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historical v contemporary novels

For some reason a question keeps popping into my head. If I had to choose between reading only historical or only contemporary novels, which would I choose?

Today I think I settled the question by forcing myself to do the desert island thing. Only five novels, desert island, me. For say, ten years. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Niccolo Rising, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Possession, A.S. Byatt
  • A Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin
  • Bride of the Wilderness, Charles McCarry
  • Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry

These are, of course, all historical. Possession is half historical and half contemporary, but I’m still counting it as historical as that’s the heart of the story. Things these novels have in common (beyond the fact that I love them):

  • densely written, long books; not one of them is a quick read;
  • stand up to multiple re-readings, and in fact, are better each time;
  • lots and lots of compelling plot
  • great characters
  • written as if the author expected it to be read out loud, which I think would be a good thing on that desert island.

If historical novels were forbidden by whoever is running this mind game, I could certainly come up with five contemporary novels. But I don’t think I would be as happy as I would be with the historicals.

Leaving my stuff off the list, can you name five novels you think could save your sanity on that island?

that one-sentence thing, new and improved

Sometime ago I had a brief scurry of posts about the Hemingway one-sentence story. You may remember. You may not.

Something far more interesting in the same vein: the radiant Robyn Bender sent me a link to the One Sentence website (and yes, Robyn, it had indeed escaped my notice). The idea:

One Sentence is about telling your story, briefly. Insignificant stories, everyday stories, or turning-point-in-your-life stories, boiled down to their bare essentials.

The idea was born from a blog entry several years ago that got a million (actually, only 14) responses. “Maybe this will take off more as its own site,” thought I. Let’s see.

You can read a couple pages of submissions in five minutes or so. You can also vote on your favorites (thumbs up or down). Some strike me as the beginning of a longer story, for example:

Because it’s difficult for me to bend, I cleaned the base of the shower with a pot scrubber tied to the bottom of my walking stick.

(Tammii)

If you go over there and find a sentence you really like, would you post it here in the comments? I’m curious about how other people react to them.

reading closely, and closer still

One of the skills that students of literature have to acquire is that of reading closely. This is, for once, as simple (and as demanding) a concept as it sounds. To some people, the very idea is off putting, but my sense is that to write well, you need to read closely at least some of the time. (I’m not going to go into details about the general process, but I will point you to a really good summary, here.)

Some stories don’t demand a lot of the reader in terms of close reading, and then there are novels that are infamous for the effort needed. Joyce’s Ulysses is the usual example of a challenging text but there are many writers and novels that demand a great deal. Lawrence Norfolk and Richard Powers are two names that come to mind. In the end, every individual has to decide for themselves if a given novel is worth the effort required. Sometimes I am in the mood to tackle writers like this, and sometimes the effort is too much.

Niccolo Rising

Dorothy Dunnett wrote wonderful historical novels, the best kind of storytelling, but the books are not easy. On the occasion that I have run across negative reactions to her work, it has been from people who were clearly impatient with story and didn’t want to have to work so hard to understand. She wrote a number of short mysteries and two series of historical novels. The second series — The House of Niccolò — is, in my opinion, the best historical fiction ever written.

So, to demonstrate.

Here are three  paragraphs from Niccolo Rising. The setting is Flanders in 1460, and the occasion is the annual arrival of the Venetian galleys which brought high-end, expensive trade goods.


It was never less than marvellous, every year. To see the sun-glow slide through the silk of the banners, and the blaze as the oars unscrolled every one from the water and stood erect on each side like two combs. To hear the flagship begin to make music: first the drums and pipes with a rattle and chirrup, and then the burping of trumps from the poop. Above the flash of the brass, the fringe would blow and wink on the canopy where you would see, each year different, the thick sprawling embroidery of the commander’s device.

And across the water, you would swear you could sniff it all; the cinnamon and the cloves, the frankincense and the honey and the liquorice, the nutmeg and citrons, the myrrh and the rosewater from Persia in keg upon keg. You would think you could glimpse, heaped and glimmering, the sapphires and the emeralds and the gauzes woven with gold, the ostrich feathers and the elephant tusks, the gums and the ginger and the coral buttons mynheer Goswin the clerk of the Hanse might be wearing on his jacket next week.

It was a trick, that was for sure, like the Duke’s performers at Carnival time. It was no accident that the galleys always downed sails and entered harbour in daylight, with the decks sluiced and the rowers and sailing-masters in livery and the noblemen commanding each ship in a stiffened gown in the crazy Venetian mode, their beards newly trimmed, with perhaps a chained marmoset on one shoulder. ||| Dorothy Dunnett (2010-08-11). Niccolo Rising (The House of Niccolo) (Kindle Locations 1613-1618). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


Read the first paragraph out loud, and read it slowly. The first thing you will notice is the rhythm of the sentences. From ‘first the drums’ to from the poop has an almost percussive rhythm. Dunnett may have worked to get this effect or it might have come to her without much effort (she was a musician as well as a writer).

Now here’s the question. The words read with a real musicality, but what the heck do they mean? Unless you are an avid sailor, or familiar with the trade practices of the mid 15th century, the history of sailing vessels and the particular build and use of galleys, some of this has to be unclear. Most readers would just have a vague idea of the images Dunnett is trying to evoke. Most readers would skim on, unconcerned that they don’t know exactly what a poop is (at least, not in the way it’s been used here). What’s a canopy in this context? What’s a commander’s device? What’s a galley, when you come right down to it? (Here’s somebody who can tell you and show you with a lot of very detailed photographs and footnotes, if you’re curious now.)

In the next paragraph Dunnett moves away from the auditory details to visual and olefactory ones and it is at this point that the narrative shifts into second person… you would swear you could sniff it all. This is not an accident, Dunnett uses this as a tool to draw you even further into the scene she’s describing, so you’re in the middle of the crowd.

And then, very subtly, she shifts again so that you are not imagining what’s in the hold of the galley, the riches that are out of sight, but the men who can afford them. Mynheer (mister) Goswin, who is a clerk (a clerk can afford such things?) of the Hanse — whatever that is. And what would coral buttons look like, now that we’re asking questions?

In strict terms, the close reading is nowhere near finished — we haven’t touched on issues of word choice or syntax or symbolism or theme.

While reading, would these questions (or others) occur to you? Would you be able to enjoy the stories if you did not know the answers?  Most people haven’t been taught to read closely and have no interest in the process. Many of them will pass on Niccolo Rising. So who  is interested in the fine points of social hierarchy among 15th century northern European merchants, and in their buttons, too?

That’s the trick Dunnett pulled off.  She means to draw you into the story to the point that you become interested in oars and devices and buttons and a lot more. You might find yourself wondering about things that never crossed your mind before, and if so, she’s done her job as a storyteller.

I confess, this is exactly the kind of thing that makes my mind race and in the best possible way. The mathematician loves those awful cryptic crosswords, and I love annotating historical fiction. Illustrations and footnotes full of detail and explanations and examples. A thorough cyber annotation of Niccolo Rising — now that sounds like a great project to me.

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The glories of Dunnett

I have been listening for maybe the tenth time to Niccolo Rising on unabridge audio. The narrator is Steven Pacey, and he is astoundingly good. The recording is on tape rather than cd, which means I may have to keep my current car forever, as newer ones don’t have tape players anymore, and I love to listen to this book.

This morning I was listening to the part of the story where the Venetian galleys come to Bruge in the spring. I’ll post a paragraph or two later, out of sheer admiration and to expand on the point I was trying to make yesterday, when I gave Laura a headache.