Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Four History Books:
Three Novels and a Play

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I found this a well told story, but a bit melodramatic for my taste. It is a book that was recommended by a friend - a voracious, but indiscriminate reader. The book surprised me as I was drawn in by the characters and their relationships. I guess this is one of those so-called "page-turners" for I literally could not put this down for days while I tried to find out what was going to happen next. It succeeded in defying my expectations and I'm not sure if I reread it that I would no find it just as readable and surprising that I did the first time. This was a lightweight entertainment, but very successful at that level.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago

My favorite of Saramago's novels is The History of the Siege of Lisbon in which Raimundo Silva, a proofreader at a Portuguese publishing house alters a key word i a text to make it read that in 1147 the king of Portugal reconquered Lisbon from the Saracens without any assistance from the Crusaders. After doing this he is inexplicably encouraged by his supervisor, Maria Sara, to rewrite the entire history of the siege. From this kernel the novel develops into a complex meditation on the meaning of both history and words as well as a romance and parable of life under authoritarian rule. Saramago's prose style does take some extra effort to adjust to with long paragraphs and serpentine sentences, but it is worth the effort and, like Faulkner and others with difficult prose styles, repays the reader who perseveres. While I have not read all of Saramago's novels this one stands out among those I have read as his best.

The History of Mr. Polly by H.G. Wells

Mr. Polly is an ordinary middle-aged man who is tired of his wife's nagging and his dreary job as the owner of a regional gentleman's outfitters. Faced with the threat of bankruptcy, he concludes that the only way to escape his frustrating existence is by burning his shop to the ground and killing himself. Unexpected events, however, conspire to lead the bewildered Mr. Polly to a bright new future after he saves a life, fakes his death, and escapes to a world of heroism and hope.

The History Boys by Alan Bennett

The award-winning play by Alan Bennett is a great read. More devoted to the influence of words (the "dictionary" boy role of Posner) and music than the later screenplay, the play emphasizes the differing perspectives on education of the two lead teachers (Hector and Irwin). Without the need to "open up" demanded by film Bennett focuses on the schoolroom and uses subtle effects to effect his dramatic purpose. One aspect of the play that stands out is the multiple narrators throughout the drama. He is at his epigrammatic best and the performances in New York showed this as noted by the Advocate review. Bennett is successful in creating a delightful dramatic and comedic portrayal of ideas, all while evoking the spirit of bright young scholars at a key turning point in their lives. With reference to and in the spirit of Shakespeare he is successful in creating a delightful dramatic and comedic portrayal of ideas, all while evoking the spirit of bright young scholars at a key turning point in their lives.The battle between educational styles, the approaches to teaching of each of the teachers, stood out for me. The foundation is Mrs. Lintott's straightforward approach to teaching history which has produced "well taught" boys, but that is not enough. The headmaster, in his "wisdom" adds into the mix a young teacher just up from Oxford to give the students an "edge". It is his, Mr. Irwin's, method that is the one of paradox and turning the historical facts upside-down, with little regard for the "truth" of the situation that will go to battle with the methods of Hector, the "general studies" teacher who is enlisting the boys into a conspiracy against the world and the "education" they are supposedly receiving.

"Mrs. Lintott: They're all clever. I saw to that.
Hector: You give them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it."
- - - -
"Scripps: But it's all true.
Irwin: What has that got to do with it? What has that got to do with anything?"

With all of this battle of educational styles there is the undercurrent of eroticism, both due to the nature of education itself, as Hector points out, and due to the psychological tensions among Dakin and his two admirers, Posner and Irwin. This combination, which explodes at times to produce riveting moments of theater, is what makes this play great. That and the magnificent literary style of Bennett.

More History Forthcoming:

The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury; A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes; The Short History of a Prince : A Novel by Jane Hamilton.

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