HHhH and Memoirs of Hadrian

220px-hhhh_bookcoverRecently I read two quite different works of historical fiction by French authors, both obsessed in their own way with a kind of authenticity.  In the post-modern HHhH (from 2010) the author Laurent Binet inserts himself and his writing process into a story about the assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich.  Uncomfortable about straying from historical fact or even inventing dialogue with real characters, Binet will intersperse the narrative with his thoughts on his own writing and his experiences researching the book.  I’m not sure whether this quirk is inventive or not; but it is wasn’t quite as well done as this the book would be unreadable.  The reticence against invention leads to the characters that a flat and, although the story still has its drama, it feels like Binet could have made more of it.  His interventions do add to the build up, but it’s a gimmick that I enjoyed but wouldn’t particularly care to see again.  In all, I enjoyed the book as a one off; and I’m tempted to break through my usual aversion to WW2 histories and find a real book on the assassination.

51fbcpndyjl-_sx323_bo1204203200_In 1951’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Margeurite Yourcenar tries to strip her own personality and touch away from the writing; through detailed research and critical editing (a number of earlier attempts were scrapped entirely) she produces what reads like a real set of memoirs.  This sometimes leaves the book more admirable than enjoyable but at it’s best it can be moving, especially as Hadrian deals with the death of his favourite Antinous.  His internal struggles show a character with real depth, as a man who fundamentally believes that peace is the best way forward but throws himself wholeheartedly into his military role.  Compared to another recent read, Julian by Gore Vidal, the emperor feels genuine and subtle; the themes seem to occur naturally from the story.  It’s a very gentle work, and you can feel the time and effort that have went into it.

As far as authenticity goes, Yourcenar definitely has the better balance of research and narrative; I could probably stand for a little less realism, but I think it’s a good model for fictionalised biography.  Binet self-reflects on his failure to do justice to the narrative, and in a way that deprecation makes the book work, gives it a source of humour on a grim topic.  I don’t think even close to a model of how to write, but it is however a very enjoyable book.

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Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom

0718153294As far as historical fiction authors go, Harry Sidebottom has good credentials – DPhil in ancient history at Oxford, where he has continued on in a teaching role.  This knowledge definitely shows in this novel from 2008 (the first of a series called Warrior of Rome).  It is set in the 3rd century AD, not one of the most fashionable eras but a lively one nonetheless.  The empire is being (just about) ruled by a series of short-lived military emperors as pressure is put on it from both external and internal sources.  This story has an officer of barbarian/Angle origin in the Roman army, Ballista, sent east to defend a city against a huge Persian force.

The setting is very good, there’s a host of characters from various backgrounds and a ton of suitable classical references (Satyricon by Petronius is mentioned a lot).  Unfortunately for me, something doesn’t quite click – there’s plenty of plot but none of it really draws me in.  The barbarian background of Ballista feels a little unecessary.  The characters feel like they have a history, but you get the nagging feeling that that backstory might be more interesting.

Would I read more of the series?  Probably.  It did pick up as I got further into the book.  The setting and the detail that Sidebottom provides would allow be enough for me to give it another go.  One to check out from the library.

Post 62: Beginner’s Guide to Simon Scarrow

Or a Beginner’s Guide to his books anyway! He has been releasing historical novels for a decade and a half now, and it seemed like a better idea to do a general overview than review a specific book. First the background – if you’re unfamiliar with him, Simon Scarrow is an English author of historical fiction with a style not too dissimilar to Bernard Cornwell. Before the writing took off, Scarrow was a teacher and he still works with schools to encourage pupils in creative writing. Teaching english and history contributed to his initial topic of Rome, once he had decided that the Napoleonic era was a little too overpopulated with heroes for now1.

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Post 57: Corsair by Tim Severin

CoverTim Severin is perhaps best known for his attempts to recreate ancient voyages and journeys. He began in 1961 by following the path of Marco Polo on motorbike, before adding a slightly more traditional twist to later journeys by using authentic forms of transport. In 1976 he followed the alleged voyage of St Brendan and sailed from Ireland to North America in a replica of a currach (an old celtic craft made of a wooden frame covered in animal hides). There were others too: imitating Sinbad in an arabic Dhow, various Greek heroes in a Bronze Age galley. This sort of bold reenactment usually falls somewhere between serious history and stuff like the History Channel’s Deadliest Warrior, but it is interesting, entertaining and, more to the point, is not really what I’m going to talk about in this post.

Alongside all this, Tim Severin has begun to write historical fiction with a series on 11th century Vikings and one on 17th century barbary pirates. Corsair (the opening book in this latter series) works well enough as a stand alone tale, telling the story of 17 year old Hector Lynch from a small village in County Cork, Ireland. Lynch is the son of a minor Protestant* noble father and a Catholic spanish mother who is captured, along with his sister Elizabeth, by Barbary pirates in a raid on his village. As the corsairs leave the coast of Ireland their boats are scattered and the siblings are separated. The search for his sister then provides the great motivation for young Hector throughout the rest of the book.

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