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Some people can trace the stages of their life by the liquor they drink or the clothing style they adopt. Being very ecumenical when it comes to liquor, I prefer to trace the events of my life by the books I read. Turns out, almost every summer and every life event was symbolized by a distinct genre of books.
In the summer of 2006, my first summer in New York City, I read the L'Enfant de la Toussaint trilogy (in Russian translation) by French historic novelist Jean-Francois Nahmias of Sephardic descent. The trilogy traced the whole Hundred Years War through the life of a fictional French knight and alchemist who had the (mis?)fortune of being born on November 1, 1337, the day that the War broke out. (As you can guess, he died on the last day of the War at the age of one hundred). These 800-page volumes of battles, romance, and a fictionalized, yet accurate description of medieval France kept me company on the long subway rides that I took from my apartment in Brooklyn to see my future wife in Queens. That same summer, I read Victor Hugo's Ninety-Three, a pro-Republican novel about the Vendee rebellion, which forever made me a devoted admirer of the Vendeans and the Chouans - surely not the outcome maitre Hugo anticipated.
In the summer of 2008, the time of my wedding and a week-long honeymoon to Prague (many of my half-literate peers did not know the city even existed), I read Maurice Druon's The Accursed Kings (Les Rois Maudits). A series of eight novels, which with painstaking detail trace the turbulent lives and times of the last five direct Capetian kings and the first two from the house of Valois. The novels commence with Philip IV the Fair's persecution and destruction of the Templars. The title of the series stems from the curse that the Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay supposedly hurled at Philip IV and his descendants while being burned at the stake on the Île aux Juifs in the middle of the Seine.
Interestingly enough, Druon's novels were extremely popular in the Soviet Union and remain so in post-communist Russia. Like many of his generation, Vladimir Putin was a fan of the novels and became friends with the famous French author who passed away in 2009 at the age of ninety. Being a rightwing intellectual, Druon expressed his support for Russia's campaigns in Chechnya, which he characterized as "a center of international terrorism" and denounced French media for being prejudiced against Putin.
However, Maurice Druon's work was virtually unknown in this country until about a year or so ago. The novelist George R. R. Martin, creator of the famous A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels, on which the hit HBO miniseries Game of Thrones is based, praised The Accursed Kings as an inspiration for his work. And all of the sudden, Druon's novels were reissued with an introduction by Martin. But they will never be as popular here as in the old Soviet Union. First, the subject matter is too Christian, European, and historic for American readers. Second, to become popular in today's America, a novel, especially, a historical one, must have a movie or a TV show, which is based on it.
Spot on about the Vendee. What's always surprised me was Napoleon and the Vendee. He praised the Vendeans for their valor and conveniently feigned illness so as not to participate in that particular atrocity of the French state (although it must be admitted that he participated in and led many, many others).
Thanks for the literary references, I'm at the library now and soon as I post this, anxious to find if we have any Druon, Nahmias, or Martin. Hardly anything more edifying (also entertaining) to read than well written historical novels. This won't necessarily return the favor of the above or maybe; are you aware of Gore Vidal as an historical novelist? I've read most of his and find them terrific. History itself especially of France is fascinating. And for prose you can't do much better than the French writers. There's so many - for a recommendation how about Stendhal's 'The Red & The Black'? Zola's 'The Kill', Andre Gide, etc. I suspect by the time Camus appeared he was confused-?-logic is absurd. Life's illogical, not absurd.
Somewhere in all of our reading backgrounds, I suspect, is Orwell's 1984 (or at least Animal Farm). In my case, I devoured it in the summer before the 8th grade. Outside of my faith, family and community his novels had the most profound effect on my world view.
Phil, you won't find any of Nahmias' work, it has never been translated into English. Martin is everywhere and Druon should be easy to find nowadays. Stendhal's on my list and I unsuccessfully tried getting through Zola's "La Debacle". And of course, as anyone who graduated from an American high school in recent years, I read Camus' "Stranger". What Vidal novels do you recommend?
Eugene (or is it 'Gene'?) ... I'm not online much, so I haven't followed what names are preferred if ever discussed. Oh with Vidal you can't go wrong regarding the historical novels. Anything but if to put some of it in order of ['my'] preference and I'm not even sure I have any preference, maybe I'd say 'BURR' (I get a kick out of him, big time), and the sequel more or less - '1876'. Then 'Lincoln' - that's sharp and I think more fair than not - though I'm a little more down on Honest Ape. Then go with 'Julian' ... 'The Golden Age', 'Empire', 'Washington D.C.', 'CREATION'. As for Druon you're right - quite the page turner (as is Vidal, albeit at a happy if slightly slower pace). Because I've read since your post the sequel to 'The Iron King', i.e., Druon's 'The Strangled Queen'. Curiosity has me looking forward to Nahmias in translation.
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