"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Looking back

As the new year begins, I'm looking back, but not at 2012. More like 1745. I've been reading Waverly in preparation for one of my new courses this semester, which is focused on the historical novel. And even though the class hasn't even started yet, I'm already starting to pay a little more attention to my interest in historical fiction.

I was thinking yesterday how fun it's going to be to get back to historical fiction, which was a big part of my childhood reading. Then I realized that I won't really be getting back to it - I've been reading it all along. Some of my favorite books from the past year have been set in the past: The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell, Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner, Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan, and, of course, the historical novel that's gotten talked about so much since it and its sequel won the Booker Prize, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Over the past few years I've also loved The True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey, and Atonement, again by Ian McEwan. Two of the top books on my to-read list are Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, and Perfume, by Patrick Süskind, both historical novels.

My list of favorite movies and TV shows is even more peppered with historical drama: The Hour, BBC's amazing recreation of its mid-century self, is one of my all-time favorite shows, and the best detective show I know of is Foyle's War, set during WWII. I also love the film versions of Atonement and of Une longue dimanche de fiancailles (A Very Long Engagement), originally by Sebastien Japrisot, adapted by Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Historical movies and TV shows have an obvious allure for me, because I love to see historical costumes reconstructed so stunningly and in such detail. One drawback of historical novels is that they usually don't devote many words to describing clothes. I suppose that modern readers wouldn't stand for it, however fascinating it might be to me. I actually stopped watching another period piece the other day (actually an adaptation of a classic, not a historical novel), The Paradise, partly because there weren't enough close-ups of the costumes. That might seem a ridiculous reason, but I think that part of the appeal of historical stories for everyone is a chance to glimpse the past close-up and ogle all its oddities, from old-fashioned customs to clothes that have no zippers.

For me, the costume-obsession is just one part of my interest in the atmospherics and textures of the past. I loved The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet for the way Mitchell works his narrative around the gritty details of life on Dejima, the Dutch portal to Japan in the 18th century. But there's a real thrill in not just physical, but also psychological detail. This is one of the best things about Wolf Hall, which plunges you into a first-person account of Tudor England from the unlikely, but captivating perspective of Thomas Cromwell.

The class of course, will not be just about what makes historical fictions fun and interesting, but also, I suspect, the ethics and mechanics of recreating history in stories. Not only that, we get to try our hand at historical fiction ourselves. I think some people dread taking classes on a genre or subject they love - I seem to hear a lot of people complain that high school English classes, and even college courses have ruined certain books for them. But when I find a good course on something I love, I look forward to enriching my appreciation of it, expanding my reading list within the genre, and meeting other people who are just as passionate about it as I am.

I'll report back about the progress of the course and what I've learned in a few weeks. In the meantime, are there any historical novels, films, or TV shows you love that I should check out? I love suggestions.

1 comment:

  1. Ali just can't turn down a request for book recommendations, even if they do have to be historical fiction...

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