Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Midnight in History

The other night I went to see the new Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris. Go see it. This is a great movie and, as ever, Woody Allen’s writing is simply brilliant. The story is basically this: a writer and his fiancée go on a vacation to Paris. He is working on his first book and just can’t get it right. He’s in love with 1920s Paris. When his fiancée goes off with some of her friends, he heads off on his own to walk the streets (at midnight, of course) in search of inspiration.

The writer is taken in by the beautiful scenery of the city, the Seine, the streets and the way they look when wet at night. When the bell tolls midnight an old car pulls up and some folks dressed in 1920s clothing and sipping champagne pull the writer into the car and boom, the he is instantly transported into 1920s Paris. When he catches on, he can’t believe his luck and the fact that he is mingling with some of his favourite, and some of the greatest, artists of the time; F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Earnest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter and Salvador Dali to name a few. Every night after that he spends time with this crowd and comes to know them quite well. He even gets Gertrude Stein to review his manuscript!

There were some amazing shots of Paris (Roman Lutetia) in this film and I’m sure I spotted some Roman ruins in one of the great director’s shots. One of the ideas explored by the movie is that people always yearn for something other than what they have, usually something (or some time) in the past. GUILTY! My hand is up. I suspect that most of us who read and write historical fiction, whatever your period, feel that we were born into the wrong century. I’m not talking about medieval medicine (nope, could do without that, thank you very much!) or the sureness of getting murdered in the lawless streets of ancient Rome’s Subura after dark (I guess that one depends on where you live). What I mean is that many of us perhaps wish for times when the air and water were cleaner (imagine the Great Lakes before the Industrial Revolution), or when monuments were not ravaged by modern war and pollution – the Parthenon must have been a miracle to behold before it was used as a Turkish powder keg.

Alexander the Great
Acropolis Museum

Midnight in Paris also made me think of what people of the past I would like to meet and interact with for a time. Who would I populate my screenplay with? The old Who would you invite to dinner? question. I think it would be nearly impossible for me to narrow it down to one person in particular. But, I have thought of a few I would like to meet.
I would definitely like to meet a couple of generals; I like military history after all. Alexander the Great would be up there. I would like to talk world travel with him and get his take on all the wonders of the world that he beheld on his travels. I’d also like to know what exactly he did ask the Oracle at Siwah. I don’t feel a need to speak with Julius Caesar – I’ve read his memoirs of the campaign in Gaul and read so much historical fiction about him that I feel I know the man pretty well by now. We’ve got to be selective in this exercise. Maybe I would speak with Gnaeus Julius Agricola, Governor of Britain (A.D. 78-84) and ask him what exactly happened in Caledonia and where is Legio IX Hispana?
Gnaeus
Julius Agricola
Bath, UK


Eleanor of Aquitaine
There are a few women I would like to meet too. Stop that sniggering! You know what I mean. Eleanor of Aquitaine would be up there, a true force of nature by all accounts. As someone who focussed on Arthurian studies, how could I not want to speak to the host of the Courts of Love in southern France? Marie de France too; together, Marie, Eleanor and I could have quite the literary discourse, jongleurs, wine and all. Perhaps William Marshall, the Flower of Chivalry, could add to the discourse? Another woman I would like to meet is Empress Julia Domna, wife of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and by all accounts a brilliant, widely respected patron of learning. Perhaps I could ask her to read my horoscope (something she did with utmost regularity for herself) and ask her what exactly went wrong with Caracalla.


William Marshall in Combat
from a manuscript of Matthew Paris

Empress Julia Domna
Pythagoras and I could talk about reincarnation. I would also like to hear what inspired Phideas and Praxiteles to create masterpieces that were wonders of the ancient world. I would not leave out any mythological figures either. Remember, every legend has its base if fact. Hector, Odysseus and I could sit around a fire on a beach beneath sacred Ilium, sharing meat and wine and talking about our wives and children and what it means to be away from them. I would also speak with Herakles and get him to tell me a good few tales about his labours – there’s got to be some great storytelling there!

The Death of King Arthur
by John Mulcaster Carrick

A couple more. I would certainly like to spend a fair bit of time with Arthur, the Pendragon or Dux Britannorum, the Romano-British warlord that kept the Saxons at bay for a short time. Taliesin could play the harp in the background. I would like to know the whole story from Arthur himself, leaving nothing out. What happened? Did your friend really betray you? What did Merlin teach you? Where was Camelot? Are you going to come back?

Homer
Finally, I would speak with Homer himself, the father of western literature. I would sit on the ground with all the people mentioned above who would have been familiar with his work (Herakles, Hector and Odysseus could fill in any possible gaps) and listen to him. We would likely be sitting on the shore of the island of Chios, the sea at our backs. Looking up at the wrinkled pockets where his eyes had once been I imagine that he would still convey the emotions of his tale perfectly: the anger of Achilles, the courage of Hector, the fall of high-walled Troy, the wanderings of long-suffering Odysseus. It might take days to hear the tales in full but how it would be worth it. Perhaps I could relate to him my own first novel, Children of Apollo, and get his take on it. Of course, a tale about Romans might seem distant and strange to Homer but with the Poet himself there, I would have to try. 
Odysseus and the Sirens


It’s fun to think about this and it is no easy task to pick a few. I could go on and on and on. That’s the nice thing about historical fiction, you can spend time in the lives of the people you admire, love, even fear or hate. At the end of the day, or the story, we do have to go home but that doesn’t mean we can’t take something of what we have learned with us.

 
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