Sunday, February 6, 2011

Facts and Sympathy

In celebration of the month, another visit to the library the other day. I’m always looking for pleasing fiction guided solely by visible indicators, thus by the book’s cover and title. Now it happens that ma bibliothèque pauvre, despite being located dans un quartier riche is guided in purchasing new novels pretty much from bestseller lists—or maybe those two situations go hand in hand? Anyway, I thought, Why not? Try to read one. I picked one—but cautiously. I chose an historical novel set in mediaeval times and published a while back, not brand new. I won’t name either the author or the title because, in a way, I think the author innocent.

It’s interesting to discover that historical novels require both facts and sympathy. One of these alone just won’t suffice. This novel, set in the twelfth century, was very well researched in every detail—obviously so but I also later took time to check multiple facts in specialized histories of daily life. Yet the story’s feel was entirely wrong through and through…because the story-telling voice contained within it an interpretation of that society entirely reflecting twentieth century secular values. The story’s very language and narrative style also clashed with the setting. The whole was almost consciously written for the movies and in three-, four-line paragraphs to cater to the restless and the greedy. But the lady author is highly gifted. Really. She actually held me through about thirty pages. She’s skillful, vivid, entertaining, fast paced—and, yes, very popular. But the twelfth century, gazing into this mirror, would not recognize itself. Facts galore, sympathy none—and a plot deliberately…crafted, I think, is the now word, to highlight the author’s and her presumed audience’s revulsion for a time beyond the comprehension of either.

Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels, set in the same period, have a quite different aura—but oddly enough also sound much more real and “today” than the current author, and this despite the latter’s rich embroidery in fact. The human is unchanging.

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