Hild

By Nicola Griffith

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Please join me, if you will, on a long and tortured metaphor.

Stories are like dishes. They are made up of ingredients: premise, plot, characters, writing, &c. Some dishes are very complex (lots of different plots and characters) – some are very simple. Complexity does not necessarily predict success: a bad story can have all the characters it wants, it will still be bad.

Like dishes, stories can be dominated by one or two components and still be very good. Think about the murder mystery: all plot, with, at best, a single charismatic detective for continuity. Most fantasy novels are the same: it’s all plot, but with some premise thrown in. As in dishes which are dominated by a single component, in order for stories like this to work, the main component needs to be really good: you can’t make a good omelet with rotten eggs.

And like dishes, stories are made up not just of major components, but also require seasoning. If characters and plot are major ingredients, then all the little embellishments which give a story depth and attraction are seasonings: well-imagined details, zippy dialogue, beautiful language.

And also like dishes, stories can be ruined by over-seasoning. You can have great characters, great plot, beautiful setting, but if you get carried away on, say, describing lush landscapes, then you can alienate your readers and make your prose a slog.

And the reason that I have dragged you on this arduous metaphor is because today I want to talk about one of the most difficult seasonings in literature: historical verisimilitude.

Books are for readers – that is their intended audience. That doesn’t mean that books should be lowest-common-denominator products, aimed simply at gathering the most eyeballs. But books should be basically intelligible to their readers – that’s really the bare minimum.

A little antiquated vernacular is fine – most people can pick around and it get it from context clues. And some historical detail is appreciated – it adds color to the world. But, at a certain point, too much extraneous detail, or strange vocabulary, is cumbersome and alienating. I should be able to read a paragraph of your text without, say, having to check the glossary eight times, or having to read the dialogue out loud because that is the only way to understand the text. I should be able to read your novel without learning the name of every single Dark Ages village in England.

And we’re talking about this because I just finished ‘Hild‘ by Nicola Griffith and I’m frankly exhausted.

‘Hild’ is the imagined backstory of Hilda of Whitby, an English saint who lived in the 7th century. Her childhood is, from what I can tell, entirely imagined by Griffith, but the research which informs the setting is impeccable: detailed, thorough, and accurate.

It is also, however, cumbersome: Griffith has, in my opinion, crossed the line between enriching the novel and leeching the reader’s bandwidth, and her historical detail, especially her use of language, takes more than it gives from reading this novel.

Let me give you an example.

“Hild persuaded Pyr that none would think him soft if the Loid workers were fed and sheltered, for a healthy Loid worked faster. And besides, she spoke for the king when she said that in Elmet now there were no more Anglisc, no more Loid, there were only Elmetsætne. She set Morud to making sure all grumbles reached the right ears.

More people, Loid and Anglisc, straggled in and sought her out, some to swear to her, some just to see for themselves the tall maid who called them all Elmetsætne. The daughter of a hægtes and an ætheling, some said – no, a wood ælf and a princess, said others – though that didn’t stop them wanting to touch her hem or catch up a fallen hair for luck.” (p.292)

Or how about this:

“Hild had helped work out how the new wool trade would run, but even she was astonished at its efficiency. Sheep sheared in every royal vill, from the Tine valley to Pickering to the wolds to Elmet. Fleece sorted and sent by grade to rows of huts in Aberford, or Flexburg by the Humber, or Derventio. Armies of women to separate out the staples, to mix soapwort, urine, and pennyroyal to wash out the grease. Children to lay the washed wool in the sun to dry, to watch and turn it and to drive off the birds who liked to steal it. Men to barrel and cart oil and grease to the vills to make the fibre more manageable for the first finger-combing and sorting. Smiths hammering out double-rowed combs and woodworkers shaping wooden handles, for women to comb out wool in the new way, the better way, a comb in each hand. Carpenters to build the stools and tables. Bakers to bake the bread so the wool workers could work. Lathe workers to turn the spindles and distaffs – the long and the short – and, everywhere, women and man making spindle whorls and loom weights of clay and lead and stone, of every shape and size and heft.” (p. 383)

Nicola Griffith

I chose these passages not because they are unusual – the entire book really is like this – but because I think they are particularly emblematic both of that makes ‘Hild‘ singular and, often, magical, but also what is trying about it. Griffith’s writing is dense and spare. Her attention to detail is incredible, but she is totally unforgiving: she will not define, introduce, or repeat herself. If you haven’t grokked what an Elmetsætne is, you can go screw (or check the gloss, for the sixth time that page). There are too many proper names, and they are too similar. Every clause has a discrete, private meaning, and they work against each other. Meanwhile, as you are drowning in detail, you are often unable to spot the action when it happens, and because the entire story is told in this same, low monotone, there are no signifiers helping you to notice what’s important.

And it’s a shame, because I think it’s a pretty good book. It’s certainly an interesting project to have undertaken, and the depth of knowledge and imagination is almost overwhelming. It is also a masterpiece of mood – it is a low, gray novel, very beautiful, naturalistic and wild. But Griffith is too eager to show you the depth of her knowledge. The detail is not for you, to add to your sense of the story – it is for her, to show you how much she knows.

Hild‘ is over-seasonaed. Vernacular, vocabulary: these are elements which can add richness to a work of imagination. However, the more you disrupt a reader’s immersion in your story, the more you risk becoming a chore for them. Griffith goes too far for me: I am impressed by her work, but I am also alienated by it. I find myself able to feel a lot of respect for it, but no affection. By the end of the book, I felt the way I feel during a bad run: determined to finish, certain that I am doing the right thing, that I will be better for it in the end, but heavy, tired. Completion has become the goal – the journey has no joy.

Julian

By Gore Vidal

All Posts Contain Spoilers

JulianNo one is great at everything.

This is as true of writers as it is of everyone else – no one has mastered all forms.  And, as a reader, one tries to practice tolerance about this: there is no reason to deprive yourself of, say, Paul Theroux’s travelogues (which are astonishing) simply because his novels are…not astonishing.

Nevertheless, it’s always tough when someone you have come to love deeply through one form is disappointing in another.  It’s especially tough when the disappointing form is also the form for which they are most famous.  You expect greatness from them – you’ve seen it elsewhere – but you don’t find greatness.  You find mediocrity which has snuck into the Halls of Greatness behind their other, better work.

And your heart hurts for that writer you love, a little.  Because you know how good they can be at their best.  It’s sad to see them, who can be so wonderful, present themselves to the world in this less-flattering light.

I’m trying to explain my overwrought, emotional reaction to reading Gore Vidal’s novels.

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Gore Vidal

As I have mentioned, I came to Gore Vidal through his essays.  And I fell in love with him.  This was the real deal – this was Great Love.  I thought he was magnificent.  I would have followed him anywhere.

And so I did – I followed him straightaway to the form for which he is most famous, the form he himself loved the best: the novel.  Vidal was a prolific novelist, writing a total of 30 of them (including the ones he wrote under pseudonyms) in his life.  This was great news for me: I had 30 novels worth of Gore Vidal to get through.  That’s like Christmas x 30!

Or so I thought.

Now, no one writes 30 novels of equal quality.  And, loving him as I do, I wanted to prolong the honeymoon.  So I rolled up to what is considered his best work (or among his best): ‘Julian‘*.

*For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that I actually read ‘Burr‘ first.  It was even less good, but love dies hard, and since Vidal had at least earned from me an open-hearted shot at his best novel, I put it out of my mind and proceeded to ‘Julian‘.

Julian‘ is the fictional autobiography of Julian Augustus, the last Pagan Emperor of the Roman Empire.  Vidal imagines an unpublished autobiography, dictated by the Emperor on his last campaign, against the Persian King Sapor, and annotated by two of his friends and teachers: the philosophers Libanius and Priscus.

If all that sounds a little convoluted and unclear, let me assure you: it is.  ‘Julian‘ takes a little getting used to.  The narrative switches points of view, bouncing between the dead Julian Augustus and the two living philosophers who quibble with him and with each other as they prepare his manuscript for posthumous publication (this semi-epistulary novel is a form of which Vidal is fond – ‘Burr‘ is also told in part through fictional memoir, part through fictional biographer).  But the reader will get the swing of it pretty quickly, especially once the text finally gets around to introducing Libanius and Priscus in the context of Julian’s life (fair warning: this crucial bit of narrative information only occurs a hundred odd pages into the text, so you fly blind for a while).

Julian‘ isn’t a bad novel.  It’s actually a lot better than I thought it was, halfway through.  But it isn’t a great novel.  It is, like most of us, deeply imperfect: it has real strengths and real weaknesses.

I don’t like trashing Vidal, whose essays will remain on my Desert Island Reading List, so let’s get the bad over with: ‘Julian‘ is over-stylized.  It’s too long, and it slogs in portions.  These are defensible sins – in fact, in my experience, these sins are characteristic of novels about the Roman Empire.  I suspect that this is because we have imbibed an impression (perhaps from their writing) that the Romans were all August and Imperial, and so we tend to lard our prose about them with pompous and heavy language.  To us, Latin intones, and so we intone about the Latins.  But intonation is no fun to read.

But ‘Julian‘ commits a graver sin: it lacks subtly.  There’s no missing the essential message of this book – it will be spelled out for you, in the form of long, didactic speeches, at least sixteen times.

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The Emperor Julian Augustus

Julian‘ is an anti-Christian polemic.  Julian Augustus was the nephew of the Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor.  Julian was raised Christian, and secretly converted some time before his accession.  When he was made Augustus, he initiated a series of reforms designed to restore Hellenism as the state religion, declaring a reign of religious toleration while subtly persecuting Christians (the point is well made by the text that, compared to what Christians would go on to do both to non-Christians and to each other, Julian’s persecutions really were just minor annoyances).

It would have been sufficient to simply describe Julian’s conversion.  But Vidal’s Julian is a zealot, a man consumed, and he (and his commentators) are prone to long, righteous passages indicting Christians for barbarity, stupidity, religious theft, hypocrisy, you name it.  By the end of the novel, it is very clear that Julian is not the only one locked in idealogical battle against Christianity, that Vidal himself has also taken up rhetorical arms against the Church.

“Preach only the Nazarene’s words and we shall be able to live with one another.  But of course you are not content with those few words.  You add new things daily.  You nibble at Hellenism, you appropriate our holy days, our ceremonies, all in the name of a Jew who knew them not.  You rob us, and reject us, while quoting the arrogant Cyprian who said that outside your faith there can be no salvation!  Is one to believe that a thousand generations of men, among them Plato and Homer, are lost because they did not worship a Jew who was supposed to be god?  A man not born when the world began?  You invite us to believe that the One God is not only ‘jealous,’ as the Jew say, but evil?” (p. 338)

It’s never good news for a novel when a reader is subjected to long diatribes about what are clearly the author’s own views (this is just one of the many, many sins of which Ayn Rand, who is essentially just a megaphone draped in the thinnest of plot, is guilty).  By the end of ‘Julian‘, one has begun to suspect that the whole reason Vidal chose this subject for his novel was so that he could screed against Christianity.  This is not a decision which bears artistic scrutiny.

Which is a shame, because Julian himself turns into an interesting character, and a novel which begins ploddingly becomes kind of gripping.  Vidal’s Julian is a complicated and evolving character, a human being turning into an Emperor, and as he approaches his death, your anxiety rises.  Like a protagonist in any historical novel, Julian’s death is known and certain.  It’s a feat to make a reader care about a Roman Emperor, and it’s a feat to make them fear a certain death, and Vidal does both.

Maybe it’s because Vidal was a brilliant but grandiose man grasping after truth, that he has a gift for understanding other brilliant but grandiose men grasping after truth.  And he has painted a beautiful portrait, and led his Emperor to a death which will distress his readers.  This is no small thing, and I would not want to penalize ‘Julian‘ for my own high expectations.  If anyone else had written ‘Julian’, I would have said it was a decent historical novel.  It was.  It pales in comparison with Vidal’s non-fiction, but it was well worth a read.

I only wish I had read it first, so that I still had something to look forward to.