Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Why Should I Read...?


John Julius Norwich, 1988-95

Having dwelled at length on historical novels in recent entries, today we look at real history. I’ve cheated a bit here, because Norwich’s survey of the lengthy history of the Byzantine Empire covers three volumes (although a single-volume abridgement is available).

Norwich makes no claim to original scholarship as he takes us from Constantine’s conversion to Christianity to the heartbreaking fall of the city named after him 1,100 years later. He is instead what is sometimes disparagingly referred to as a ‘popular historian’ (surely a better fate than an unpopular one). His skill is synthesising the vast range of primary and secondary sources to make a coherent narrative with a story arc of centuries. The great secondary source is of course Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with which Norwich has an interesting relationship: he does not subscribe to Gibbon’s thesis that the Byzantine Empire was a steady slide into feebleness and corruption, but he can’t resist quoting Gibbon liberally. Norwich is a beautiful prose stylist, with an eye for the waspish anecdote—and in this he clearly finds Gibbon a kindred spirit.

Norwich has a wonderful knack of bringing a character to life in a couple of paragraphs. Few emperors are on stage for more than a chapter, and even so colourful a character as Basil Bulgaroctonus (the “Bulgar-Slayer”) cannot be allowed to detain us for too long. Event piles upon event, with coups, plots and religious controversies punctuating every reign. Indeed Norwich gives full weight to the religious aspect of Byzantine society: in today’s largely secular Britain it’s fascinating to see the contrast, and Norwich is to be congratulated on bringing such alien material to life. The cantankerous, grasping and opportunist theologians who wrangle their way through so much of the first millennium, pausing to denounce their rivals as “pestiferous pimps” and the like, provide magnificent entertainment.

Norwich excels in marrying the telling detail with wide-screen narrative. The depiction of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 is studded vivid close-ups (the last Emperor disappearing into a press of Ottomans in his purple boots) , but as readers we recognise the loss of all that has gone before: Norwich at once gives us immediacy and context, to powerful effect.

How has it influenced me?

Norwich has been able, in 1,000 or so pages, to give us an entire society, from its birth, through long melancholy decline to its final heroic destruction. He has created an entire world which could leave no fantasy writer unstirred. In his tales of valour, political intrigue and religious extravagance he touches on motifs that I have looked to incorporate in my own fiction. Most of all, Norwich shows that the stories of individual men and women are more powerful when we understand the world which has produced them. As a writer, you don’t need to set out the history of your imagined world, but you need to have at least a sense of it.

I also owe to Norwich (along with Jack Vance) the sense of how much fictional zest can be squeezed out of religion—a marvellous device for showing how different your imagined society is from today’s world, and for enriching your vision. Norwich (unlike Vance) is by no means anti-clerical: his respect and admiration for Byzantine religious art is manifest. But he recognises that the combination of piety and hypocrisy which religion so often juxtaposes makes for a compelling narrative.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Don’t be afraid to plunder history for fictional material
Your story will have greater resonance if you conceive a story arc wider than the segment you choose to put down on the page
In any fantasy world, it’s implausible that your characters will have either no religious beliefs, or all share the same ones
One of the best ways to give a fantasy world a convincingly different ambience is to invest time in creating a plausible religion
Characters’ beliefs and assumptions are shaped by the society in which they live: if you create a society fundamentally different from our own, it’s almost certainly a mistake to give them only 21st-century attitudes
If you have a satirical bent, religion really is a sitting duck…
We’ve been here before, but a happy ending is not always the best way

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