Revising a Famous Life – The Noise of Time

thinking-clipart-4c9LRXncEAfter someone dies, we often tend to canonize the person, conveniently forgetting the foibles and character flaws.  In Richard Taruskin’s essay for the New York Times – Martyr or Survivor? That Depends  – he questions Julian Barnes’ portrayal of the life of famous Russian composer in his novel The Noise of Time.

In Barnes story, Shostakovich reluctantly agreed to compose for the Russian despots, and managed rebellious chords to preserve his own sound and work his way to worldwide fame.  Taruskin notes the “dubious sources” used by Barnes to create a more positive persona for the composer – a “passive pawn” of politics, and argues Shostakovich should be given credit for a better sense of politics and more intelligence in handling his Russian overseers.

When reading The Noise of Time, I was forced to find more about the life of the famous composer, to compare notes with Barnes’ story.  For the first time, I listened to his famous operas – “The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.”  Barnes had opened a new window for me.   As for the fictionalization of Shastokovich’s life, Barnes produced a testament from his own perception, possibly more positive than real.  But this is fiction, after all.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember how author’s have the ability to change and reframe history in their fiction.  Once, at a book club meeting, a member insisted on Frank Lloyd Wright’s accurate conversation with his mistress in Loving Frank, and it took some a debate to decide the author Nancy Horan had really not been under the bed, but had created a fictionalized version of her own.   The power of the novel to convince the reader is a testament to the author; its factual content can be disregarded or researched – the story still holds.

But the danger is, of course, believing everything you read.  There was a time, when the printing press was first invented, when the written word was gospel.  We have come a long way with critical debates of content, and today the political word is more often questioned than believed.  If The Noise of Time offers a simplistic view of Shostakovich – a Western rationization and a hopeful wish of his leaning away from the terrors of his time, it only confirms what readers want to believe – a view maybe Barnes was shrewd in capitalizing on.

Have you read it?

Review of the book: The Noise of Time




When the Timing is Off

After downloading Nancy Horan’s historical fiction about the life of Robert Louis Stevenson – Under the Wide and Starry Sky – I stopped at chapter 2.  Having enjoyed her first book, Loving Frank, her version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s tumultuous affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, I decided the library book that had just arrived would offer a better approach than my iPhone. Maybe I needed real pages to turn.  Painstakingly, I persevered through fourteen chapters (of 90), and stopped again.

The not so well-known relationship of the frail R.L. Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne, a married woman with a free spirit and a penchant for being a painter, has been tapped by the Today Show for its Book Club.  Susan Cokal for the New York Times notes in her review that “the early chapters provide a stirring overture, with enough lyrical emotion and fervent aspiration to satisfy even a 19th-­century reader.”  

But Sarah Bryan Miller of the St. Louis Post Dispatch says: “{the plot} sometimes plods, as Horan seemingly tries to work in every episode of the couple’s lives together over 20 years…”  As with Loving Frank, Horan manages to be the fly on the wall to hear all those fictional conversations.

I just can’t get into it. I’ll try again later – maybe.  Have you read it?

Salem Witches – Real and Imaginary

9781589791329_p0_v1_s260x420Mary Roach’s new book – The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege – offers a factual account of a riveting piece of history that has fostered fictional plays and novels.  Roach based her nonfiction book on twenty-seven years of original archival research, including the discovery of previously unknown documents, chronicling the real drama of Salem in 1692.  I usually prefer fiction to nonfiction, but having read Roach’s Packing for Mars, I look forward to her unbiased research mixed with her practical humor and cynical perspective.  That said, I still prefer imagining those lives from Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane or Deborah Harkness’ “All Souls Trilogy,” following the fictional modern trials of witch Diana Bishop (A Discovery of Witches).

How true to fact does historical fiction need to be? Do you get stuck on the details that don’t quite fit (if you know them), or let the author’s poetic license weave a story that has universal appeal? Traditionally, historical fiction uses incidents that happened at least a hundred years ago.  Authors expect the reader to make the connections to history, but also understand that the author is creating conversations and actions that probably did not really happen.  (Going back in time to lurk under the bed of all those Elizabethan queens to hear those conversations was not an option for Philippa Gregory).   The more realistic they seem, the better the book. Often a movie follows, with even more digression from the facts.

Authors may offer a disclaimer that their story was inspired by an incident, a person, a place that appears in the book as an anchor, with the rest from the imagination of the writer.  If the authors of historical fiction are not accurate – this is fiction, after all – do they risk misinforming the literal reader?  creating alternative history?  Were the reputations of Frank Lloyd Wright (Loving Frank), and, most recently, Robert Louis Stevenson (Under the Wide and Starry Sky), enhanced by Nancy Horan’s fictional imaginings to their life stories?  Or, do some readers want, like the Queen in Hamlet,  “More matter with less art” ?

What fiction have you read based on real history? How did that work out for you?

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The Glass Room

“The Glass Room remained indifferent, of course.  Plain, balanced, perfect, and indifferent. Architecture should have no politics…the house stood beached on the shore above the tidemark like a relic of a more perfect age.”

Simon Mawer uses the Villa Tugendhat in the Czech Republic as the inspiration for The Glass Room – a silent witness to the transparent lives within and the encroaching war.  This historical fiction of a wealthy Czech, who builds an architectural wonder in the 1920s – a precursor to Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of functionality and communing with nature –  revolves around a house, modern before its time for its austerity of glass, steel, and onyx walls.

The historical significance of the Villa’s design, renamed the Landauer House in the novel,  as well as its role during Hitler’s invasion is true, and some of the characters are real.  The most recognizable is Eva Kiesler, who did enjoy notoriety for her nude movie scenes before becoming Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood’s Austrian film star.

Newlyweds Viktor Landauer, a wealthy Jewish entrepreneur and his Christian wife, Liesel, commission a new house designed by an avant-garde architect, Rainier von Abt, on a beautiful slope of land in Czechoslovakia – not far from Liesel’s childhood home.  The details of the construction create a vivid picture of the house and its surroundings; you will wish Mawer had included more than the simple sketches.  The first half of the book focuses on their settling into the house, having children, entertaining, getting richer, seemingly happy – until two characters unsettle the foundations.

Viktor starts an affair with Katalin, a poor unwed mother who prostitutes herself to survive, and Liesel is drawn to the love of her unconventional but well-connected friend, Hana.  The war hovers over the strain of their marriage; Katalin becomes a refugee and conveniently moves in with Viktor and Liesel as governess to their two children. As the country is about to fall, they escape to Switzerland, leaving the Glass House behind to the Germans. By now, Liesel has discovered Viktor’s blatant infidelity with Katalin, but they all remain together – for a while.

As the story continues in Part 2, the fate of the Glass Room shifts to the horrors of the war, as it becomes a German laboratory for eugenics.  Hana has stayed behind and reports through letters to Liesel.  The atrocities are only beginning, and the coldness of Stahl, the German doctor “researching” Jewish genes becomes the symbol of how the war has penetrated. The house survives storms, bombing, the Russian invasion – morphing into a hospital and finally, a museum.  Unfortunately, Mower prolongs the ending, and after more angst, finally ties the loose ends, connecting the present to the past.


Although The Glass Room was published in 2009, when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; I just discovered it – thanks to the recommendation of a good friend. With elements of romance and betrayal, the story is a compelling account of lives that endured not only the war but also each other. The historical significance of the house led me to look for pictures and commentary.

I read it straight through – hard book to put down.  In the end, the house survives – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site –  with the beautiful onyx wall still standing, but the lives in the story – although fictional – represent those lives that are changed irrevocably.