Saturday, March 18, 2017

Edward Bulwer Lytton on the Historical Novel

A National Journal of Politics, Literature, Science and Art
Volume 1: March-June 1838

LONDON: Longman & others

THE CRITIC – No. I [pg 42]

The Novelist has three departments for his art: MANNERS, PASSIONS, CHARACTER.
The delineation of manners embraces both past and present; the Modern and the Historical Romance.

The Historical [pg 43]

We have a right to demand from the writer who professes to illustrate a former age, a perfect acquaintance with its characteristics and spirit.  At the same time, as he intends rather to interest than instruct us, his art will be evinced in the illustrations he selects, and the skill with which they are managed.  He will avoid all antiquarian dissertations not essentially necessary to the conduct of his tale.  If, for instance, his story should have no connection with the mysteries of the middle ages, he will take care how he weary us with an episodical description that changes his character from that of a narrator into that of a lecturer.  In the tale of Notre Dame de Paris, by Victor Hugo, the description of the cathedral of Notre Dame is not only apposite, but of the deepest interest; for the cathedral is, by a high effort of art, made an absolute portion of the machinery of the tale.  But the long superfluous description of the spectacle with which the story opens is merely a parade of antiquarian learning, because the Scholars and the Mysteries have no proportionate bearing whatever in the future development of the tale.

The usual fault of the historical novelist is over minuteness in descriptions of dress and feasts, of pageants and processions.  Minuteness is not accuracy.  On the contrary, the more the novelist is minute, the more likely he is to mar the accurate effect of the whole, either by wearisome tameness or some individual error.

An over-antiquated phraseology is a common and a most inartistical defect: whatever diction the delineator of a distant age employs, can never be faithful to the language of the time, for if so, it would be unintelligible. ..... The language of a former time should be presented to us in the freest and most familiar paraphrase we can invent.  Thus the mind is relieved at once from the task of forming perpetual comparisons, and surrenders itself to the delusion the more easily, from the very candour with which the author makes demand on its credulity. [At this point Bulwer Lytton takes his illustration fromany story of ancient Greece” but what he says could be applied to another place and time.]  The author will, therefore, agreeably surprise the reader, if he adopt a style as familiar and easy as that which a Greek would have used in common conversation; and show the classical spirit that pervades his diction, by the grace of the poetry, or the lightness of the wit, with which he can adorn his allusions and dialogue.  .....  instead of selecting such specimens and modifications of human nature as are most different from, and unfamiliar to, the sympathies of modern times, he will rather prefer to appeal to the eternal sentiments of the heart, by showing how closely the men of one age resemble those of another.  ...  The reader will be interested to see society different, yet men the same; and the Manners will be relieved from the disadvantage of unfamiliarity by an entire sympathy with the humours they mask, or the passions on which they play.

Again, if the author propose to carry his reader to the times of Richard the First or of Elizabeth, he will have to encounter an universal repugnance from the thought of an imitation of Ivanhoe or Kenilworth.  An author wo was, nevertheless, resolved to select such a period for his narrative would, accordingly, if an artist of sufficient excellence, avoid with care touching upon any of the points which may suggest the recollection of Scott.  He would deeply consider all the features of the time, and select those neglected by his predecessor; - carefully note all the deficiencies of the author of Kenilworth, and seize at once upon the ground which that versatile genius omitted to consecrate to himself.

To take the same epoch, the same characters, even the same narrative, as a distinguished predecessor is perfectly allowable; and, if successful, a proof at once of originality and skill.  But if you find the shadow of the previous work flinging itself over your own – if you have not thoroughly escaped the influence of the first occupant of the soil, - you will only invest your genius to unnecessary disadvantage, and build edifices, however graceful and laboured, upon the freehold of another.

An author once said, “Give me a character, and I will find the play;” and, if we look to the most popular novels, we shall usually find, that where one reader speaks of the conduct of the story, a hundred readers will speak of the excellence of some particular character.

The passion of Love is not represented by a series of eloquent rhapsodies, or even of graceful sentiments.  It is represented, in fiction, by its effects on some particular character: the same with Jealousy, Avarice, Revenge, &c.  Therefore, in a certain sense of the word, all representations of passion in fiction may be considered typical.  .....  in the novel, as in the drama, it is in the struggle of emotions that the science of the heart is best displayed.

The Sentiment that pervades a book is often its most effective moral, and its most universal charm. It is a pervading and indescribable harmony in which the heart of the author seems silently to address our own.  ...  Of all the qualities of fiction, the sentiment is that which we can least subject to the inquiries or codes of criticism. It emanates from the moral and predominant quality of the author the perfume from his genius: and by it he unconsciously reveals himself.

What if Rafael Sabatini’s historical fictions, long and short but chiefly long, were to be evaluated by the views expressed above? (There are many more in this article, on other aspects of writing prose fiction.) His earliest short stories, (reprinted in ROMANTIC PRINCE: Part Two: READING RAFAEL), would have been torn to shreds by Bulwer Lytton! It is also interesting to refer to Rafael’s own views on writing historical fiction. These are set out in Chapter V – The Artist’s Studio – of ROMANTIC PRINCE: Part One: Seeking Sabatini.

Friday, March 03, 2017

On Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

Early in 2014, I made time to very slowly compare my printed copy of the original (that is, uncut) UK version of Scaramouche with the heavily cut and most often unnecessarily edited (meaning altered in wording and punctuation) US first edition, which was the only text to be found online. I was doing this in order to supply Project Gutenberg Australia with the UK text to add to the almost complete collection of printed Sabatini found there.

To pay sufficient attention, I emptied my mind of over fifty years' memories of the novel and started as if I were reading a book not read before. It was an illuminating experience. I played it in my head like the perfect movie no one can ever make, seeing and hearing all as if it was happening before me. One reaction I can put down to old age: I wept as the young
André cradled Philippe's unresponsive head, begging him to speak. That did not happen when I was 13! I noticed small details I had missed in a score of re-readings: both André's parents have dark eyes like his own.

Then there was this:
"The surest way to the gallows of all," laughed André-Louis. At the moment Le Chapelier manifested impatience. I wonder did the phrase cross his mind that day four years later when himself he rode in the death-cart to the Grève?

The last sentence coming out of nowhere, it would seem, is like the sudden quotation of the Dies irae in Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, preceded and followed by a tolling bell; it sends - as it is meant to - a shiver down the spine. That can only happen because Le Chapelier was a real person, and he is true to life in the Scaramouche novels.

In a way, Rafael Sabatini's narrative gift, the power to seize the reader's attention and take him/ her hurtling through an exciting part of the story, undoes his other gift, the wonderful ability to recount history with an eloquence whose beauties require the reader to pause and savour them.

He weaves the story of his fictional characters so skilfully into that history that the same elevated mood which is induced by his eloquence enhances their story. I am thinking of how Bertrand des Amis is caught up (and crushed) in the historical event of 12 July 1789, one among so many real people who were killed, and of the final sentence of that chapter, merging at once the bond of affection which has grown between des Amis and his assistant, the sadness of its ending, and the portentous announcement of the French Revolution:
To André-Louis, waiting that evening on the second floor of No. 13 Rue du Hasard for the return of his friend and master, four men of the people brought that broken body of one of the earliest victims of the Revolution that was now launched in earnest.

To me it resonates like music, like the end of a movement, the sad, solemn movement, of a symphony. When reading the novel for the story one might miss these effects.

I realised just how grand Rafael Sabatini can be at his grandest, and writing a history which deeply moved him, he is very grand. It is not my habit to compare novels and novelists unless - on the rarest of occasions - they cover the same ground. To a limited extent, A Tale of Two Cities bears comparison with The Trampling of the Lilies, and with Scaramouche. But I've always found Dickens' novel too nightmarish, too much outdoing Carlyle, for me to take it seriously as a novel of the French Revolution. As a novel, yes, but not as one I would recommend to a student of history. The slow transformation of André's beliefs about reform and revolution, the complexity of any great movement in history because of the complexities of human beings, the actual unfolding of events, these are so superbly blended with the fictional element. I can't go into all the details here, but in chapter after chapter - especially in the marvellous Book Three - in paragraph after paragraph, his special artistry is to be seen - this novel is an inspired work in his output of novels.

I can find only one iffy moment: the long speech in self-exculpation from La Tour d'Azyr at a tense moment when time is of the essence. But make it he must, and at what other moment could it be possible? One must take it as one takes the soliloquies in Shakespeare or the arias in Grand Opera - Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor singing a long, beautifully decorated aria with a sword stuck in his middle.

Rafael unconsciously poured much of himself into Scaramouche, possibly carried away by the power of his own story. Look again at the word placement in that sentence I quoted ("I wonder...the Grève?") Speak it and listen to the musical effect of "himself he rode" instead of "he rode himself"; to the cadence of "in the death-cart to the Grève". 
If the writer was himself responding to the influence of music I, being accustomed to singing, hear music in his words. There is so much music buried deep in the novel, so deep that not even he realised it was flowing underneath his writing, like a subterranean stream which feeds the greenery above, unbeknownst to any.

There is that sequence leading to a climactic moment, the duel between André and the Marquis. It builds up so tensely, there is a palpable electricity about the meeting of Mme de Plougastel and Aline at No 13 Rue de Hasard. And then they hear this:
"A raccommoder les vieux soufflets!"
As I read that, I recalled at once the cry of the toy-seller in Puccini’s La boheme, at a moment not comparable in mood but musically similar, when the many voices and the orchestra have risen to a crescendo:
“Ecco i giocattoli di Parpignol!”

I wish I could hear the trained voice of an actor of the English stage long ago declaim the grand chapter that opens Book 3. It is no wonder that Esther Forbes was so captivated by the script that she picked up and read right through, not putting it down until she had read every word.

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