Friday 28 September 2012

Interesting Times, by K. M. Grant

Martin Amis has said that if September 11 2001 had to happen, he was not sorry it happened in his lifetime.   I'm sure I needn't press the point that he was not, in any way, suggesting that 9/11 was a good thing.  He was just saying that if it had to happen, this paradigmatic shift in the notions of war and peace, of safety and danger, of power and submission, then he wanted to see, to experience, to watch the unfolding aftermath in all its fascination and confusion.  In The Second Plane, a compilation of journalism and short stories, we can follow him following it.

There have been many paradigmatic shifts in history, some acknowledged at the time, some only recognised much later.  A later recognition was the Battle of Poitiers in 732, during which Charles Martel beat the army of the Umayyad Caliphate and halted the Muslim takeover of Europe.  Had Charles Martel lost, it's possible I wouldn't be writing this:  we might be living under a Taliban theocracy.  Closer to our own time, contemporaries knew the defeat of Hitler marked some kind of turning point.  I'm always sorry for those who died not knowing who'd won the war.  Such an important thing to know.  The tearing down of the Berlin Wall was another turning point.  High on the 'non-recognition at the time' list, however, must be the Norman Conquest.  'Not much happened this year' wrote one monk in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on the 1066 page, or words to that effect.  Well, he kens the noo, as Scots like to say.

For obvious reasons, historical novelists are drawn to 'interesting times'.  We place fictional characters amid the action of real events for the very good reason that people like to imagine, or have imagined for them, what it must have been like to be part of something huge.  Equally, the individual experience of the great event can bring the great event to life.  Reading historical novels also an easy, though untrustworthy, way of learning stuff.  And this brings me to a great book I almost missed because it's not on a 'books set around a great event' list.

If you have an iPod, can I recommend downloading E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, narrated by the author himself?   Many readers may know the book already.  If you don't and you care to read it or listen to it, you'll experience America at the turn of the 20th century as you've never experienced it before.   Through its interweaving of lives, both real and fictional, I know Harry Houdini and like him, though his mourning for his mother is vaguely unhinged.  I know J. P. Morgan - spookily dislikable, and Henry Ford.   But most of all, I understand 'the value of the duplicable event' to use Mr. Doctorow's description of the mechanisation of production, and how this changed our perception of everything.

Pace Martin Amis, after listening to Ragtime I'm with Logan Pearsall Smith:  'People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading'.   Now that I'm so hooked on audio books I may never go anywhere again.


Caroline Lawrence said...

Great post!

I LOVE audiobooks. I adore historical novels being read aloud.

For my own writing, I especially like listening to books written during my time period, the mid-19th century. Mark Twain’s Roughing It, The Innocents Abroad, Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. Bret Harte’s The Luck of Roaring Camp has stories about the California Gold Rush, while it was going on.

These all help me find the 'voice' of the 1860s.

Talking books can also help you get into the mindset of the period. The short stories of Ambrose Bierce, the cynical Civil War writer, or the poems of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman set a mood. George Alfred Townsend’s contemporary account of Lincoln’s assassination, The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth, has more concrete descriptive detail than any other writer I’ve found; but is also richly peppered with period expressions.

I even have Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens on my iPhone audiobook library, because that’s the book Twain and his pals were reading in 1861.

Yay for audiobooks!

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, I adore audiobooks too. I think I like Terry Pratchett unabridged best, but another real treat is David Copperfield read by Martin Jarvis, also unabridged. It does so depend on the reader, though. Oh - if you want the authentic voice, Andrea Levy's 'The Long Song.'

adele said...

My problem with Audio book is: I can't bear having little gizmos in my ears. I'm fine with books read aloud on radio, say. Or I'd be fine in a car but I don't drive....interesting post. And I love Ragtime.