief historical account of an event and fill it out to create a convincing yet entirely fictional scene. Equally interesting is the extent to which details may be altered in different directions to support a novel's plot. Without getting into a detailed reading of the historical sources myself (a task for which I lack the patience), reading both pairs of novels allowed me to see which details have support from historical sources and which are pure fiction.

A case in point is the contrasting accounts of the "Bona Dea scandal", in which a man profaned the annual women-only "Bona Dea" religious rite by trying to sneak in, disguised as a woman. McCullough's version has the offender apprehended right away while attempting to enter the house (Caesar's house). Harris, however, allows the intruder to be discovered only after the sacred and secret rites have begun - well within the house - and adds some entertaining invented detail thereafter.

Another interesting thing, although I really shouldn't be surprised, is that the main historical characters in these novels are treated more sympathetically than their contemporaries. Harris' Cicero is ambitious but principled, political but ethical. McCulloch's portrayal is not uncomplimentary, but much less glowing. The reverse is true of Julius Caesar - the ultimate Roman hero in McCullough's series but seen as a dangerously ambitious schemer by the Cicero of Lustrum. This same phenomenon occurs frequently in straight historical biographies. A writer can come to love and admire (or sometimes hate) his subject while doing research, to the point that objectivity suffers. With subjects like Cicero and Caesar, there's the added problem that much of the information about their lives comes from their own writing. Imagine if, 2000 years from now, you wanted to write a biography of Adolf Hitler and your main source of information was Mein Kampf.

I won't use the five criteria this time, as Harris gets uniformly high marks on all five. I look forward to the third and final entry in the Cicero Trilogy.