Saturday, January 05, 2013

the historical novel, an incomplete inquiry


#1 The Game of Kings, Dorothy Dunnett

I [finally!] read Bring Up The Bodies at the end of December, which put me in mind, as historical novels often do, of Dorothy Dunnett. One of the things I found interesting about Hilary Mantel's rapturous reception in the critical press is that so many people, including I think Larissa McFarquhar in a long and careful New Yorker profile, credited her with rehabilitating the historical novel by removing it from the sphere of bosom-heaving, Walter-Scotian romance and bringing it back [let us crudely paraphrase] to the hard, thankless task of realism.

The great thing about Mantel's Cromwell books so far, of course, is it isn't particularly important that their realism is mimetic, and it probably isn't. It is enough that Mantel creates an atmosphere and a character in which we can reasonably reconsider Cromwell not simply as the man who looks like a murderer in his Holbein portrait, but the man who, upon being shown his portrait by "Hans," has the wit and softness to say, "Christ, I look like a murderer," [following which Gregory, his son, who is basically Mantel's charming and completely unsubtle ploy to win sympathy for Thomas Cromwell, Tender Single Dad, artlessly says, "Didn't you know?" We are then free to extrapolate that Cromwell wants to ruffle Greg's hair but probably doesn't because although he is a common person like you and me he needs to look appropriately detached and scheming even while wondering a) whether the daisies he planted on his wife's grave will come up okay in the spring b) what Cardinal Wolsey is doing in heaven, where all the awesome misunderstood people are and c) okay, fine, how to get France and Spain to annihilate each other so that he can swoop in at the right moment and spite-buy Italy from the Pope, LOL BYE BITCH].

The Cromwell books turn on a deep, writerly interest in individuals. Without having read her other historical novels or knowing very much about her motivations I am inclined to say that her subversion of history [of the Man for All Seasons variety] in this cycle is contingent on her playful interest in subverting a character we think we know. The pleasure of these books is in Mantel's surprising us with his sheer quality, the richness of his is-ness. Does this also encompass a review of English history? Well, why not. Maybe we can see Mantel as re-reading in Tudor history the noble beginnings of enlightened modernity -- through Cromwell's particular, nation-of-shopkeepers genius -- in this, the UK's age of aristocratic self-interest. But why give the novels an ideological burden before their time? The fun of Mantel's novels is in their people, and in the person of Cromwell, who, while he has a set of ethics that we are constantly deftly being reminded of, has ideas that bend and expand with each new set of data brought in by births, deaths, marriages and love affairs.

"In the si├Ęcles de foi you would be irresistible," said Lymond generously. “But I have arrived in the age of reason."


History and nation-building are very much the stakes that Dorothy Dunnett raises in The Lymond Chronicles, a series of novels as different from Mantel's Cromwell books as Scotland is from England. Reading Dunnett brings you face to face with the obverse of the questions that arise with Mantel. What can the historical romance do? Where does romanticism confront realism in the novel, and can it successfully speak to the constituencies of both? How can a supposedly individualist and pragmatic form like the novel serve the tenets of nationalism, with which its own life in the modern West roughly corresponds?

Many historical romances do, I suppose, occasion these questions, but I'm not sure many of them do it with the kind of literary audacity and verve that Dunnett does. Her rococo style, her quotations, her scholarship! Her female characters! Her action scenes! In The Game of Kings we come across a plethora of people we are encouraged to fall in love with, all of whom are in direct or indirect opposition to the hero. It is 1547, and Francis Crawford of Lymond has outraged every meek and proper sentiment for five years previous. A condemned traitor turned galley slave turned brigand, he slips back into Scotland five years after he ignominously caused the disaster of the battle of Solway Moss, and plays an elaborate and deadly game to discover a secret that might get him back into the good graces of his family and country -- if they haven't murdered him first. Yes -- that's right. Ex-galley slave. He doesn't do things by halves, because OF REASONS.

After I first read the Lymond Chronicles in 2008 I went back to re-read them in bits and pieces, both in love and, increasingly, in irritation. It took me a year to read the whole series borrowing the books out of order from the British Library, which meant that I was both more eager to devour the books as they arrived to me, and less able to see them as parts of a whole. There is an obvious arc through the six novels -- the swashbuckling fictional hero gets an exhaustingly fun Bildungsroman, and England and Scotland move, together with their close cousin France, towards Renaissance modernity, at least as English students such as I understand it.

But there is something more, esoteric, idealistic and yoked to the grandest ideas. The fates of all are linked. Our hero is a thoroughly modern man, and it is his job to bring Scotland, and Europe, kicking and screaming, into the modern world. He thinks five steps ahead of everyone else, including his worthy foes and his almost equally worthy friends; he is endlessly resourceful, matchless in his versatility, and thoroughly unanswerable. So what is this Florentine hero doing, working for the Scotland of the baby Queen Mary, which has the unique distinction of being both loopily unstable and desperately dull?

Dunnett's idea was to create a glorious romance that existed at the interstices of that reality. Without changing any of the key historical events in Europe, she brings Lymond and friends to play a great game in which they lead, and are led, to the future, sometimes in collusion with historical figures -- many of whom, from Bloody Mary to Roxelana, Juan de Homedes to Mary Queen of Scots, Dunnett brings to life with an almost sadistic glee -- and sometimes through a self-conscious, mystical interrogation of destiny. Dunnett used her unapologetically fabulous construction to write about patriotism as well as internationalism. Her resolutely singular hero subsumes himself time and again to the task of preserving, rather than transforming, a community and a nation.

I found myself enjoying this shrewd interplay of fantasy and reality as a comment on the way we view the Renaissance, and the first modern men of Anglophone Europe [Philip Sidney doesn't make it into the books, although his parents, Henry and Mary Sidney, enjoy a pair of favourable cameos], and I wanted to throw this line of inquiry out into the wild in my first book blog of the year, whether I carry out a re-read of Lymond, or stop with The Game of Kings. It is more annoying and more hilarious than it was the last time I read it. Its intricate plotting is as charming as ever, although I can't personally keep all of Scotland's protagonists and antagonists straight in the way I could with the close attention of a first reading. Its deadly chain of personal vendettas, which Dunnett both pokes fun at and plays heart-stoppingly serious games with, always give me a reason to root for the other side, as with Achilles and the Trojans. And its hero who can simply never let anyone else have the last word tests the novel -- and the novel form -- to its limits. I know he has his fans the world over, and that lots of people read the books for him, so all I will say at this early stage, is: SHUT UP, LYMOND. To you, I say hello, and happy new year.