Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sword at Sunset & The Last Days of Pompeii

I’ve been so modern lately that I have had to ease into historical novels out of a need to escape. My immersion in the hip WEIRD worlds of Jonathan Lethem’s poetic marijuana-inspired alternate Manhattan (Chronic City, best novel of the year) and Lydia Millet’s offbeat stories about celebrities identified by relationships with animals, Love in Infant Monkeys, has been exhausting. I prefer HISTORICAL historical novels when I take the leap into the literature of escape: older books like Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset (1963) or Bulwer-Lytton’s appallingly badly-written The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), which appeals to me for its kitschy drama and careful attention to details from William Gell’s Pompeiana (Bulwer-Lytton dedicates the novel to him).

And so I’m reading both of them, Sword at Sunset in an attractive edition reprinted by the Chicago Review Press and The Last Days of Pompeii in a free edition on my Sony Reader.

Sword of Sunset is a thoughtful, beautifully written classic novel about King Arthur, based less on the legend than on a historical reconstruction of 5th century Britain and Arthur's struggle against the Saxons. The novel begins with the narrator, Artos the Bear (Arthur), wounded and examining his life, musing on his years of leading the Britons against Saxon invaders to defend Celtic-Roman civilization, and reviewing his mistakes, great love, and friendship-enmeties. I remember reading this book shortly after obtaining my first adult library card: I wandered dazely around the library looking for nothing in particular, pulling out books and deciding rather haphazardly what to bring home. My memory of the golden autumn light in which I read this - propped on my elbows in front of the screen door - was sparked by the opening paragraph of Sutcliff's poetic prose:

“Now that the moon is near to full, the branch of an apple tree casts its nighttime shadow in through the high window across the wall near my bed. This place is full of apple trees, and half of them are no more than crabs in the daylight; but the shadows on the wall beside my bed. This place is full of apple trees, and half of them are no more than crabs in the daylight; but the shadow on my wall, that blurs and shivers when the night wind passes and then grows clear again, is the shadow of that Branch the harpers sing of, the chiming of whose nine silver apples can make clear the way into the Land of the Living.”

This is fascinating, if rather slow. I love the character Artos. I'm not a great reader of war books, but I'm completely absorbed in Sutcliff's breathtaking, suspenseful, realistic scenes. Sutcliff is best known for children's books, but this is an adult novel. She has a grand stately vision of Arthur's England.

The Last Days of Pompeii is so overwritten that it puts me to sleep - therefore I am proceeding at the pace of three pages a night. Will I finish it? Well, I’m not sure. But I do want to get to the destruction of Pompeii. I may have to skip ahead. That does seem the best way to get through this.

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