City of God: A Novel of the Borgias
Samuel Johnson said of certain poets, “…they only wrote verses, and very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger than of the ear….” His complaint dealt with those diligent versifiers who sacrificed meaning and language to the tapping out of strict rhythms. His poet of the “ear” was the true poet, the one who drew together those elements—subject, thoughts on the subject, felicity of expression, and poetic purpose—and enhanced them with the techniques of rhyme and rhythm. Applying Johnson’s verdict to prose, and particularly to what is called historical fiction, one substitutes time, place, personages, and events for rhyme and rhythm. The writer who merely taps out his version of historical fiction in cadences of researched fact and resounding historical names stands only the trial of the finger. One learns a little, is bemused by an incident here or there, and has passed a pleasant hour or two. But that writer who catches your “ear” is the one who rings all the changes of atmosphere, character, emotion, and brings alive a moment in time—as did Marguerite Yourcenar in Memoirs of Hadrian, Robert Graves in I, Claudius, and Pär Lagerkvist in The Dwarf.
To illustrate, let me take up two historical novels, I, Rembrandt by David Weiss, and City of God by Cecelia Holland. In Weiss’s story of Rembrandt he has the artist considering prospects for improving his financial situation:
Buoyed by these reflections, I put aside the pessimism that had developed because of the collapse of the tulip boom and the recent war with England, and strode briskly into Wilhelm Beghen’s office….
Beghen, an investment broker, says to Rembrandt, “I will put your money into the trade that yields the highest rate of return. In spices such as cloves, black pepper, and cinnamon. Because they are so scarce they have doubled in price in five years.” One imagines Mr. Weiss consulting his notes and most likely transmitting them directly to us verbatim. Reading these facts of the time is soothing, even entertaining, and at no cost to us of hours in a library. Here Rembrandt and Frans Hals, in the company of three struggling young artists, Pieter de Hoogh, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Jan Steen, go out drinking in a tavern. They are talking of Amsterdam:
Steen spoke up, “Master, Ruisdael and I want to move here, too…. There must be much money here.”
“And poverty,” I added. “In Amsterdam wealth marches hand in hand with poverty. For every rich merchant who builds himself a five story mansion to display his affluence, a dozen country folk flock to the city in search of jobs they do not find. Employment is seasonal and most of them end up, if they work, digging ditches or fortifications.”
This is not only transmitting from notes but “speaking to our time,” and not entertainingly either. Mr. Weiss has made the mistake of writing in the first person, and he is not Robert Graves.
In I, Rembrandt …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.