Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Ken Follett Rant

I'm glad to know that a blogger I like, The Happy Catholic, has tossed Pillars of the Earth into the doorstop bin. I've wanted to say something about Ken Follet ever since I read Pillars when it first came out in hardback, a very long time ago. Now that I've become a blowhard with a blog, I can say it.

Ken Follet can't write historical fiction. One of the chief tasks of historical fiction is to allow the reader to see the past the way it was lived, not to reinforce his prejudices about the past. It's a tough job. None of us lived in older days. Our access to ancient worldviews can come from our culture, our religion, and a lot of quality time spent studying history. Sometimes people have a "sixth sense" about these things. They can just tell that "it wasn't that way." I don't know how well I score on that scale, but I do know that Pillars of the Earth is crap.

Pillars is crap because it leaves the reader with no real idea what it might have been like to have lived in medieval England. What the reader does have is a very good idea what it's like to be a modern, Starbucks-besotted yuppie who's thinking about life in medieval England. Each turn of Pillar's pages leads to a trite new confirmation of what the reader already believes about the past -- it was worse then, except for the parts that are like now. And so our Pillar(ied) "heroes" are put through their modern paces; righteous indignation at the arbitrary power-game called organized religion; unreasonable prohibitions on sex and birth control; feverish, Howard-Roark style work on a giant building project whose only significance is to provide a setting for individual talent and craftsmanship. One really has no idea why, particularly, the story had to be set in medieval England as opposed to, say, Bayonne, New Jersey in 1978.

That's part of the novel's charm, of course -- maybe all of it. Everyone likes to think their preoccupations and perceptions have been the common dream of mankind throughout the ages. Pillars of the Earth reassures us that everyone who's ever lived has the same aspirations and dreams we do. If you hadn't noticed yet, that warm cozy feeling comes from leading a life that's the envy of the ages. Everyone knows the third world wants our democracy and our capitalism, so why should we hestitate conclude that medieval Frenchmen and Sung Dynasty Chinese would want them just as badly? And why shouldn't we hold in contempt those wogs (historical or otherwise) who dare(d) to question the onward march of human progress that created and sustains the American middle class?

I don't have my copy of Pillars handy. But here's a sample of Follet's historical vision from his best-selling Eye of the Needle. Describing the temporary lair of Henry Faber, Needle's arch-villain, Follett gives us a thumbnail sketch of a whole century: "The building in which he lived . . . was a Victorian brick house at one end of a terrace of six. The houses were high, narrow, and dark, like the minds of the men for whom they had been built."

That's Follett's view in a nutshell. Thank goodness we're not like those nasty dead Victorians! We're not high, but lowbrow. We hate narrow-mindedness, and rightly prefer indifference to anything but out own pleasure. Our lives, illuminated by the gleaming brilliance of the television screen, are justly secured by the power of Olympus and happily lived with the morals of Bloomsbury. We are the pinnacle of history and the envy of former ages.

None of this is very noticeable when Follett confines himself to characters who are modern. Their narcissism melds easily with the brutal dictatorship of relativism in which they live and move and have their being. Thus each of them usually finds meaning and happiness in an utterly personal, one may even say selfish, vision of themselves and their times. In Lie Down with Lions our heroine is moved by sexual excitement and marital infidelity; Communism, democracy, and "high, narrow" thinking about the goods and evils thereof have nothing to do it. Ditto for Elene Fontana in Key to Rebecca. Ditto for Alex Wollf in Key to Rebecca. Ditto for Sonja in Key to Rebecca. Ditto for Charlotte Walden in The Man from St. Petersburg. Ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto.

In contrast, Follett portrays men like David Rose, who did his best to stop Henry Faber from thwarting the Allies' D-Day plans, as a bitchy, juvenile, useless fellow who knows nothing about women and -- therefore -- even less about orgasms. It takes Faber only one day to seduce Rose's wife, stranted on a North Sea island without sex due to her husband's paraplegia and his constant bitter rejection of her emotional advances. (One is left wondering, for the question holds no interest for Follett, whether a paralyzed man can have any marital feelings at all if he's incapable of full participation in the Great Quest for Meaning).

Because Rose discovers Faber's spying, and because Faber's having it off with his wife, Rose tries to stop Faber from taking his vital, clandestine photographs to Germany by U-Boat. But Faber overcomes the British paralytic and provides a suitably-Stracheyan epitaph: "David Rose had been something of a fool, also a braggart and a poor husband, and he had died screaming for mercy; but he had been a brave man, and he had died for his country . . .." Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Not in Follett's world, where it may be good to die for sex, revenge, or anything else -- as long as it isn't something "high, narrow, and dark" like stopping Hitler.

Ken Follett has written a lot of novels. I haven't read them all. But I think I've read enough. It's been said that the difference between a good novel and a bad one is that good novels tell you about their characters, and bad novels tell you about their authors. In like fashion, good historical fiction tells you about the mores of the past; bad historical fiction, like Follett's, tells you only about the mores of the present. I have nothing against what one of my friends called, "mind candy" -- bright, frothy novels that excite with sentiment rather than burdening the mind with drama. But I get irritated when they're passed off to a gullible public as "breathtaking" pieces of historical imagination. They're not. They're mind candy. And a diet of candy isn't good for anyone. Time for healthier fare -- Robert Graves, Marguerite Yourcenar,, Mary Renault, Michael Shaara, Sharon Kay Penman . . . . . .

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