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Telling History

When I was in college I took a really interesting class on Alexander the Great. The first thing the professor did was have us read, back to back, the biographies of Alexander by Johann Droysen, W.W. Tarn, and Ulrich Wilcken. The next class we all came in, sat down, and the professor said, "Ok, so who is this Alexander guy?"

We all looked at each other blankly, and then someone said what we were all thinking. "The biographies all contradicted each other. They presented the same facts but interpreted them so differently that there's no common ground."

"Exactly!" the professor said. "Three Alexanders. These books don't tell you nearly as much about Alexander as they do about the context in which they were written -- mid 19th century German, Edwardian British, and mid 20th century German. If we added Peter Green we'd have post-Vietnam American. They're not about Alexander. They're about the historian's lens for interpreting Alexander."

We, as readers, want "the truth." We want to know what really happened. But the historiographic perspective, which I subscribe to, says that it's impossible to find the objective truth because we, and every single source we read, is looking through the lens of culture and time. We do not exist outside of our culture. We are all part of living, vibrant cultures that we practice -- and so is every scholar who claims objectivity. They are all products of a certain time, of certain experiences and cultural assumptions, that shape both them and us inevitably.

And that's not bad. Of course we are part of culture! We are participants in our lives, not objective observers. And how could an objective observer hope to understand human emotion and motivation? If true objectivity were possible, it would be devoid of understanding because people in any time act for emotional reasons within the context of their culture. The best we can hope for is to be aware of these lenses and use them rather than flee from them.

That's why I write history in the first person. Hand of Isis is not an objective account of the events of Cleopatra's life. It's a memoir. Stealing Fire is not an impartial search for the "real Alexander." It's intended to feel to the reader as though they have discovered one of the many lost memoirs of the period. We know that many of Alexander's veterans wrote them. What if we found one? It would not be impartial and objective, but rather personal and passionate, biased and lively and vivid. My inspiration isn't the self-consciously rational scholarly book, but the brightly colored work of the memoirist. What if Charmian had written her memoirs? What if Lydias had? My goal is to bring the past to life, to make you feel as if you'd walked for a while in the streets of Alexandria or sailed a dark, wide ocean, to give you the subjective truth of it, as though you could share a memory.

That's especially true as I move into the 19th century with Fortune's Wheel. Most of us have less emotionally invested in the Aegean Dark Age or Cleopatra than we do in events which are much closer and conflicts which are still topical today. We are still living in the Age of Revolution, and the questions the characters face do not answers that are foregone conclusions today. We may be able to all get on the same page, with the story of Iphigenia in Black Ships, that human sacrifice is bad. But how about instead what is the proper relationship between the genders? We are still hotly debating that issue, and any "answer" is both highly personal and part of a complex interaction of culture and time.

One of the things that's clear, reading Droysen and Tarn and Wilcken back to back, is that what one assumes is "right" or "good behavior" is, to another, entirely wrong and immoral. And these are all Europeans with only a century separating first from last! The things we think today will be immoral and wrong in fifty years. The truths we embrace with fervor will be discredited. The words we use will be considered offensive. We will become those old, wrong dinosaurs, dated as 1970s Marxist reinterpretations of Alexander!

And so I don't offer "right" answers. I offer instead a highly colored personal experience. This might be what it was like to be an extraordinary person in extraordinary times, to preserve the flavor of the memoirist.

To make the past live. And to open a door for you to walk into it with me.

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( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
selenak
Aug. 5th, 2011 01:12 pm (UTC)
I still remember coming to this epiphany the first time I seriously researched someone's life (Byron's, in that case) and read biographies, memoirs etc., back when I was 19, and how something just clicked into place when I realised that. Now it's more than 20 years later, and I still get the "but is what you're telling the truth?" question every single time, and every time I point out what you just so eloquently did.

Mind you: we're not nearly as dispassionate and accepting of subjectivity, neither you or myself, when it comes to certain historical characters. At least I can't imagine you watching a two parter about Augustus, half of which dealing with him as Octavian, in which he's the progressive people-loving hero and Cleopatra is the embodiment of tyrannical monarchies complete with sadism and sexual slanders thrown in calmly and shrugging it off with "well, that's one subjective view and contemporary propaganda". :) And I know that I get annoyed about crazy evil Richard III. still showing up in some novels...

But how about instead what is the proper relationship between the genders? We are still hotly debating that issue, and any "answer" is both highly personal and part of a complex interaction of culture and time.

Indeed, and there you have the double perspective of the time of the author and the time they're trying to write about to deal with, plus, let's face it, the problem that historical characters sometimes just keep making the choices not just the readers but also the authors don't want them to make. You had more or less complete freedom with Gull and Lydias, and mostly with Charmian because so little is known about her and nothing about her private life. But Elza and the relationships in her life offer a far tighter frame. I know that all those years ago I wanted several people to make different choices than they had - Augusta for example (Byron's sister) at some key points, but it served as a great and fruitful challenge for a writer: trying to understand WHY these other choices were made and trying to tell the story in a way the reader also understands. I imagine this keeps happing to you with Elza a lot?
jo_graham
Aug. 5th, 2011 02:29 pm (UTC)
Mind you: we're not nearly as dispassionate and accepting of subjectivity, neither you or myself, when it comes to certain historical characters. At least I can't imagine you watching a two parter about Augustus, half of which dealing with him as Octavian, in which he's the progressive people-loving hero and Cleopatra is the embodiment of tyrannical monarchies complete with sadism and sexual slanders thrown in calmly and shrugging it off with "well, that's one subjective view and contemporary propaganda". :)

*g* You're absolutely right! I am emotionally invested in what I think about these people too -- and I'm happy to mix it up with the Octavian fans with a passion most people reserve for football!

But I do think one thing that's true about Hand of Isis is that my time and cultural context make it possible to tell this story this way as I couldn't have if I were writing in the mid 1930s. For example, one thing I kept hitting with the historians writing prior to 1990, over and over and over, was that Iras could not possibly have been Treasurer of Egypt even though that is how she is described in the contemporary Roman documents (as proof of the degeneracy of Egypt) because it is utterly impossible for a woman to be a finance minister of a nation. Therefore that can't possibly be Iras' job. She must be something else, like a lady in waiting, because a female minister of state is patently impossible! It's implausible to the reader. Of course it isn't today! My reader, unlike my hypothetical reader in 1936, doesn't assume that there is anything particularly unlikely about Iras being capable of being Treasurer! I can tell this story because the original sources have become more plausible.

I imagine this keeps happing to you with Elza a lot?

Oh yes! Though I usually understand why she (and others) did things I don't want them to. Like Josephine, about the thing we talked about that I won't spoil here in comments!

But also that I can tell this story this way because of my time and culture. In the 1930s I could not have told this story half so well because I couldn't have been sexually explicit. And I don't think it would make half as much sense without actually showing the bedroom scenes. Yes, they're hot and fun, but they're not gratuitous. I can't imagine how the reader could make sense of Elza's relationship with Victor without the sex scenes!
selenak
Aug. 5th, 2011 03:29 pm (UTC)
I kept hitting with the historians writing prior to 1990, over and over and over, was that Iras could not possibly have been Treasurer of Egypt even though that is how she is described in the contemporary Roman documents (as proof of the degeneracy of Egypt) because it is utterly impossible for a woman to be a finance minister of a nation. Therefore that can't possibly be Iras' job

*nods* That sounds familiar, and I much agree you could write Hand of Isis in a way you couldn't have fifty years ago. But then, who knows what future novelists will make of our time! (*has vision of future novel being written about Hillary and Bill Clinton based on premise that Hillary was a man because future epoch X after cataclysm has lost all the photos and vids but remembers same-sex marriage was still controversial in ye 1990s, and spouse named Hillary was much resented and went on to become secretary of foreign affairs, therefore it follows etc.*)

And I don't think it would make half as much sense without actually showing the bedroom scenes. Yes, they're hot and fun, but they're not gratuitous. I can't imagine how the reader could make sense of Elza's relationship with Victor without the sex scenes!

Having read them, I agree. I imagine it would be like film versions of Tennessee Williams plays in the 1950s where all the verbal references to homosexuality had to be edited out so the scriptwriters and actors had to work with coded vocabulary and body language. Which got across some things but by no means all. However, what's still true for the present is that novel readers go into a story, historical or not, with a set of expectations, all the more so if the story is closer to the present. I.e. when Lydias at the end of Stealing Fire agrees to marry Chloe, the novel does not present this as him ending/betraying his relationship with Bagoas, not only because the reasons for marrying Chloe are non-romantic in nature but also because he lives in a society where the two don't have to mutually exclusive. But Elza already lives in a world where monogamy is if not practiced then upheld not just as a moral but as a romantic ideal, and marriage as the endgame of same. So you have to deal with Elza confounding not just the expectations of her contempararies but a good part of ours as well!

jo_graham
Aug. 5th, 2011 05:40 pm (UTC)
Now I'm much taken with the future historical novel in which Hillary Clinton is a man!

Having read them, I agree. I imagine it would be like film versions of Tennessee Williams plays in the 1950s where all the verbal references to homosexuality had to be edited out so the scriptwriters and actors had to work with coded vocabulary and body language. Which got across some things but by no means all.

Yes, that. The connections between power and sex are very explicit. I'm not sure how I would make the power dynamics work without the sex.

I totally see what you mean about Chloe at the end of Stealing Fire. It flies in the face of the reader's expectation, but not in the face of the expectations of Lydias or his society. Elza.... Oh my. Elza upsets the apple cart all around! :)
jansma
Aug. 5th, 2011 07:46 pm (UTC)
Your attitude towards history is one I can identify with, as we all see it through our own perspective, and cultural mores. Robert Graves seminal piece, I, Claudius, is such a novel, drawing us into the inner world of someone deemed an idiot by his notorious family, and presenting Rome as he saw it. Damn, I love that book. Jean Plaidy is another historical novelist I loved to read, who was a very serious researcher although she fictionalised the characters. If you haven't read her, then seek some of her books out. They are worth it.
jo_graham
Aug. 11th, 2011 03:48 pm (UTC)
I love I, Claudius! And Jean Plaidy. We share lots of reading tastes, it seems! :)
linneasr
Aug. 6th, 2011 06:55 pm (UTC)
I agree profoundly with the comments made so far, and have one small contribution:

And yet, if we did not hold passionately to our truths, nor wager our futures upon them, the world to come would be an entirely different place.

So I am grateful to you for exploring the stories of, as you say, extraordinary people in extraordinary times.
jo_graham
Aug. 11th, 2011 03:49 pm (UTC)
Oh yes! We have to live in our times and act in our cultures. We're on the stage, not in the audience. We have to live passionately.

And at the same time, one can't help but wonder what it would be like to be Lydias or Gull and also have the long perspective? To both act and be aware that there is something beyond the footlights?
linneasr
Aug. 11th, 2011 03:57 pm (UTC)
More depth. More responsibility. More joy, too, I would think!
jo_graham
Aug. 11th, 2011 04:00 pm (UTC)
Yes, all of the above, I think! That's one of the things in the new book -- our main character coming to terms with having the long view in a world that no longer believes in oracles.
linneasr
Aug. 11th, 2011 04:02 pm (UTC)
Hah! Yes, indeed. But, while oracles are no longer in good odour, we seem to find nothing amiss with precognition, as a telepathic science.
jo_graham
Aug. 11th, 2011 04:07 pm (UTC)
True, but it's not exactly respected. People who talk to the gods are mad. Wouldn't it be scary to have Gull's gifts in a time where that's madness?
linneasr
Aug. 11th, 2011 04:11 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes. You win.

jo_graham
Aug. 11th, 2011 04:16 pm (UTC)
Not winning, really!

Elza is scared of her gifts. She thinks she's going crazy. And so part of the story is how she comes to terms with that and learns how to use her gifts and be proud of what she is.
linneasr
Aug. 11th, 2011 04:18 pm (UTC)
Should be an interesting ride. I'm looking forward to reading about it!
linneasr
Aug. 11th, 2011 04:18 pm (UTC)
Heh. I wonder how Georg would respond to hearing whispers on the wind.
jo_graham
Aug. 11th, 2011 04:20 pm (UTC)
Georg has pretty much turned it off. We saw his pretty much only encounter with Michael, though Michael certainly didn't forget about him. However much Georg is an unexpected answer to Izabela's prayer!
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