A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

Tag: historical novel

The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by Jose Saramago

After 60 or so pages, author Saramago introduces into this 1989 novel an interesting, provocative premise. But he uses the first sixty pages to set up that premise, which depends on his main character, the proofreader Raimundo Silva, inserting a “not” at a crucial point in a history book he is proofing. He does this arbitrarily, acting, as he says, as a Mr. Hyde rather than a Dr. Jekyll. But because his action is so arbitrary, Saramago must spend those initial sixty pages setting up his hero’s action. And, in the process, this delays when the action of the novel truly starts, for he must first both convince us of the man’s unsettled character and establish his particular role in the world of publishing.

What the inserted word “not” does is confound Portuguese history. For it makes the book of history our hero is proofreading say that the Crusaders, on the way to the Holy Land, did not stop to help free Lisbon from its occupation by the Moors. When, of course, they did stop to do exactly that.

As a result of his inserting the one word, falsifying history, a woman, Maria Sara, is hired by his publishing house to manage both him and other proofreaders to be hired for subsequent works. Raimundo meets with her and learns he will not be punished, because of his long and faithful service to the publisher. But she reveals she is intrigued by his bravura insertion, and she provocatively proposes that he himself write a book, one in which the Crusaders do fail to help in the recapture of Lisbon from the Moors.

Raimundo at once rejects the idea, but when he goes home it begins to intrigue him. Just as Maria Sara does. And he starts speculating how and why the Crusaders would reject the king’s appeal. Which leads to typical Saramago speculation about the various possibilities. And then leads to Raimundo one day visiting the castle that was the headquarters of the Moors—whereupon, the answer comes to him.

Except, author Saramago is not one to immediately reveal his hero’s insight. Instead, the proofreader delves still deeper into the process by which the Crusaders might decide to deny their services in his new version of history. He decides this means the Crusaders would enter into negotiations. They would ask how they will be rewarded if they help defeat the Moors, and the answer Raimundo’s king comes up with is that just as God has helped the Christians in other battles in Portugal, he will help the Crusaders enjoy such a victory if they agree to join in retaking Lisbon from the Moors.

The Crusaders’ answer is a kind of blasphemy, for they say that since God has brought you victory in the past, you surely do not need our help. The king is mollified, however, when a few token Crusaders do agree to help. Whereupon, Saramago switches from Raimundo’s imaginative speculation to the reality of Raimundo’s life. The proofreader decides to bring a book of poems he has proofed to his publisher. And just as the man weighs the possible outcome of every encounter, whether in his own life or in his fiction, his indecision is amplified when he is faced with the attractive Maria Sara as he delivers the book of poems. Since this is the first time, half way through the book, that he has finally made a connection with another person, one anticipates Saramago, at last, picking up the pace.

But, instead, Saramago develops his story on three levels. He concentrates on the viewpoint of the Moors under siege, especially a blind muezzin to whom is described the movement of troops below. Then he switches to Raimundo at his writing desk but also thinking of Maria Sara. And finally, he gets inside the writer Raimundo, who is evaluating the impact on the king of most Crusaders abandoning the siege and heading off to sea, while a few troops remain behind to join the besiegers. The overall impact is that of watching Raimundo figure out how to write a book that contradicts history. Which approach Saramago continues in the following chapters, moving back and forth, in and out, ending with Raimundo hesitantly approaching Maria again.

And for the first time, about three quarters into thus work, there is a human connection. But what is not clear to me at this point is Saramago’s intent in writing this book. The title suggests the goal is a portrait of history. And that as a novelist he knows he must approach this purpose through a human being, his proofreader. But we don’t sense the humanness of this proofreader until now. When it briefly takes over the book.

But then, in his finale, the author returns to the siege of Lisbon, and spells out in detail how the siege could have ended, even though, in history, it did not end that way. In his version, Saramago also tells the story of a knight and his concubine Ouroana. And how a common soldier Mogueime declares his love for her and how she replies. This suggests a parallel to the love of Raimundo and Maria Sara, with the common soldier standing in for the common proofreader. Just as Saramago’s history of the siege stands in for the real siege without repeating it.

In an Afterward, translator Giovanni Portiero explains why Saramago has written this novel in this way. That he prefers “stories inserted into history.” That “the central concern of Saramago’s novel focus[es] on our ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, to differentiate between reliable and suspect historical reporting, and the difficulty of drawing the frontier between the two.” As Saramago himself says, “The truth is that history could have been written in many different ways and this idea of infinitude and variation are the essence of my writing.”

And so we have a work of fiction in which the fiction merely embellishes a literary philosophy, rather than explores human relationships. This is not for me true fiction, but I must also acknowledge that this work has made me aware of a moment of Lisbon history that I knew nothing about. Which, in a way, is perhaps Saramago’s intent. To make history come alive, by inserting his own fiction, by showing, in the translator’s words, that “history and fiction are constantly overlapping.” (December, 2018)


Two Moons, by Thomas Mallon

I have always been intrigued by Mallon’s historical novels, but have read only Henry and Clara, which did disappoint me. This 2000 novel, however, is quite effective. It is a quiet novel, but its youthful romance, its pursuit of scientific evidence in the heavens, and its late 19th century Washington scene are quite effective. The actual year is 1878, when the Capital is still recovering from the Civil War and people are yearning for a brighter future.

This is the story of thirtyish Civil War widow Cynthia May and her love of an ambitious astronomer Hugh Allison. Both are fictional characters. She is a mathematical whiz at the U.S. Navel Observatory, while he is a handsome and ambitious, but physically delicate, astronomer scientist. The author blends their love affair with the lives of real scientists who surround them at the Observatory. And he supplements those lives with the predictions of a presumably fictional astrologer, Mary Costello. This woman advises a powerful senator, the historic Roscoe Conkling of New York, on how the stars might help him beat back reformists who are challenging the party machine. Conkling is a ladies man, and the plot turns when he encounters Cynthia, is fascinated by her, and decides to pursue her.

Cynthia’s own story is a quiet one, not a dramatic one, and yet, as I indicated, effective. For she is both smart and settled into her widowhood—until, that is, she meets Hugh. The reality of their affair is enhanced by the care the author takes to create the hectic daily life of the Observatory, where Mary is called a computer since she deals with mathematical calculations and Hugh tracks the planets through a telescope. What also enlivens this scientific background is the political and personal infighting at the Observatory, climaxing with the desire of most of the scientists there to move their location away from Foggy Bottom, where the fog and the malarial mosquitoes both disrupt their investigation of the skies and endanger their health.

And this effort to move the Observatory is complemented by the political maneuvering in Washington D.C between the Presidency and Congress. Even as Mallon captures the woman’s point of view through Cynthia and Mary, he also captures the political history underlying this novel. Such as the maneuvering by Senator Conkling, for example, in support of President Rutherford B. Hayes, maneuvers which are not always clear to the average reader.

The scientists at the Observatory spend their time searching the skies, studying the planets (the discovery of two moons around Mars is made during this period), and seeking to identify new heavenly bodies through their telescopes. But while these efforts are directed toward reaching out and discovering unknown civilizations across the heavens, Hugh Allison thinks about knowledge flowing in the opposite direction. He wants to send out a message to those possible civilizations and make them aware of we fellow beings here on earth.

And so Hugh seeks to shine a powerful light into the sky that will draw attention toward the planet earth. As he says, he wants the speed of light to carry through the universe a message that will be found long after he himself is gone.

Much of the novel focuses on his efforts, aided by Cynthia, to obtain a machine from a fellow scientist in France that emits the powerful light that he needs. Senator Conkling enters the scene here because Cynthia realizes that, after their casual encounter and his efforts to seek an amorous relationship, she needs to develop that relationship. Because he has the power and influence to help them bring over the searchlight from France and pass it through customs.

Hugh’s plan is to take his searchlight to the top of the then unfinished Washington Monument, and to shine its beam into the sky. This effort represents the climax of the novel, after which their story eases into a quiet ending. Meaning that there is no dramatic finale, no earthshaking discovery. What follows is merely a New York Blizzard ten years later that allows the author to settle the fortunes of his main characters.

We have glimpsed in this novel a moment if imaginary history, and a moment of imaginary reality. And it is a reality both highly believable, and symbolic of its times. It reflects, as the Washington Post says, “a quaint kind of homegrown ambition and optimism that is uniquely American.”

Yes, one wants to seek out more of Mallon’s work. In his historical fictions, he brings together the humanity of his characters, whether historic or fictional. And then, as he captures the sense of their times, he lets a quiet moment of history reverberate into our future. (November, 2018)

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

This Man Booker prize novel from 2017 is certainly an original. And also unusual. Highly unusual. It is about the dead, about what happens after people die, a subject that highly interests me. But the direction that Saunders takes here is not a direction that I have followed in my own writing. I do admire his effort here, but it is too worldly for me, too concerned with the humanity of his characters, rather than any spiritual consequences. Saunders also introduces too many characters for me, as if to emphasize how death reaches across such a broad human experience. Indeed, one reviewer says there are 166 characters in this book. But my problem is less with the number of characters; it is more with there being no linkage among so many of these characters, which I will call the undead, as they roam about this cemetery setting—and as they cling to this residue of the life that they know, resisting their transition to an afterlife that they do not know.

As the title indicates, this is primarily a story about President Abraham Lincoln. He is distraught at the death of his young son Willie in the second year of his Presidency. And so he journeys to the cemetery the day after the funeral to mourn his son, and to alleviate a sense of guilt for not paying enough attention to the boy’s illness—a guilt re-enforced by the lives also being lost on the battlefield. However, it seems that, as he developed this novel, Saunders’ vision may have grown beyond Lincoln. As if he also saw the possibility of commenting on the human condition. And so he began exploring the lives and deaths, the relationships and fates, of these dead people who saw in Lincoln’s concern for his son a relevance to their own future.

These dead people are in a transitional state that Tibetan Buddhists call the bardo. And it is a state they are comfortable with, for they can leave their dead bodies, move around freely, and talk to one another. They can even invade the bodies and the minds of both the living and their fellow undead— and, in doing so, impact their thinking. In this case, they are trying to impact both Lincoln and his son.

In fact, Tomas Mallon suggests in The New Yorker that “when his father [Lincoln] lets go, accepts the boy’s death and helps to usher his spirit to a real afterlife, the consequences are world-shaping. Vollman and Roger Bevins [the novel’s main observers] perceive a Lincoln who now fully understands and embraces suffering, and feels a new bloody-minded determination to win the war.” This would seem, however, to be guided more by a literary decision than by historic facts. For Mallon grants that the history suggests that Lincoln did not reveal that determination until later. Instead, he suggests that Vollman and Bevins are indulging in wishful thinking, and that, as Bevins says, “we must do so, and believe in it, or else we were ruined.”

In short, this is an intriguing novel when it is focused on Lincoln and his son Willie, but less so when the relationships among the undead dominate.

And they often do. That is, Saunders will pay considerable attention to one group of undead characters who have a relationship with each other, and then move to another. But none of these groups will have a relationship with another group, much less with Lincoln or his son. And this disparity is often confusing. Why, even, are these separate groups present in this novel? I believe this apparent decision to expand the parameters and introduce a commentary on the human condition was a mistake. And even Michiko Kakutani seems to agree in her New York Times review, writing that the “supernatural chatter can grow tedious at times—the novel would have benefited immensely from some judicious pruning.”

How Saunders presents his characters is also highly original. As well as unusual. Each of his 166 characters contributes to what is happening, or comments on it, in just a few lines or a few paragraphs. The result is a kaleidoscope of opinion, often deliberately contradictory. A few of the quoted characters are figures of history, historians and biographers who lend authenticity to the reality of Lincoln’s character and his world. But most are undead fictional characters, who seem to concentrate more on their own lives and their own fates during their back-and-forth conversations. They are most effective, of course, when they discuss Lincoln and his son. But toward the center and the latter part of the novel, these characters address primarily their own lives, their own concerns. And while it expands the undead experience, there is still little or no connection among these various groups of the undead.

There is still more confusion when, toward the end, the reader grasps that not all these undead characters realize that they are dead. Now, I grant that if all did realize this, this would open the novel up to a concern about what was going to happen to them. Indeed, I have written myself of characters who are in a way station between earth and their fate in the afterlife. But Saunders is not interested in those ramifications, such as issues of penance and redemption. What concerns him and his undead is this troubled old man who is visiting this son, this innocent boy he has lost. And the undead wish to help both of them in their sorrow, thinking it may offer a key to their own future, although they are unsure of how to do so.

What many of them prefer is to remain in this undead status, where they are in control of their existence. And they also realize the danger of becoming emotional, that they could lose their undead status and explode in what Saunders terms a loud “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” What seems to have far more potential, however, is that this change is often preceded by what is called “future forms,” by an undead body being transformed into what it might have been like at key points, if he or she had lived out a normal life.

For me, however, my interest is not in the status of the undead, with their various emotional and psychological concerns. Or even in the absence of any spiritual element. What interests me is the psychological and emotional portrait of Lincoln. He is a troubled soul, troubled by the fate of both his son and the tens of thousands of soldiers who have already died in the Civil War. And Saunders, thereupon, has him come to an understanding that history suggests did not happen but which does work here in literary terms: that just as the president must accept the loss of his son, so must he accept the loss of what will become hundreds of thousands of soldiers—in order to save the Union. This realization leaves him in great sorrow, for which he is well known, but it becomes here the price Saunders says he must pay to preserve the freedom and the lives of millions more.

Colson Whitehead in his own Times review re-enforces this position when he praises this novel’s “luminous feat of generosity and humanism.” Of course, the humanistic aspect is what precisely troubles me—that the author chooses to explore only how our humanity continues after death. But if our humanity survives, should not the question be: what happens next? And Saunders has no interest in that. He is interested only in how these characters continue to be human in this way station. Which, granted, is a literary subject, and easier to accommodate in a novel than one’s spiritual fate.

And the generosity that Whitehead cites? That is expressed in the number and variety of human beings Saunders brings onto the scene.

Thus, Whitehead is also in sync with the author’s decision to explore so many characters in this world of the undead. As he states, the undead do crowd around this dead boy and his mourning father, seeming to hope that Willie, with his father’s encouragement, can move on peacefully to the next world. Of the love the father shows, one character, Reverend Thomas says, “It was cheering. It gave us hope.” Or, as Whitehead himself says, “If the spirits can persuade this boy to undertake his rightful departure to the Other Side, they might be saved as well.” And this farewell to one son, Lincoln’s son, Whitehead even says, foreshadows the farewell “to the hundreds of thousands who will fall in the battlefields.”

And he does make Lincoln seem reconciled to this. “Abraham Lincoln must stop being the father to a lost boy,” Whitehead writes, “and assume his role as a father to the nation, one on the brink of cataclysm.” And adds: “Survival depends not only on the captain, but on all aboard.” Which can explain, I grant, the presence of so many of the undead. But it is, again, an explanation in psychological terms or philosophical terms. But not in literary terms. Much less in spiritual terms. No, I still believe the few should have stood in for the many, not the many for the many. Unless they, too, were in mourning for their son—as they would be when the war went on.

This is Saunders’ first novel, after considerable success as a short story writer. But it does not, of itself, lead me to expect future novels from his pen. First, because it is so original in its concept, the expectation by critics of an even more original work might inhibit any attempt by the author to attempt another one. And, second, because its technique of advancing the story by means of brief quotations from a variety of sources suggests an imagination that is more comfortable with using shorter points of reference and outside sources. But if I am wrong, surely the length of my comments here suggests such a work will be worth exploring. (May, 2018)

Conspirata, by Robert Harris

This 2009 work is history as a novel—and less a novel as history, as I wrote regarding the first volume in this series, Imperium. Because its emphasis here is on history. We are immediately with Marcus Tullius Cicero in the Rome of 63 BC, as this newly elected consul (head of the Roman senate) struggles to preserve the nation’s republican government.

Meanwhile, its other characters are also historic. A young Julius Caesar hovers nearby as a threat to overthrow the republic; and Pompey, who heads Rome’s army in the eastern Mediterranean, is another threat to return at any time and assume leadership himself. Meanwhile, other adversaries to Cicero in Rome mark the difficult road he faces in preserving the Roman Republic. They include such powerful figures as Crassus, Clodius, Catilina, and, at times, the mysterious Cato.

Caesar is mainly an onlooker as this novel begins, although he does maneuver himself into the role of pontus maximus, Rome’s religious leader. The main political concern of everyone early on is Pompey, and when he will return and will he bring his army to back him up.

We follow all this through the narrative voice of Tiro, Cicero’s devoted and intelligent private secretary, a slave who transcribes his owner’s conversations and speeches. Presumably, they are largely the actual words Cicero once spoke, and through Tiro’s efforts have come down to us through history. But the loyal slave has also been given by Harris the intelligence and wit that enlivens the political and social intrigue around Cicero.

Indeed, the website Leserglede, citing this intrigue, calls this novel “a very strong tale of shifting alliances, greed, sexual liaisons, personal ambition, love, hate, and total betrayal among the elites of Rome.”

The novel is divided into two parts, the first as Cicero leads the government as the chief consul in the Senate, faces an assassination plot, and maneuvers the political process to support the Roman constitution and preserve its government. For this, he uses primarily his intelligence, his wit, and his powers of oratory. The second part concerns his next five years out of office, as he valiantly strives to prevent Pompey, first, and then Caesar from coordinating their efforts and establishing a dictatorship.

Throughout, these pages offer a marvelous interpretation of history. Yes, this is Harris’ interpretation, especially, I think, toward the end, when Cicero’s outcome verges on injustice and tragedy. But the overall result is still history. If this is a novel, however, it is not literature. For as clear as the events are, they are more a re-creation than a creation. The emphasis is more on what happens, rather than on why. The emphasis is more on narrative than on interpretation.

We witness the events, therefore, and their political impact, but we do not experience them emotionally, not as Cicero did, nor as Tiro did. We remain outside these characters’ consciousness. We are observers. We witness history, and it is vividly presented, but it does not involve us. It does not because we know it is history, we know it is foreordained, and that the characters are not in charge of their destiny, as fictional characters need to be.

But I might also note what I wrote after reading Imperium: “It is the personal side of Cicero’s life that is missing here, and that might have turned this rich novel into a truly literary work….Yet Harris might argue, with some legitimacy, that he is dealing here with historic figures, that we know what they did but that to try to enter their minds would be presumptuous, even foolhardy. That he would prefer to be faithful to events, and to make them accessible to the general reader, rather than to speculate on what those characters were like within. Shakespeare may have explored their inner thoughts, but how many Shakespeares have there been? (And how many historians would there be to jump on him, Harris, for doing this?)”

My response today is that as foolhardy as such introspection might be, it is still the road to literature, as other classical authors besides Shakespeare have shown. Although I will acknowledge that the depth, the introspection, is often done through concurrent fictional characters. Whereas, in this case, the most interesting aspect of Cicero’s personal life is his complex relationship with his wife Terentia, whom he married for wealth and position. But to examine this marriage at length would, unfortunately, deflect the reader from the political intrigue that is the heart of this novel.

Indeed, Harris himself summed up his approach to this work during an NPR interview, and it is a political approach. “In a way, this whole trilogy — and this book in particular — is a duel between Cicero and Caesar— two ambitious men, but with very different forms of ambition….Cicero’s ambition is to rise within the system. Caesar’s desire is to smash the republic and remake it in his own image. And the clash between these two men, who are sort of, in a way, almost wary friends and admirers—that’s really the dynamic of the book. And I believe that Cicero has had a less good shake from history than Caesar.”

Yet, given the lack of psychological depth, there is another kind of artistry here. For the dramatic opening scene, with its discovery of a murdered boy, a human sacrifice, reverberates at the end, as it is connected to Cicero’s fate—as are many of his good actions as consul. For example, after he avoids the threat to his own life, and, as consul, is able to save Rome from the takeover by Catilina, Cicero also begins to sow the seeds of his own vulnerability, for his enemies will later take advantage of his persistent claim that he has been the savior of Rome.

In fact, Cicero exposes himself to actual prosecution, since after arresting Catilina’s co-conspirators, given that martial law existed, he permitted their execution without a trial. Which was contrary to his professed belief in the rule of law. (Indeed, the senate debate on this matter, with interventions against death by Caesar and for death by Cato is a highlight of the book,)

And so, when Cicero’s term as consul ends, the many who supported Catilina are now happy to see Cicero himself accused of bypassing the rule of law. This happens after Clodius, on trial for profaning secret female rites, and having had his alibi refuted by Cicero’s damning testimony, has bribed enough jurists to get himself acquitted—and then, in revenge, waits patiently to build a case against Cicero. Specifically, he gets elected as a tribune, and persuades his fellow legislators to pass a decree that says that anyone who aids a person who has executed others without a trial (which is Cicero) now faces the death penalty themselves.

The edict, in effect, condemns Cicero into exile, since no one can now aid him. And because to defend his own honor in a separate case he had specifically accused Caesar of supporting Catalina’s plan to subvert the government, he himself has become vulnerable. Even though Caesar has sworn to allow nothing to happen to him. Thus, the grandeur, the corruption, and, most of all, the hypocrisy of Rome is vividly portrayed, with all the political maneuvering that makes the infighting particularly fascinating.

What is interesting is that, first, Cicero, while raised in moderate wealth, is not recognized as a member of the elite. He is a self-made man. He earned his election as consul in the senate, a prestigious position, by his forthright intelligence, his eloquence, and his political smarts. And that, second, this man of justice is not an ally of the poor. For he calls them “the mob,” because he sees them being used in the power grab by Caesar and others of the elite. With the result is that he is despised by two opposing camps, both the wealthy patricians and the neglected populists.

What becomes confusing to the modern reader is that aligned against Cicero are the people he is presumably helping. These are the plebeians, the poor, the common people, who are represented by the tribunes and who have been seduced by Caesar; whereas, he seeks his allies among the nobles in the senate, as he tries to preserve the constitution and republican form of government. Which situation is contrary to today’s political environment, where we are used to the rich nobility seeking power and wealth, while it is the plebeians who seek fairness and justice.

This is the second in a trilogy of novels that recreates Cicero’s life. I enjoyed the first novel, Imperium, about Cicero’s rise to power, and this one as well. Here is a fascinating reading experience, a political thriller in its own terms, as it brings vividly to life a lesson in history. I look forward to the final volume, and expect it to be written on the same level. For what does literature matter, when an author brings to such vivid life the complexities of an ancient era? (March, 2015)

The Quality of Mercy, by Barry Unsworth

This fascinating novel is a powerful sequel to Sacred Hunger, which had earlier won the Booker Prize. It is not necessary to have read that earlier novel to appreciate this 2011 novel, but it does help one to understand the depths of this work if one has done so.

And by that I mean the depths of the main character, Erasmus Kemp, who was the single-minded villain of that first novel, as he pursued and saw killed his first cousin, Matthew Paris, for what he considered acts of piracy and mutiny, but which his cousin and the reader saw as acts of mercy. Namely, taking over a slave ship owned by Kemp’s father, a ship whose captain had ordered sick slaves to be thrown overboard to their death.

I had objected to the portrayal of Kemp at the end of Sacred Hunger, for it evoked a note of self-awareness in this cruel villain that I felt the author had not prepared me for. But now I believe this self-awareness was always there, because Unsworth has made Kemp not only the main character of this novel but also even more aware of what he, Kemp, might term as shortcomings but which the reader sees as a reluctant identification with these men he considers his inferiors.

This sensitivity arises when he confronts Michael Sullivan, one of the crewmen from Sacred Hunger, who was involved in what Kemp called mutiny and piracy; and again, when a poor youth, the miner Michael Borden, sees through what Kemp calls a generous offer for a piece of land the youth owns. Indeed, even the woman Kemp loves, Jane Ashton, detects a latent compassion in him that she believes she can develop if she marries him.

Kemp thus develops into a complex figure. He wants to play a major role in developing British industry—to his own advantage, of course, but also, he claims, to that of the workers and his country. And his single-mindedness remains, meaning he will do this by fair means or foul. Even love-fixed Jane is transfixed by this determination, while less fixed on the means he will use.

It would seem that the author wishes his title, The Quality of Mercy, to apply to Kemp. For it is mercy he shows to both Sullivan and Borden, when he unexpectedly acknowledges their needs. And this response, I suggest, shows that Unsworth wants his reader to extend such mercy to Kemp as well. In fact, he also may be suggesting that this kind of determined but compassionate industrial leader is what this small island relied on to reach its greatness.

On the other hand, and I nearly missed this, the greatest quality of mercy Unsworth seems to show here is toward the slaves themselves. But to me that is less interesting. Because it is so obious. Whereas to apply it to Kemp adds a complexity to his character that enriches this work as literature. I would note that John Vernon in his New York Times review preferred that the author had kept Kemp’s character more simple. He writes, “Kemp was perfect—a tortured monster of obsessiveness.” I obviously disagree.

There are really four stories here at the start of the novel, each one so interesting that we move quite willingly from one to the other. Indeed, I was so confident in the author’s professionalism that I knew eventually these four stories would come together. The first story is that of Sullivan, the crew member who joined in the mutiny, was caught and transported back to England in chains, and then fortuitously escapes from prison and becomes determined to travel north into Durham coal country in order to inform the family of a shipboard colleague that their son has died.

The second story is that of the Borden family in Durham. John the father and his three sons, especially Michael, are fated to work in the mines but dream of escaping that harsh world. The third story is that of Frederick Ashton and his sister Jane, the brother being an active abolitionist determined to abolish slavery in all of England. And the final story, of course, is that of Erasmus Kemp, who brings these stories together, first by suing to receive compensation for the drowned slaves on his father’s lost ship, and then by both his pursuit of Jane and his effort to purchase and modernize the coal mine up north in which the Borden family works.

The reader easily identifies with Sullivan, Michael Borden, and Frederick and Jane Ashton. These are all good people. And Kemp’s interaction with each of them earns him the reader’s respect for a certain integrity, even if not their full sympathy. Indeed, one can detect both sympathy and fascination on the part of the author for this character he has created, so much so that one can foresee still another sequel, this one based on the tension that has been set up between Kemp and Jane Ashton, as she tries to instill in him a greater awareness of the needs of the working poor.

Despite it’s title, the underlying theme of this novel is the rights of property. First, are slaves property? That is what Sacred Hunger was about, and that is what Frederick Ashton is all about. That they are not. And it is also about the workers in the Durham mines. Are they, in effect, the property of the mine owners, since they have no say in the terms of their duties, their wages, their working conditions, or their future lives.

On the other hand, one critic says this is a novel about justice. And this is valid, for the administration of justice revolves around two key trials that are depicted toward the end. But these trials do depend on property rights, and this is the immediate theme that drives Unsworth’ novel, under the overall literary theme of justice.

Unsworth manages to resolve these property issues to a large degree, enough to bring a legitimate resolution to this novel, even if some of its ramifications are left open-ended. Which, as I said, does leave the door open to another sequel. Not that I would require one, but I would certainly read it, for Unsworh has the enviable talent of being able to explore moral and social issues from a richly created past. In the meantime, I will happily search out his other highly praised novels. (January, 2015)

Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson

Volume One of the Baroque Cycle (2003). This is an amazing, literate, and intelligent historical novel. It is literate because of its style, even occasional poetic passages, and because of its concerns with the philosophy and morality of its time. It is intelligent because it vividly recreates the culture, the mores, and the history of Europe in the second half of the 17th century.

Its setting centers on London, but also includes Vienna, the cities of central Germany, Paris, Versailles, and major cities of the Netherlands. It covers the end of the brief Catholic monarchy in London, the rival French monarchy, very ambitious under Louis XIV, and the intriguing royal courts in both capitals. And 80 percent of the novel’s characters are persons of history.

Thus, significant, supporting roles are given to Isaac Newton and the German philosopher Leibniz, who contribute to the intellectual history of the era, while other participants are Christopher Wren, Samuel Pepys, John Locke, Robert Hooke, and Christian Huygens. Plus French king Louis XIV who hates the British, and William of Orange as he plots to become King of England.

But this is a work of fiction, even as it is a deep, philosophical, literary exploration of this moment of history. And the main character is the fictional Daniel Waterhouse, who graduates from Cambridge and becomes the secretary of the Royal (Scientific) Society of London, where he meets Newton and the other scientists and intellectuals of the era.

And yet a 916-page novel, almost by definition, requires more than one hero, and after Daniel dominates the first third of the novel we are introduced to Jack Shaftoe, an adventurous Vagabond who has no connection to Waterhouse. And admittedly, this change is confusing. Why has this character been introduced? Well, perhaps it is to expose us to more history, as he encounters Eliza, the book’s heroine, in a tunnel the Turks have built under Vienna to blow up its fortifications. And the second part of the book follows Jack and Eliza as they flee together across central Europe, encountering German intellectuals such as Leibniz, to the Netherlands, where they encounter more scientific and political heroes of history. Whereupon, in final section of the novel, they separate, and in Paris Eliza is made the Countess de la Zeur and dominates the concluding section—along with the return of Daniel Waterhouse.

But to go back to Waterhouse and the start of this novel. We meet him as an elderly man in Massachusetts in 1713. It is an intriguing opening, as he receives a mysterious message from a Princess Caroline, whom we will meet at the end of the novel when, years earlier, she is six-years-old. An old friend Enoch Root from England delivers this message to Daniel, which sends him off on a dangerous sea voyage back to London—a voyage that alternates with Daniel’s early life at Cambridge, where he meets many historic youths who will later ply a major role in science and in history. Indeed, this switching back and forth in time adds confusion, for we do not know if the emphasis of the novel will be on the events of Daniel’s youth, or what he is going back to.

As the second part begins, however, we see where the novel’s divisions lie. It has begun with Daniel’s youth in the 1660s and his Royal Society years the 1670s, when he also experiences the Plague and the Great Fire of London. Now, we continue with Jack Shaftoe’s trek across Europe with Eliza in the 1680s; and then the final third ends in the late 1680s with Daniel Waterhouse’s adventures in London as a Protestant king is restored, and then with Eliza’s adventures as the ambitious French king invades the German states.

The final chapters of this novel are somewhat disappointing, for three reasons. First, the author frequently resorts to long letters that do not dramatize the action but summarize it, no doubt because he needs to cover a lot of ground as he bring us up to date on the history of the times. This is climaxed by an especially long letter from Eliza that summarizes her adventures in giving birth, a private event that has no repercussions, at least in this novel.

And, second, this is followed by an unexploded bomb of a finale, when Daniel’s friends plot to arrange an operation on him for kidney stones. We know he survives, because he is living in Massachusetts many years later; and so this operation has no apparent significance except to offer at the end a cliff-hanger moment that leaves us in false suspense.

And, third, the most frustrating aspect of this novel is that it has no real ending, that it simply leads into the follow-up sequels of The Baroque Cycle. It is particularly frustrating because there is no outcome to the original set-up chapter, of Daniel being called back to England, and to agreeing to risk his life on a sea voyage. What added to my own frustration is that I did not understand, on first reading, the reason for Daniel’s return: as a go-between to help reconcile the dispute between Leibniz and Isaac Newton, and their followers, over the invention of calculus—a dispute that is holding back the development of scientific thought in Europe.

But despite all this, I found this novel to be amazing, mainly because of its vivid historic content. I was continually impressed by the details, all of them so pertinent to the story. Details about the geography, the means of travel, the rural life of the poor, and the contrasting wealth and dirt of the cities. Also details about the rivalry among countries, among monarchs, among cities, among various court factions. And explorations in depth of European culture, with the contrasts among philosophers, scientists, religious leaders, and the different social strata.

The richness of this novel is magnified by the philosophic, religious, and human contrasts it offers. Such contrasts include Protestant vs. Catholic, religion vs. science, England vs. France, power vs. conscience, status quo vs. revolution, free will vs. predestination, fresh ideas vs. conformity, free communication vs. cryptography, tradition vs. innovation, corruption vs. integrity, etc., etc.

Stephenson had to have done a tremendous amount of research, but the real accomplishment was to have the concentration to hold all of it in his memory bank until it was appropriate to use. And then, finally, weaving it naturally into his story, usually through the observations of his characters, although at times in those letters, a method that I became tired of.

There are some memorable scenes in this novel, although the Plague and the Great Fire have more a vivid presence than a dramatic effect. The most memorable scene for me was the rescue by Eliza and friends of William of Orange as he indulges in his usual morning ride along a Netherlands beach. Also vivid is Jack’s rescue of Eliza in the tunnel under Vienna. On the other hand, when Daniel is memorably imprisoned in the Tower of London, his rescue by Jack’s brother Bob seems quite arbitrary and coincidental.

What I do not accept from the critics is any categorizing this work as a science fiction novel, even if it did earn an Arthur C. Clarke Award. Perhaps past Stephenson works were science fiction, but for me this work is completely historic. Yes, a modern sensibility wrote it, which undoubtedly is why I enjoyed it. But this work explores the past, and internally it belongs to the past.

Steven Poole in The Guardian calls Quicksilver a “great fantastical boiling pot of theories about science, money, war and much else, by turns broadly picaresque and microscopically technical, sometimes over-dense and sometimes too sketchy, flawed but unarguably magnificent.” I would agree with everything except the suggestion of fantasy.

I have held this novel on my shelves for a long while, in part hesitating to start a 900-page novel and in part waiting to find the successor novels in the trilogy. Now, I wish I had fond those novels, so much have I enjoyed this one. And also because it leaves so much uncertainty about the future fate of Daniel, Eliza, and Jack.

We leave Jack, for example, as a prisoner in a pirate galley. Has he exited the book completely? One suspects Daniel will become the main protagonist, in part because some critics have seen in this work a commentary on contemporary culture; and at the core of Newton’s and Leibniz’ researches into numbers is the germ of what will become our computer age. And we must remember that his mission is apparently to be to reconcile those two figures. On the other hand, Eliza has become so adept at politics and numbers, perhaps she will emerge as the more significant character, especially because of her continuing emergence as a financial power-broker. In any event, I look forward to continuing this saga. (September, 2014)

Watergate, by Thomas Mallon

This 2012 work is another example of history as a novel. Mallon put extensive research into this work, surely taking advantage of the many works written by the participants. The result is “we are there”—in terms of the individual actions and the conversations of a multitude of characters. And these actions and conversations are entirely believable, even as they verge on the scandalous. Indeed, on many pages, with its lying and its cheating in both its politics and its love affairs, this novel often reads like the inside scoop of a gossip columnist.

The novel is highly readable, of course, and entertaining, but it is also quite confusing. First, because there are so many characters. Even the author seems to realize this, as he lists 112 “players” over four pages before the story begins. And such a multitude makes it next-to-impossible for the reader to separate the main characters clearly, to grasp their relationship to one another and to the events, whenever they reappear on the scene.

Second, because even as we follow this story from the inside, we must be a student of Watergate history to grasp how these events reflect what is going on in the outside world, in that world of Woodward, Bernstein, Deep Throat, Jaworski, Cox, Sirica, and the American public.

And third, because, early on, the characters are reacting to events that are not put fully into context, and over which they themselves have no control. Moreover, they are reacting rather than causing others to react to them.

Mallon calls this first half, “Hide,” as the participants seek to conceal both their own involvement and the president’s. But the reader keeps asking, what is really going on here? Why are these people doing what they are doing? What is the connection among their various actions?

The second half Mallon calls, “Seek.” This is not only the government seeking to learn its responsibility under the law, it is also the participants seeking to learn what the government knows about their actions. These participants are now more active than reactive, and do become more interesting as characters.

What distinguishes this book is that Mallon has put himself into the minds of all his major characters, beginning with President Nixon and his wife Pat. But they also include Howard Hunt, Rose Mary Woods, and Elliot Richardson. And especially they include Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the elderly daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, whose presence adds considerable color and even humor, but whose function beyond that was never clear to me.

Even more significant a character is Fred LaRue, deputy director of the Committee to Re-elect the President. His presence is justified for two reasons. First, he was in regular contact with the Watergate break-in team: Liddy, Magruder, Colson, McCord, and Bernard Barker. He is also the one who delivers the hush money to the burglars. And second, Mallon uses LaRue’s personal story, separate from the Watergate break-in, a story about his responsibility for the death of his father—as a through-story to tie the novel together.

LaRue has an affair with a Clarine Lander, an attractive seductress and a Democrat, who is apparently one of the three fictional characters in the book. It is she who obtains for him the official file concerning his father’s death, and it is her nickname (given to her by Mallon) that seems to set off the actual break-in of chairman Larry O’Brien’s office at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. This revelation is a bit of irony that leads the reader to smile, but it is an irony manufactured by the author. It cannot for me tie together his entire novel. Yet Mallon seems to have intended this personal story to do so, for he says in his Acknowledgements that of all the historic characters, “LaRue’s life has undergone the greatest degree of fictionalization.”           

One other fictional character (because his name in the list of “players” is also written in quotation marks) is Tom Garahan, supposedly a retired lawyer. He is introduced as a boy friend of Pat Nixon. I just do not understand why Mallon has created him. It is as if the author thinks that Pat Nixon must have needed an emotional relief from a cold, detached Nixon. Yes, he is careful to not to put them into bed, not to make them lovers, but it does not help me to understand Pat better, to make her a more real or more sympathetic person, or even to explain why she sticks with her husband.

On the other hand, Mallon does impugn the integrity of Elliott Richardson, as an ambitious snob, and Martha Mitchell, as a shrew—with her husband, the former attorney general, subservient to her. On Richardson, however, little is made of the “Saturday night massacre,” of which he was a dramatic victim.

Mallon also speculates on two Watergate questions for which there have been no clear answers. First, he suggests that it was Rose Mary Woods who did erase the 19 minutes of tape, not because it revealed anything significant about the cover-up but because she did not want to reveal to the public a few irrelevant personal comments her boss was making about others. And, second, he repeats as a reason for the break-in that the Republicans wanted to find evidence that Castro’s Cuba was contributing to the Democratic campaign.

Overall, this work did not convey what I expected. It is not a story of the break-in, how it was detected, the specific efforts to cover it up, the impact on the public of Woodward and Bernstein’s series, the development of the government’s case, the efforts by the defense lawyers, the various trials, the tightening noose around the White House, and Nixon’s final decision to resign. There are elements of these present, but not in a cause and effect sequence that helps one to understand the Watergate story as seen from the inside. Indeed, some of the major developments that would interest me occur offstage, and then our characters react to them.

What Mallon does here is suggest the atmosphere that followed the discovery of the break-in. How did these individuals react, and what does it reveal of their character? How organized were they, and how did their actions relate to each other? What does the entire operation reveal about how Washington works? How cynical, how selfish, how pragmatic, how venal, how defensive, how clever, how loyal, how self-pitying were these elected and appointed individuals?

But I question whether this is the purpose of a novel. Is it not to explore character? Rather than a society—although many critics will defend this, and cite precedents. Nixon and LaRue are the candidates here for a deeper portrait, and Mallon is sympathetic to both. Nixon, especially, is a character rather than the usual caricature. There is even a moment when he worries that the phrase “expletive deleted” will suggest far vulgar language than what he actually used. But he never becomes a tragic victim, which a new Shakespeare of the 22nd century might one day create from this situation.

LaRue is a richer character, a shy man from Mississippi who is yearning to return. And he is uncomfortable with his Watergate role. But that role remains separate from the personal family issue that confronts him. And as the reader learns the truth of that issue (or is it merely Mallon’s speculation?) but he himself apparently does not, this does not quite produce a reader’s identification with him that the author seems to have intended.

To sum up, this novel gets too close to the players for me, which clouds any perspective on the overall situation and how these characters interfaced with it. This was a dramatic moment in 20th century American history, and yet there is no sense of that drama. These individuals are too wrapped up in their own fate to be sympathetic, and there are too many of them. There is no North Star among them whom the reader can latch on to. LaRue is merely a spinning planet, and we jump around too much among the others.

I suspect that Mallon would reply: I did not want or intend to write your kind of Watergate novel; I intended to write this one. Because all of these disperate characters were fascinating to me. And because I wanted to show both the humanity and the failings of this particular group of people who were operating inside the Nixon administration at this key moment in history.

Certainly, Mallon takes on interesting subjects; but, as with Henry and Clara, I have ended up disappointed. (June, 2014)