I’ve read this novel about Shakespeare’s lost years and true identity… Yes, another one. This time Shakespeare is Shakespeare, but his mother is an Italian illegitimate noblewoman, daughter and grand-daughter to real remarkable figures of the Italian Renaissance, so this is where young Will was between 1585 and 1592: in Italy, taking the grand tour, and gallivanting from court to university and back again. The novel is split between two timelines: John Shakespeare’s love story and consequent fatherhood of the prodigious child, and two present day Italian historians stumbling across… you guess it: forgotten papers proving the Bard’s Italian and blue-blooded lineage.
It is not a very good book, I’m afraid – but this is not the point today. The fact is that, towards the end, the two historians tell each other that, despite all the documents they found, the world is not ready to have the Truth about Shakespeare revealed… So they decide to do what so many anti-stratfordians have done since Wilbur G. Zeigler’s days: write a historical novel.
“But,” one of the two has the sense to wonder, “do you think we can write one?” And here is a rough translation of his friend’s answer:
Sure. We are not novelists, but as professional historians, we know how to write.* No doubt a novelist knows all the tricks to captivate the reader – and we dont, but after all, the subject is what matters…
And on they go, hoping to write a bestseller. Right. So the implication here seems to be that, provided they have a good grasp of grammar and syntax, anyone can write a historical novel – why, a bestseller, if their subject is strong enough. All the rest is just, you know, tricks of the trade: perfectly dispensable, and perhaps even a little dodgy.
Perhaps I should say that the author is a medical researcher turned novelist for the occasion, and if the end result is what comes of writing on the strength of good grammar and a good subject… well, let us say that the book does not make a terribly strong case for itself. But at least here the two heroes are historians, and they have a long-standing interest in Shakespeare, literature, and Renaissance history… If you think this is bad, I can think of at least two similar stories about instant historical novelists – only much worse.
One is Domenico Seminerio’s Il Manoscritto di Shakespeare (“Shakespeare’s Manuscript – never translated, as far as I know), whose protagonist is a high-school teacher who finds himself in possession of… documents proving that Shakespeare was actually from Sicily. At this point, for the usual reasons and a couple of unusual ones, our hero needs to write a historical novel – so, what does he do? He sits down armed with a few books of art history – for the clothing and furniture, he says – and, without further research, he writes a historical novel.
Then there is José Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon, in which a middle-aged proofreader, on a sudden whim, adds a “not” to the nonfiction Medieval history book he is proofreading. Instead of firing the man, the publisher asks him to write an alternate history novel, in which – as per his creative proofreading – the Portuguese fail to reconquer Lisbon… And so our hero does, without bothering with research at all. We see him wondering how to enter into the heads of these Twelfth century characters, then he writes a small scene in which a man-at-arms and a laundress meet by the river, and a little while later the novel is written, much to the publisher’s satisfaction.
Even worse than the two historians, because neither the teacher nor the proofreader have even the slightest interest in historical fiction – or even the time period they are supposed to write in. And mind, I know perfectly well that months of research, two or three long drafts, weeks of revision and all the rest do not make for interesting narrative stuff…
But still. Writing is hard work. Writing historical novels is hard in many peculiar ways. It is a long, complex, fascinating, irritating, occasionally nerve-racking process. Why make it look like any reasonably educated individual without any writing experience, without the “tricks of the trade” – or worse, without research, without the slightest scrap of interest in the time period or the genre, without any stronger compulsion than being asked to do it, can crank out a perfectly publishable historical novel in a few weeks?
Ah well, these authors seem to ask, shrugging a careless shoulder. How hard can it be?
And, knowing just how hard, it annoys the hell out of me.
* Having spent the past ten days translating Italian academic essays, I beg leave to doubt… But this is another story.