Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Historical Novel as Seen by an Actor

Even as you were beginning your list of the one hundred novels having the most lasting effect on you, the one hundred part began to seem terribly limiting.  

Well before the hundred list was completed, and the idea seemed more like a real project than a mere list, you were often lost in an inner argument every time you came to a novel that could have some claim to inclusion and also had the tin can of being historical tied to its tail.

In the first rush of reading, even before you found Mark Twain, much of your reading was historical because of the inherent promise which you could understand even then.  In a historical novel, there would be adventure, which is to say some form of armed conflict, and further down the line because there were always at least two well articulated sides.

One of your favorite historical, Ivanhoe, had the Norman conquerors and the Saxons.  Robin Hood?  No need to ask.  Robin and his men against the corrupt, enthroned royalty.  You can even remember someone who played an important part in your younger years telling you how your liking for Robin Hood showed you would soon be ready to read Karl Marx.  At first, you would have no truck with Karl Marx; he was an economist, not a story teller.

Your trail of discovery led you through Kipling, whom you mostly admired, Talbot Mundy and The King of the Khyber Rifles, and H. Rider Haggard, with a title flat-out guaranteed to win you, She, A History of Adventure.  

These in addition to Walter Scott and someone you'd come to dislike thanks to an essay by Mark Twain called "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses."  You disliked Cooper becaue he'd led you astray and Twain showed you in so many ways how he had done so.  Meanwhile, you'd discovered another historical writer who wrote adventure stories for boys, Joseph Altsheler, whom you gobbled like your then favorite candy bar, the Peter Paul Mounds.

For the longest time, you wanted nothing to do with contemporary fiction, moving quite along to such historians as Owen Wister, Ernest Haycox, Harry Sinclair Drago, Frank Gruber, whom you'd one day edit; Elmer Kelton, and Louis L'Amour.  You later became a fan of Elmore Leonard because of his Westerns, and from your dealings with him over the years, had a clear picture of what a story meant to you.  

At one point, in conversation with Leonard, he spoke of a time when he was trying to get a jailer in the Arizona territory to come out of the shadows and talk so that he could grab onto some of his dialogue to make the character real.  As luck would have it, Leonard found a contemporary newspaper story about an Arizona Territory jailer, gave his character that person's name.  "And you know, I could;t get him to shut up."

And so you were burdened down with the possibilities from historical alone.  You could well have compiled a list of one hundred historical novels for your project, which would be possible if an overarching distraction.  (You could also do the same thing with mysteries.  One Hundred Mysteries You Need to Read before You Write Your Own.  You had certainly read one hundred Westerns before you wrote your own and well over one hundred mysteries before--)

The point is, you are in fact covered with at least one historical novel that is also filled with political chaos and authentic-sounding background on, of all things, ancient Greek theater..  Of all the many historical You've read, seeking one sort of adventure or another, none has had the effect on you that Mary Renault's The Mask of Apollo had and continues to hold.

Scant paragraphs into the narrative, the first-person narrator speaks of the sudden, surprising death of his father, a well-known actor, his own experiences as an actor, his experiences on stage with his father, and the acting techniques he inherited or learned from his father.

We are in the matter of a few pages, caught up in what our narrator will do next, with which acting company he will sign on with, before the narrator confides something to us that you found riveting and all too human.  The narrator loved and admired his father, but he realizes he is even at this stage of his career, the better actor.

How are you not going to follow him from this point.  He is fictional, an invention, but the recently ended Pelopponesian War is no invention.  Neither are two characters, Dion, and Plato.

This work struck you before your interest in theater, then after your interest matured.  It struck you first somewhere near the sternum, where the heart beats and the rhythms of you originate.

This time through, you are a tingle with the way the author used details rather than merely explaining or describing them.

Yes, you have made a good choice for historical.

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