Great Historical Fiction: A Personal Journey
Listing the ten greatest novels of historical fiction is less a matter of selecting the best as defining what not to include. In the sense of “fiction set in the historical past, not written in living memory of the events”, a fair proportion of the Great Book shelf qualifies as “historical fiction.” War and Peace. A Tale of Two Cities. The Iliad. Ivanhoe. Don Quixote. The Tale of Genji—all of them are fictions set decades or centuries prior to when they were composed. If we expand our definition to include drama, much of Shakespeare’s output qualifies too. Even a modern classic like James Joyce’s Ulysses, if not set in a deep past, patterns itself on that earliest of “historical novelists”, Homer.
Why are so many of the landmarks of literature “historicizing”? Why, despite the fact that modern critics have scorned the genre, advising authors to “stick to what they know”, is the past fertile ground for our most consequential fictions?
First, writers—like most imaginative people—hate to be confined. The thin slice of time that we call our lives is not even the icing on a very deep cake. It is more like the top layer of chocolate molecules on the cake. Faced with this vast temporal gulf, writers naturally want to take a swim. What curious person has never wondered what it was like to walk the streets of ancient Rome or medieval Kyoto? Who has never fantasized about encountering Caesar, Michelangelo, Jack the Ripper? Indeed, insofar as we limit ourselves to our own times, we irrevocably date ourselves. “Nothing makes literature so mortal as to reflect the spirit of the age,” rightly declared a guy I don’t typically quote, the Rev. Fulton J. Sheen. “For if a writer marries his age, he will be a widower in the next.”
The second truth is perhaps more hard for us to accept: Nobody really “knows what they know”. As psychology informs us, the fabric of even our most intimate, personal memories are shot through with stuff we’ve garbled, heard from others, or simply made up. Not only do we lack the perspective to “write the times we know”, we can’t even be trusted to remember what we ate for breakfast yesterday. At best, an author writing about the “here and now” is valuable only insofar as it reflects his or her attitudes about it. If we acknowledge that our present is made up too, the categorical distinction between “serious” contemporary fiction and reconstructed history must break down.
Indeed, insofar as we know how things turned out in the past, there may be an advantage to setting our stories there. I’m an avid consumer of news of the early 21st century in the United States, but without knowing what will ultimately come of that republic, it’s hard to tell which are significant developments and which aren’t. I’m simply too close to the subject. The story of Periclean Athens, on the other hand, is a closed (yet still relevant) book. With the help of historians, we have a pretty good idea what’s important and what is ephemeral. So why wouldn’t I want to write about Athens?
That said, it’s wise not to cast too wide a net. For my purposes here, I will stick to works produced in the modern novelistic tradition—in other words, no plays, no epic poems. I will also gladly admit that I haven’t read everything, and so the books listed are only those that made the strongest impression on me. It isn’t meant to be representative (I am embarrassed there are only two women listed). These aren’t necessarily the best books as much as ones I regularly think about, am inspired by, and hope to equal in my own work.
And so, in order of publication:
I, Claudius(Robert Graves, 1934): Said to have been banged out (along with its worthy sequel) in less than eight months, and mostly just for a payday, this book is still the definitive modern take on the Roman Imperial era. Graves’ toxic Empress Livia, portrayed fairly or not, is one of the great villains not only of its genre, but in all of literature.
The Last Temptation of Christ (Nikos Kazantzakis, 1955): A towering, searing, passionate work with perhaps the most ambitious goal of any on this list: to reclaim the humanity of Jesus from centuries of sterile iconization. Here we don’t just bear witness to his sacrifice. We feel the slickness of the sweat on Jesus’ brow, and smell the shit of terrified mortals crucified beside him. Kazantzakis was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature two years after the book was published in Greek; he “lost” to Albert Camus by one vote. But perhaps the greatest compliment of all is that the Greek Orthodox Church tried to get the book banned.
The Last of the Wine (Mary Renault, 1956): This tale of Athens during the Peloponnesian War is the first of Renault’s ancient books, and one that awed me for its depth, eloquence, and comprehension. In its time, it was noted (and reviled) for its frank treatment of homosexuality in ancient Greece. With time, those themes have come to seem not so revolutionary after all. Yet the book still stands up as the best sort of modern epic, encompassing a huge subject and a galaxy of notable personalities, including Socrates and Plato.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman (John Fowles, 1969): This is a book as much about the Victorian novel as it is about Victorian times. And though it is glossed as “postmodern” and “metafictional”, it is also touching, achieving a curious combination of romance and self-awareness of its romanticism. Indeed, it ends up much like the Victorians themselves, who were perfectly aware of their particular qualities.
Master and Commander (Patrick O’Brian, 1969): This nautical fiction is the first in the author’s 21-book Aubrey-Maturin series. The books chronicle the apogee of British naval power in the early 19th century, as experienced by man-of-action Jack Aubrey and man-of-conscience Stephen Maturin. In its utter command of its period and its setting, its grand sweep, and its sly erudition, it is simply unparalleled, and has become the benchmark for everything else in the genre.
Time and Again (Jack Finney, 1970): This time travel story straddles genres, as much science fiction as historical. It is also a notable “illustrated novel”, including period photos and illustrations. Written at a time when America felt itself splitting at the seams, it cuts against counter-cultural cliches about the Victorian era as merely stuffy and repressed, finding a sense of humanity in what was long gone by 1970.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Ron Hansen, 1983): This story of a gunslinger and the “fan” who matured into his killer is a tour de force in both style and psychology. Hansen writes wit a vividness that illuminates like lightning; if the past wasn’t as he writes it, it should have been. The book also inspired a pretty terrific 2007 film by Andrew Dominik.
Ancient Evenings (Norman Mailer, 1983): Mailer’s massive tale of life and reincarnation on the ancient Nile garnered mostly negative reviews on its publication. But it also had its champions, like William S. Burroughs and Harold Bloom. The first hundred pages or so are perhaps among the most beguilingly sensual ever put between covers; the rest is merely Mailer, brilliant and unapologetic.
Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West (Cormac McCarthy, 1985): Magisterial, appalling, baroque, McCarthy’s towering “anti-Western” is impossible to ignore. I had to put it down the first two times I tried to read it. But in the end I was won over by McCarthy’s language, which is more prairie fire than prose.
Alias Grace (Margaret Atwood, 1996): Arguably unequalled in the world of historical crime fiction, Alias Grace matches Fowles in its feel for its time and for the minds that inhabited it. Atwood makes her tale as much about the forces swirling around tellers of “true stories” as about the story itself. Yet so casual is her mastery that the book easily be taken as nothing more than a gripping mystery.