Monday, October 01, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

Allan Massie, 1986

Historical novels have featured heavily in our list to date. Augustus¸ however, is the first which employs the deliberately anachronistic ‘modern’ dialogue style. In general I prefer the illusion (for illusion it is) of period dialogue, but here Allan Massie shows how successful the other approach can be when used skilfully.

Massie’s first-person protagonist is Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus, looking back over his life and achievements in the crisp language of 20th century political memoirs (Massie is himself an eminent political commentator). The emphasis is not on the battles which allowed Augustus to gain and maintain power, but on the human relationships, and particularly the political intrigues employed.

Massie is embarking on dangerous territory. Anyone who writes about this period lives in the shadow of Robert Graves, and one reason Massie may have chosen modern language is to distance himself from I, Claudius, which attempts more closely to capture a ‘period’ feel. But the real reason for Massie’s choice is that he’s only incidentally writing about imperial Rome: his theme is the timelessness of political processes, and Augustus is revealed as shrewd modern political operator. He’s chilly, ruthless and manipulative. Augustus reveals a protagonist who is utterly self-serving and unreliable in his memoirs (Tiberius, the next novel in the series, is an even better example of this approach).

Later in the series, Massie portrays Julius Caesar as an antique Margaret Thatcher, even down to giving him Thatcher’s famous line “There is no such thing as society”. Unlike, say, O’Brian, Massie is using historical fiction as a window on current events. It’s easy to botch this (Harry Thompson’s excellent This Thing of Darkness falters only when a 19th century Argentinian dictator deploys Tony Blair’s justification for invading Iraq) but Massie manages it.

If your thesis is that politics is politics across the ages, you should be able to pull off the trick of making your narrative at once relevant to the present while maintaining the feel of the original time. By using the detail of daily life in ancient Rome, Massie gives us the sense of living in imperial Rome. In his modern dialogue, he delivers not just timelessness, but immediacy. Edward Charles, a fellow Macmillan New Writer, and one of the ‘modern’ school, says: to me, the people of Tudor England and Renaissance Venice were, deep down, very like us. I don’t want them to appear stilted and old-fashioned. Massie’s characters are neither, but we can still plausibly imagine them in the Senate and the bath-houses of ancient Rome.

Massie has walked a tightrope. He has a written a novel which simultaneously illuminates the past and the present, risked the wrath of classical scholars with a flagrantly anachronistic style, and made a first-person protagonist interesting. The novel could have failed on any of these technical grounds, so we should congratulate him on taking a gamble which has paid off.

How has it influenced me?

The Roman period is so far divorced from the twenty-first century as to be another world. In some ways fiction set in this period has more in common with fantasy than it does with Napoleonic historical works. I’ve found Massie instructive in the way in which he balances world-building with characterisation. The first person narrative structure requires an oblique method of conveying information about the world, because Augustus is writing for his contemporaries, not Massie’s—so we learn about the Roman world through incidental detail, clothing and customs, rather than direct authorial address. It’s something I’ve tried to do myself, particularly in The Dog of the North.

The reader of Massie will also be aware that, while characters from the past may have fundamentally different beliefs and assumptions about their lives, certain qualities will be constant across time. Much, if not all, of my fiction, treats the will to power and its corrupting effects—and in this I have to doff the cap to Massie.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

First-person narratives are much more interesting if the narrator is unreliable.
Historical novels are not just about the past.
Style and tone of dialogue are among the most fundamental choices the writer has to make (and not just for historical fiction).
When giving information about a world which is not the reader’s own, less is more.
Characters in historical novels don’t realise they are in historical novels…


David Isaak said...

I haven't read Augustus, but now it's on my (unfortunately vast) to-read list.

As to Graves, I think his two Claudius novels are magnificent--and horribly claustrophobia-inducing. It's funny, because Graves thought all his novels were throwaways, done to support the great art of his poetry.

Personally I find most of his poetry a bit tiresome (and it isn't much read nowadays), but find his novels excellent. I expect Claudius to still be read a dentury from now. Shows how poor writers are as judges of their own works.

Tim Stretton said...

I fully agree with your assessment of Graves. All his historical novels are first rate - Count Belisarius and The Isles of Unwisdom are both worth a read. But if you look at his Wikepedia article, by God did he write a lot of poetry!

Hardy was another writer who saw novels as a grubby way of subsidising his poetry - but in this case, I'd agree with his own assessment that he was a better poet than novelist.