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, the great painter is struggling with (a) his art, (b) the Dutch Protestant Church’s disapproval of his liaison with his housekeeper, a chubby whiner, (c) his creditors, who, it seems to me, have a point: he’s owed them a lot of money for a long time and yet he goes right on in his mansion full of valuables as if there were no tomorrow. Of course, they do not know, as we do, that he is the Rembrandt whose work will sell at such high prices only three centuries later; or, if they suspect as much, might justifiably feel they cannot wait.
Mr. Weiss urges us, by applying much the same dark dramatic paint as the master did, not to take such a Philistine view, to see Rembrandt as he has Rembrandt seeing himself—harassed and weary. Not much happens (in this sense the book rather does reflect life). Rembrandt, even though declared bankrupt, stays on in his handsome house to his death, long after both mistress and son die. We learn this in a postscript, together with quite a few other things, making us wonder why, exactly, these particular years (1654-1656, when Rembrandt was in his late forties, thirteen years before his death) are dramatized when so much seems to have gone on before and after.
It’s a somber portrait, Rembrandt himself might have liked it even if he had to swallow some of the words put in his mouth. The novel tries to be informative, but some of the information, including a disarming defense of the assumption that Spinoza posed for the painter (which takes up a good third of the novel) is suspect. Certainly the most memorable novels we know can often have suspect, if not rotten, scholarship in them and still they stand the trial of the ear. But Mr. Weiss, with only his facts as his advocate, stands the trial of the finger.
Cecelia Holland is another matter. City of God, while called a novel of the Borgias, is really about Rome—atmosphere, accident, faces, character, emotions, and seasons. A feeling for action, physical and mental action—that is the main strength in Cecelia Holland’s work (a summer party in the Vatican is in progress):
A leopard stalked into the room.
Sluggish from the wine, he [Nicholas, the hero] needed a moment even to become alarmed. A woman gasped. It was real: it was huge. It paced slowly forward through the room, its broad head turning from side to side. The lamplight struck a gleam from its golden collar.
No one moved. The dancers, suspended in the drunken rhythm, stood goggling at the leopard as it passed among them.
Perhaps Holland discovered that Cesare Borgia did keep a leopard for a pet. In any case this fact enhances the scene and produces a Fellini-like effect. A lesser writer might have written. “He deplored the fact of the new fad for keeping wild animals as pets, introduced into Rome through newly established trade routes to Northern Africa.”
In this and her other novels Holland takes a view of a forceful and well-known time, and then she creates a hero usually to the left and a pace behind, a hero who is often more clever than the great mover and doer to whom he is attached, or by whom he is threatened. She does not have heroes sacrificing themselves for moral integrity, knowing that most moral integrities are recent inventions. In City of God Nicholas cheerfully sells out to the Borgias, and in a fascinating finale outwits them. He is not a steel-jawed knight, he is often terrified, and circumstance alone forces him to act.
The action encompasses a short time in the reign of Pope Alexander VI. Cecelia Holland’s hero is chief clerk and information gatherer at the Florentine embassy to the Vatican. He is cleverer and more energetic than his superior, and he’s not paid much for being either. Early along, therefore, he moonlights as a spy for the Borgias, more particularly for Cesare. He is, as is often the case with such heroes, more practical and astute than his new masters. He suggests means and strategy to them. And the cities fall just as he predicts. But Nicholas too falls, for what is nowadays called a piece of rough trade, and takes as lover a gambler and street fighter named Stefano. Here Holland is subtle and meticulous. She is good at describing brash, tough men, how they think and act.
In her first novel, The Firedrake, she set a pattern in creating Laeghaire, a mercenary knight who takes service under William of Normandy. In Rakossy, the hero is a baron, fief to a count Malenez, yet abler than he to defend Hungary against the Turks. In The Death of Attila, two young warriors, Tacs and Dietric, Hun and German, are often more ingenious than their elders. And in Antichrist, her hero Frederick II succeeds where his master, the Pope, fails. These men have virtues, they’re courageous, and they do not abuse their powers, even though they are looking out for number one. Holland uses them adroitly to illustrate the limits of honest power in worlds rife with illusions—of empire, revenge, of romantic love. In a preface to The Firedrake, she asks “the reader to approach the events of this tale not as accomplished facts, but as the unfolding, continual, unforeseeable present.” And in this her eleventh book (actually her fifteenth, including a splendid science fiction novel, Floating Worlds), she maintains this view of unfolding time. She does not use exotic detail simply for thrills and decor. The leopard in the scene quoted dramatizes the fate of Nicholas’s friend Stefano, who, along with Nicholas, eventually wears the Borgia golden collar. Both leopard and lovers are kept on a leash, and their sad subdued power becomes menacing, pulling their masters (and the reader) on to the final act.
We are in the court of Pope Alexander VI, and it is in these Vatican circles that Nicholas moves, spies, makes his conclusions, and brings to his master Cesare the information the Borgias need. Pope Alexander, fond papa of Cesare and Lucrezia, is a lovable, plump figure with an infectious laugh and much esprit de vie. Wicked by today’s standards, he is sane and successful by those of his time. He speaks to his son Cesare (also called Valentino), in one of their sessions of plots and planning. Nicholas, more and more a party to these, stands by, a shadow listening to the Pope:
“Take them all. Now is the time to ruin the Orsini, once and for all.”
Valentino turned, swinging his head to face Nicholas. “What do you think?”
Nicholas coughed a little into his hand. “His Holiness is infallible, of course. By the same reasoning, it would be disastrous to attack the Orsini and fail.”
The Pope reached out and clutched Valentino’s arm. Valentino was standing, and the Pope sitting, and with the shawl draped like wings across his shoulders the old man looked hellish, hunched there, gripping his son by his arm. He said, “I mean to do it! I have waited years for this revenge. Since Juan’s death [another son, senior to Cesare] I have waited to avenge him. The Orsini murdered him! I will see them all dead.”
Homosexual love and/or attraction have become such standard spices in today’s fiction one no longer is surprised at the taste in the dish. Even Mr. Weiss offers a clumsy touch when he has Rembrandt speculating on Spinoza:
…His pale olive skin, his dark hair, his fine head seemed surrounded by a halo. This worried me: it did not fit my present view of him. Yet his glance was trustful, but I know this was my imagination—he had never given me the feeling he trusted me. Until he did, I doubted I could illuminate his features the way I desired.
Love finally prompts Cecelia Holland’s hero, Nicholas, to break out of the golden collar and avenge Stefano, who has fallen victim to it. In so doing, Nicholas also succeeds in pushing the Borgias out of power. In a final scene, most satisfactory in its drama and suspense, a lonely Nicholas walks back toward Rome:
When he reached the highway, the litter was far ahead of him, climbing a hill on its way to Rome. Swarms of bright-coated courtiers surrounded it and trailed after it. At this distance they looked tiny, and their tiny lamenting voices were no louder than the crickets in the grass. Soon they would be over the top of the hill and out of his sight.
Mr. Weiss makes one’s finger tap, rather irritably, with his heavy-handed I, Rembrandt; while Cecelia Holland brings us the sounds of life.
September 27, 1979