Dorothy Dunnett

the pleasure of talking about books

Some long time ago I mentioned here that I was pining for a few smart people who would be wlling to discuss Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising series with me, because I’ve re-read them so many times and still they churn away in my head. Finally I appealed to two local friends, both very busy, very smart women who were in a bookgroup I once belonged to. Neither of them were familiar with Dunnet, but I made a pitch and they, good people both of them, agreed to give it a try.

Two nights ago we had our first Niccolo discussion over dinner, which I cooked for them out of gratitude, and with real delight.

First, I was worried that they would not like Niccolo. My tastes are eclectic, my appetite for history boundless, and I couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t just run in the opposite direction because as I’ve said before, these novels are not for the faint of heart. The story is consuming, the characters tremendously complicated and intriguing, but Dunnett does not coddle her readers, and you’ve got to be up for a challenge. Then Audrey came in and said, I’m in love with these books, I can’t put them down and Cheryl came in and said, I think Niccolo Rising may be the best book I’ve ever read (this from a woman who has read everything, and knows The Name of the Rose amost by heart), and I felt like I had found long lost sisters.

So we ate well and luxuriated after dinner with truffles and strawberries and talked and talked and talked about Niccolo, his motivations, his intelligence, the world he lives in, the people he loves and the people he doesn’t love. When they left I felt like a seventeen year old girl after her first real, successful date.

Next week we meet to discuss book two, Spring of the Ram. When we are all done, we are thinking, a trip to Bruges would be in order.

Niccolo Rising, Dorothy Dunnett: my favorite historical novel of all time

[asa book]0375704779[/asa] This is from Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising:

He departed. So, in due course did Messer Pigello, followed by Claes and his satchel. Lacking a good astrologer, no one saw any harm in it.

I have re-read this novel and the rest of the series many times, but some things never change, no matter how many times I pick them up.

First, I have to read Niccolo very, very slowly. Dunnett has absolutely no patience with lazy readers. The plot is very complex and she doesn’t coddle: you read closely, or you will be lost. It’s amazing, really, (and heartening) that these stories are so popular and widely read in a day and age where people seem to lean toward the easier options available to them.

Second, I don’t mind being a little confused and having to read slowly or even to re-read, because there are riches here to be enjoyed. She writes like a Brueghel painting: there’s so much going on, you have to dedicate all your attention but when you do, you’ll be amazed and rewarded.

Which brings me to this short paragraph I’ve quoted from Niccolo Rising. This is, of course, historical fiction. the Niccolo series starts out in fifteenth century Bruges, which was the capital city of Flanders and today is widely considered to be the best preserved medieval city in Belgium. The main character, Claes, is introduced as an awkward, good natured, good looking eighteen year old with a penchant for getting himself and others into trouble, for romancing housemaids, and mostly for surviving the beatings everybody seems to heap on him. But that’s just the early impression. Claes (who undergoes a transformation and will be known, eventually, as Niccolo) is about as complex and interesting a character I have ever run into in print.

The reason this paragraph delights me is that Dunnett manages to do so many things in a few words. She sets us up for more of Claes’ macchinations, and she also points this out, an author intrusion of the gentlest sort: Lacking a good astrologer, no one saw any harm in it. She keeps the tone and the voice of the time, which is very difficult to do. Strictly speaking, this kind of authorial intrusion should be disruptive in a novel that otherwise limits point of view very strictly (which is one of the reasons the plot comes across as so complex — Niccolo has got a handle on everything, but she rarely lets us in his head, because that would give far too much away, and Dunnett intends to make the reader wait). But it works anyway. Why? I don’t know. I do know that she’s got a truly distinctive authorial voice, something that is rare and to my mind, precious.

I adore this novel. I would love to set up a wiki and take it apart, sentence by sentence, image by image, historical facts one by one.