Wednesday 2 January 2013

Guy Gavriel Kay: Great Historian?

Apparently, I'm a sucker for punishment. On New Year's Eve I tried to defend the indefensible: that is I tried to make a case for why Stuart Maclean's stories on the Vinyl Cafe - you know, the hokey, feel-good ones about Dave and Morley and the kids - are actually good writing.

I didn't pick the best venue: a room full of readers and, alas, writers. They were having none of it.

So now I'm at it again. My own Christmas reading included a novel by the fantasy and historical fiction writer Guy Gavriel Kay. This one was The Last Light of the Sun, a fictionalized (and fantastical) account of medieval England in the time before the Norman invasion, amidst the battles between Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings.

It is, for me, wonderful escapist fiction. Except that, it's not. Or not entirely. In fact, I think Kay might actually be, in his own way, a damn fine historian.

The difference between Kay and some other fantasy novels, is two things: his historical sensibility, and his writing style. When I read novels by GGK I am constantly struck by how he is able to make the ideas of academic history come to life in a fictional world. He makes many things up, and has his own fun. But he also makes academic ideas that could otherwise be quite dry or intellectual, seem fresh and real. I noticed this when reading his novels about a fictionalized Byzantine empire after the division between east and west. I had read with others about how one ought not to see the fall of the western empire in Rome as really being the fall of the Roman Empire, but it probably was in the two novels by Kay that I truly got what this really meant. The same can be said for the intermingling of cultures in pre-Norman England in my holiday reading.

It's an impressive ability.

And it works all the more because he so nicely historically contextualizes even the most minor of his characters. It's a common strategy of his to take a side figure who witnesses something important and sets up who this person is. He gives them a life in his fictionalized historical context. And then we witness the  particular series of events through their eyes. Then it's back on to someone else, and the plot moves ahead. I can't help thinking that, stylistically, historians could learn a lot from this. What he's doing, in a fictional way, is dealing with different eye-witness accounts, people with different perspectives based on who they are (their class, race, gender) and enriching the story with all of these different perspectives. But he also doesn't lose sight of the story's momentum. I'm tempted, for historians, to switch the latter, and call it argument or thesis.

Worth a thought, anyway.

Go ahead: tell me I'm a sucker for simplistic cultural forms. In the meantime I'll be reading the other GGK novel I got under the tree, listening to my new box set of Dave and Morley stories, and working out how all of this is going to help me write the book of academic history I'm trying to write.


  1. Christopher,

    Want to offer a thank you for this generous set of comments. Self-awareness compels me to decline the label in your header. I might argue for the virtues a non-specialist can bring to history, and I HAVE argued for a lawyerly skillset that requires deep-but-rapid immersion in a given period and set of themes. There have been some academic essays citing my two 'Byzantine' books as offering the sort of window you describe, and a professor in Vermont put them on a Classics curriculum, but what I do feels too selective in formal terms, and too reliant on the spadework of others. They are, in the end, fictions.

    Having said that, I appreciate your recognition of the underlying seriousness with which I regard the 'matter' of the past, and very specifically the figures who inspire my own characters (who are sometimes meant to evoke real ones, but not presume to 'recreate' them).

    For what it is worth, those 'sidebar lives' in LAST LIGHT were inspired by readings in the Sagas, where that device appears. Also, for what it is worth, I'm interested in your comments elsewhere on historiography. A lot of the feuding today seems to regard the battle as a zero-sum game, whereas I find illumination in narrative overviews AND in analyses of names in birth registers or irrigation techniques. (One 'trigger' for YSABEL was learning how common the name 'Marius' was in the south of France for centuries, whereas people had no idea why this was so ...)

    Idle query, based on your work in 'masculinity' ... do you know the work of Dr Jane McGaughey at Concordia? She's delving into different models of masculinities among the Irish, including here in Canada.

    Guy Gavriel Kay

  2. Thanks for your unexpected response. You are, of course, too modest. But I can understand your hesitation. Likely you're not researching a topic for years on end.

    What I think is especially valuable about your approach, though, and what I think historians can learn from your fiction, is the imaginative leap that you make. Indeed, the imaginative leap that you're able to make. Historians are better at doing this intellectually. We are compelled to push ourselves to analysis and argument, after careful scrutiny of the sources of course. And ultimately we make arguments that are our own. What I think you do in your fiction is to make this same imaginative leap in a more sensory fashion, and you make it shape the style of how you write. That is, the very form of the book itself, is part of how it works, not just a taken for granted style to be used because it's there.

    Of course, that's what novelists are supposed to do. But some historians do this, and especially used to do this. We too could set the scene in a similar fashion, could build up momentum, and take amusing side-looks at characters, all the while, still pushing forward a story.

    Your comment that the history wars don't have to be either/or is exactly right. We can have detailed analyses of the membership of the Board of Trade for the city of Toronto in the 1850s even as others try to tell a narrative story set in the same context.

    No, I don't know Jane McGaughey, though I see from a quick google search that she does interesting work.

    Incidentally, I'm currently on a PhD committee for a thesis that will, amongst other things, analyze one of your books. So there's one more way that you're making it into the academy...