Saturday, July 21, 2007

Novel Ideas for Summer Reading

On a day when we have reached the eschaton of Harry Potter novels, it is appropriate to talk about summer reading, and what might be profitable. J.K. Rowling is certainly a good writer in the English spirit and style, but her works while very creative and entertaining are not classic prose. She does not have the skill of a Tolkien, nor the wit and grace of a P.D. James or Paul Doherty or an Ellis Peters, but she has become, perhaps rightly the most celebrated writer of British fiction in our time. As a teacher I can only applaud anyone who manages to entice children and young adults raised in the computer age to read actual books rather than endlessly staring at a computer screen. It is a puzzling fact that while many of the young will spend endless hours reading and writing words on a screen, the same youth can not be persuaded to read an actual book. This makes not sense to me, but then I grew up B.C.-- before computer.

While it is not a famous saying, it is possible to suggest that the aphorism 'you are what you read' has more truth than platitude in it. I often tell my students who want to write better that learning how to write well requires reading good books, and through a process of osmosis one's style improves under the influence of the masters. Read the great classics of English literature ranging from Shakespeare to Marlowe to Milton to Hawthorne to Melville to Steinbeck-- I could go on. But my subject for today is more popular level literature, often consumed while lying on a beach in the summer.

Not surprisingly, I have a special penchant for historical novels, especially those that deal with my period-- the Biblical era. My friend Richard Bauckham over a decade ago gave me a novel by Steven Saylor-- a Texan with a love for the classics, and a good ability to write. I have enjoyed over the years reading his novels about Gordianus the Finder, set in the first century A.D. He writes very well, and the stories are always interesting, and meticulously accurate when it comes to the historical settings and facts that appear in the novels. In this regard his writing is like that of Coleen McCullough of the same ilk, and like McCullough he has recently published not only a collection of short stories of relevance to Gordianus lovers (entitled 'A Gladiator Only Dies Once'), and even more recently this spring a length novel called 'Roma'. Epic in scope, and breath-taking in drama and detail, this novel in conception is much like Mitchener's famous 'The Source' in which the story of one family who lived in basically one place is told through many centuries and generations. Saylor does not acknowledge in the afterword his debt to 'The Source' but the conception of the novel is too similar to be accidental.

'Roma' is a novel of 549 pages (plus afterword) published by St. Martin's Press in hardback, and a splendid read indeed. The problem of course with such a novel is that when you are covering from 1000 B.C. to 1 A.D. you must skip a lot, and when you are doing successive generations in a story there is no continuity in this respect-- you cannot follow the story of one person throughout. New characters have to be continuously introduced because time marches on, and death prevails over all. One of the salient impressions left by this novel is just how much human hubris especially male hubris has prompted mayhem, war, and destruction, but also great constructions, and the like as well. The lust for power, fame, and money (not necessarily in that order) is a constant besetting sin of every fallen human generation, and Saylor tells the tale well. When he comes to the very end of his story, chronicling the rise and the fall of the Roman Republic, the rise of the Empire, the great stories of Romulus and Remus, or Scipio Africanus or the Gracchi brothers or Julius Caesar, he has his final central character Lucius Penarius offer this reflection:

"Men like Romulus or Alexander or Caesar could seemingly arise from nowhere and change everything. If men could become gods, anything was possible. Might the older gods, like men someday perish altogether? Who could say what might be occurring at that very moment somewhere else in the world-- perhaps in some obscure backwater at the empire's edge-- where the birth of a certain man or movement might alter the world's destiny once again? Perhaps Jupiter might be thrown down, to be replaced by another king of heaven! Not only one empire and one emperor but one god: Might such a world not represent an even greater state of perfection? Lucius banished the blasphemous thought, and concentrated instead on the earthly splendor of the receding retinue of Caesar Augustus, emperor of Roma, surely the greatest of all men who had ever lived or even would live on earth." (p. 549).

Of course Lucius is more prescient than he realizes, for at that very moment in time Jesus was growing up in Galilee, and unlike the over-reaching of Octavius Caesar who was a man who would be king and then declare himself a god whilst alive (even eclipsing his Uncle Julius who was divinized in and after death) Jesus did not strive to become a god through his deeds and conquerings and building projects. His was not an example of human over=reach. To the contrary his was an example of a God come down and accepting the humiliation of becoming human and mortal. As Phil. 2.5-11 tells the tale so ably-- humility and not hubris is what characterized the divine condescension through Incarnation of God's only Son.

Saylor's writings are serious prose, and often serious commentary on Roman life spiced up with mysteries to solve (at least in the Gordianus sub Rosa novels). If a somewhat lighter fare is more to your summer taste, then I would commend any of the novels by Lindsey Davis about Marcus Didius including the most recent one Saturnalia which also came out this spring. Davis is much more witty and charming in style than Saylor (or Rowling for that matter), and her stories are good old fashion mysteries to solve. Yet she does get her period right (the era of the Vespasian family rule in the 70s through 90s-- Vespasian, then Titus, then the dread Domitianus) and her details mosty right, all the while leaving a wry grin on one's face. Marcus Didius Falco is a bit of rogue, and until he met his match in Helena Justina (a patrician woman far above his station) a bit of a rake, given to spying for pay, and investigating crimes, including working for the Emperor himself. Along the way he has tight scrapes, hilarious pratfalls, and gets stuck with fun jobs like being caretaker of the sacred geese. There could hardly be a more painless way to learn some Roman history than by reading Davis' novels.

The latest one focuses on the 'Saturnalia' a winter fruitbasket turnover of a festival in which the slaves get to be the masters and the master must be slaves for a few days. This festival which began at the winter solstice on Dec. 21 has absolutely nothing to do with the later celebration of Christmas, despite many syncretists suggestion that it does. Saturnalia was basically over before one got to Dec. 25th, which was not considered a special day by the Romans at all. During the holiday in this novel, slaves keep turning up dead and dumped on the streets of Rome. Falco must discover why.

If ancient historical novels and mysteries are not your cup of tea, you might want to try the new novel by a Christian writer, Annie Dillard, famous for her award-winning book of many years ago, 'Pilgrim at Tinker Creek'. Annie has a unique, and sometimes convoluted prose style which requires pondering and reflection. Her work cannot be sped read with profit, it requites savoring and reflection, and pausing along the way. Her latest is entitled 'The Maytrees' and is not, or not primarily about nature (unlike some of her previous work), but rather about the love of a man whose name is Maytree and a maid named Lou on Cape Cod in a bygone era. Here is a small sample of her prose about marital love between two passionate persons:

"After they married, she learned to feel their skin as double-sided. They felt a pause. Theirs was too much feeling to push through the crack that led down to the dim world of time and stuff. That world was gone. They held themselves alert only in those few million cells where they touched. She learned from those cells his awareness and courtesy. Love so spran at her, she honestly thought no one had ever looked into it. .. She shipwrecked on the sheets. She surfaced like a dynamited bass. She opened her eyes and discovered where on the bed she had fetched up. She lay spread as a film and as fragile." (p. 31). If this makes you blush or smile a wry smile, then either you are Christian or married or both. But that sensation of complete abandonment to that joyous thought obliterating moment is nicely captured by Dillard here and elsewhere.

One final word of warning. Saylor's novel is quite long. If you want a shorter one that is equally or more compelling then read his 'A Mist of Prophecies'. The Davis novel goes by as easy as cherry pie, and as for the 'Maytrees' it is an exceedingly short book (216 pages total text) on a large and important subject, namely love.


Matthew said...

looks too long for beach read.

Ben Witherington said...

Ah, but Saturnalia isn't


Mike said...

Dr. Ben,
Have you read any of Hanegraaff & Brouwer's works called "The Last Disciple" & "The Last Sacrifice?" They are set in the first century during the time of Nero. It is fascinating to read about the authors' understanding of life during that time period. If accurate, as it seems to be, it helps to shed more light on the scriptural context. The agenda is to also present a preterist eschatology.