Monday, February 2, 2015

Then There Was the Merovingian *Controversy*

I got into an argument one time with one of my early readers, when we were with our writing group and discussing my query or pitch or synopsis. In the document at hand, the name of the dynasty Clovis founded, the Merovingian, was prominent; and somehow it came out that I never use the word once in the manuscript itself (this was a draft and a half ago, and the word never has appeared in any version), and this reader was irritated. “Well, I’d be annoyed if you told me a book was about the Merovingian dynasty and you never used the word Merovingian even once in the novel! I’d feel you lied to me in the description – I would be looking for it!”

Putting the name of a dynasty still taking its position on the starting blocks – not an assured future, at the time Clovis recounts his tale in first-person – seems a difficult proposition, to me. For one, people in any given period are not prone to saying such things as “hey, we live in the Tudor Dynasty!” or “the Dark Ages” or “the Medieval period, which is going to be defined for us in just a few centuries”  and so on. I once lived in The Reagan Era, but I didn’t really discuss it in those terms at the time. Jesus never knew the word Christian.

So many of the ways we define ourselves, and especially our times, are labels applied by those outside the moment. Most of history is described in terms that didn’t exist contemporary to any given period, of course; but, as above, we just don’t live our lives by these contexts most of the time. I’ll cop to living in the twenty-first century, and having been born in The Sixties, but whatever the general-use term is going to be for the periods and places my life happens to coincide with, coined perhaps fifty or perhaps three hundred years from now, I am not privy to and can’t concern myself with.

Clovis, to be sure, was highly concerned with dynasty – and THAT word appears clearly enough in the novel. He sired four surviving princes, and spends not a little of the first act concerning himself with one son who appears sickly, and enthusiastically ensuring brothers when he marries Clotilde. In this theme, I did include much which is apocryphal.

But to put in Clovis’ mouth, “I am the Founder of the Merovingian Dynasty” is just not tenable.

Am I a liar?

Well … I’m a novelist, the whole *point* is fabrication. But another point is authenticity, and that both demands some story where facts are scarce – and forbids foolishness where character is clear. I can’t shoehorn words into a mouth ill-suited to say them, and that is important.

Too, the novel is told first person. This creates a forced perspective it isn’t possible to open up; indeed, I’d tell anyone who ever read it, The Ax and the Vase is told by an unreliable narrator. Perhaps this gives me the excuse for my own fiction; I didn’t think about it when I began writing (indeed, I tried to resist first-person for a long time), but the use of things I as author know are not history has made a good story. It both freed and limited me – I couldn’t very well sit an ancient Frankish king in front of a mirror to gaze upon and lovingly describe his handsome (or not) features, and I had no rose-colored glasses to dote long on the pretty romance with his wife … but I was also free to skip over judgment, negativity, and expectations outside the king’s perspective.

This forced me into the homophobia that kills off a major character by inches, over years.

It also freed me from the fetters of historical perspective. It gave me the unapologetic authority of the king himself, to do as we know he did, and to believe it all correct. It gave me one of the great jokes of the book, in fact. Where history provides Clovis, in his final years, a lament: “Woe am I, that I have no kinsmen” – I have a king chiding his eldest son in sarcasm, following up the plaint with “does victory tickle your scruples, boy?”

It may be I’m the sort of author who’ll tick off some readers, turning things on their heads and playing with history. Certainly (despite repeated attempts by a certain archaeologist to persuade me otherwise) I’m no historian. (This frees me from those niggling rules of the discipline.) I just want to tell a good story, even if that means including legends just because I like them. I do want to tell it correctly, but a thinly-sourced period does have its advantages – especially as I don’t read French, and therefore can say that much scholarship on my subject was unavailable to me.

I may be a cavalier, prevaricating American … but I’m also a pretty good novelist, at that.


Colin Smith said...

If you were writing a story about the English Plantagenet dynasty, you'd likewise not have the characters lamenting (or rejoicing) at the various goings on "in this Plantagenet era." One might refer to the king as Edward Plantagenet (to pick one of them). But as you say, the people living in that period are oblivious to our labels. And since the query is usually written from a more objective viewpoint, I see nothing wrong with making mention of the dynasty's name, even though it isn't mentioned in the novel. For the agent who knows his/her history (or can Google), the era name gives them an idea of the time in which the story's set.

One of my favorite words to describe "fictional reality" is verisimilitude. As novelists, the world we write doesn't have to be point-for-point a replica of the real world--even if we're writing history--as long as it is tangible enough to feel real. I expect my history textbooks to get all their facts right. But I expect my historical novels to have enough accurate detail to allow me to occupy that world. For me this means a novel set in the 16th century might reference people who actually lived at that time, and will utilize technology appropriate for the era. But I don't expect every building to be one that existed, or the speech patterns to be 100% authentic. Close enough is good enough. Just don't ride a motorbike through the streets. That's when I'd throw the book.

Once again, I'll plug Gary Corby's novels set in Ancient Greece. At the beginning of each novel he gives a list of characters with an identifiable quote from each and an asterisk to indicate if they were actual, historical people. At the end he has an "Author's Note" where he tells you the parts of the story that are solid history, and those parts where he's played fast-and-loose with the facts for the sake of his plot. Well worth a read for the historical novelist, IMO. :)

DLM said...

I have done an author's note like that, with a link to all the entries here on the right hand side in the Author's Note page. :)

Not only does nobody ride a motorbike, nobody claims descent from Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Clovis' actual divine-descent heresy was a lot more adventuresome than that!