Literary Arcadia Literature and other things

Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Gore Vidal’s Creation

Creation is a historical novel.  One of those epic, all-encompassing, ones.  It is more than just a silly “historical fiction” book- not just a fictional character wandering through a time, a vacant vessel to be a surrogate for the reader.  This is deep and involved; you have to know about history, and preferably also about some world religions, before you pick it up.  Or perhaps it could be a sort of gateway book – if the various historical figures and events are interesting enough by all means do the research!

Our hero, Cyrus Spitama, is a Persian ambassador and friend of Xerxes.  He is also the grandson of Zoroaster, the founder of the Zoroastrian religion.  This gives a new dimension to the novel, because not only is Spitama a globe-trotting ambassador, but also takes an interest in the various religions and philosophies he encounters along the way.  So, let the fun begin!

- Spitama travels to India, gets involved in the intrigue between the various Indian princes, meets Siddhartha Gautama and various Hindu sages.

- Spitama is sent to China, where he travels through various warring Chinese kingdoms, and meets Confucius and Lao Tsu.

- Spitama’s last diplomatic mission is to Greece, where he is involved in the war/peace/stand-off/machinations between Persia and Athens.  He meets various Greek philosophers, scientists, poets, and playwrights.

- When Spitama is actually in Persia he is always involved in the various palace intrigues and drama that continually surround the royal family.  He is involved vicariously in the continuing philosophical battles between the Zoroastrian priests and the purveyors of the older religions of Persia, Sumeria, and Babylon.

What connects the story together (besides our protagonist) is the search for meaning in all of these religions.  Spitama specifically seeks the answer to the one question that continually eludes him – Why do we exist?  What created the universe and why?  Each religion has a different perspective, from “it doesn’t matter” to “serving the gods”.  The novel leaves the question unanswered because, as Spitama says, regardless of the religion or philosophical concept each person adheres to, it can only be answered by each person’s own individual journey through life.

Creation is like a historical fiction novel I wish I could write.  Very interesting and mostly accurate.  There are a very few tiny quibbles – my main one is our main character is able to meet both Confucius and Lao Tsu in fifth century China, although it is likely that Lao Tsu lived before that time period.  As an historian I would ordinarily be irritated, but within the novel it makes sense – the point is to introduce and discuss formative world religions and the best way to do that with Taoism is for Spitama to speak with Lao Tsu.

If I ever did write a historical fiction work it would be very accurate, and likely boring.

Possession: A Sort-Of Romance

Possession is a novel of academia, literature, and mystery.  Roland is a young scholar specializing in a particular Victorian poet, Randolph Ash.  When he finds two unfinished letters from Ash to an unnamed lady his curiosity is piqued.  He figures out that the lady was Christabel LaMotte, another poet.  Roland joins forces with a LaMotte expert, Maud Bailey, and together they follow the clues left by the poets across England and Brittany and reveal a passionate love affair.

The premise of this book sounds great, and like something I would really enjoy.  The fact that it won the Booker Prize is also another point in its favor.  The book is very “literary” – in the sense of “literary fiction” genre- in that the prose is often broken up by poems, letters, and excerpts from books written by some of the characters.

I’ll admit it – I am not a poetry person.  The most I can handle is very short snippets or the occasional 17 syllables of haiku.  Long lines of Victorian verse filling up several pages are especially off-putting to me, and this book contains several examples.  I confess that I skimmed them.  For some they may add to the experience, but for me they break up the story and take me out of the narrative.

The really interesting point made by the novel is who “owns” literature, or specifically who owns the undiscovered love letters of two writers who died over a century before?  The people who possess them at the moment, or buy them?  The descendents?  What scholars have a right to study them, or should they study them at all?  Do they add to scholarship in any way?  There are many themes of various forms of “possession” that flow through the book.

The thing was, as much as I thought I would like this book, I didn’t.  It was just ok.  I was very interested during the first 2/3 or so of the book, while Roland and Maud were solving the mystery of the poets Ash and LaMotte.  But the last part of the novel seemed like a let-down- it felt rushed towards a conclusion that tied everything up really nicely into a neat and pretty bow.  The ending was predictable, and everything I expected but, somehow with all the build-up and quality writing, I felt that it should have been more.

A Reader’s Journey with an Elephant

Reading The Elephant’s Journey is a rewarding experience.  Not just because it is an interesting story richly and expertly told by Jose Saramago, one of Portugal’s premiere writers.  Rather it feels as if, reading through the novel, the story is the reward for getting through the occasionally difficult style that Saramago chose to use.

The story is simple but very intriguing; the King of Portugal, Joao III wants to give a spectacular gift to his relative, the Archduke Maximilian of Austria.  He decides on the elephant that has been neglected for the past two years in his own stables.  Soon the elephant, Solomon, and his care-taker, Subrho, are travelling by land and sea; across Spain to Italy and over the alps to Vienna.

Saramago ignored the basic rules of paragraphs, sentence structure, and punctuation when writing the novel.  The pages are filled with large, daunting blocks of text.  At first this was a bit off-putting for me, but I found as I read on that this style forced me to really pay attention to what I was reading, every word and phrase.

I am sure that I am not the only one guilty of occasionally skimming lines in books.  Scientists even say that knowing the patterns used in written works, readers can sometimes skip words or entire phrases and still understand everything, their brains filling in the gaps.  But because of the way The Elephant’s Journey is written, that type of skimming is impossible.  I found myself deeply invested for so short a novel because I was concentrating so much; at first just not to lose my place in the run-on sentences, but afterward on the flow of the language.

I chose this book for the fun and interesting story (who wouldn’t want to read about an elephant travelling sixteenth century Europe!).  I love it for the way in which it is told.