Consider the slime toy. It is obviously an entity, a thing, right in front of you there it is. But as soon as you try and grab it, it slips out of your hand. Try and describe it–or worse, explain it–and you quickly run out of words. Or perhaps you find yourself forced to use too many words, and in the end you stop talking out of exasperation with yourself and the thing you are trying to define.
History is like a slime toy. They are both functioning contradictions. A slime toy is solid and liquid. It is slippery and dry. It is pleasant and unpleasant. Meanwhile, history is the past and the study of that past. It is a story and the creation of that story. It is a science and a liberal art. It is an artifact and a text. It is concrete and abstract. It is physical and ephemeral. It is popular and esoteric. It is the pursuit of the amateur and the expert.
Because of its amorphous nature, everyone has an opinion on history, and everyone thinks they can teach and write history. However, if we take a closer look at what history is–if we try and investigate that slime toy before it slips out of our hand–we will soon discover that history is a complicated thing with a long and complicated history of its own.
In her excellent book Thinking about History (The Chicago University Press, 2017), Sarah Maza, professor of history at Northwestern University, addresses the issues of the amorphousness of history and how that came to be. Divided into six chapters, Thinking about History discusses the who, what, where, and how of history production, as well as the-chicken-and-the-egg debate of historical causes and meanings, and the rise and fall of historical objectivity. The book is a fresh take on the history of history (historiography) that successfully breaks down the inherent Eurocentrism of the field. In doing so, it demonstrates how the parameters set up for what history is and should be are inherently northern European, Protestant, patriarchal, and imperialist, which still to this day actively disqualifies the histories of societies considered outside of the so-called “West” and groups considered not part of the mainstream.
Historiography might seem like a niche subject, but it is at the core of the polarization that we see in society today. At the heart of the so-called culture wars is a fight over history: who gets to write history; who should be included in that history; and what should that history be about.
As Maza demonstrates in her book, historians themselves have a lot to answer for in this mess. It is because of the biases, prejudices, and performative objectivity of historians in the past that we have ended up where we are. But, at the same time, it is also made clear that the key to solving the problem of polarization lies with the culprits.
In her conclusion, Maza states that for “the past to serve its best purpose we must not freeze it in place, we must argue about it” because history “becomes useless or boring at best, and dangerous at worst, when it jells into consensual orthodoxy of any sort.” Even though history studies the past, it does so in response to the needs of the present-day, and as such, history is one of the most important subjects we can study.
For history to be able to address the issues of today, we historians need to learn about our own sordid history. A very good place to start is with Sarah Maza’s Thinking about History.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
After being prevented from traveling because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was finally able to visit my family for the holidays. Rummaging through old closets, drawers, and bookshelves, in the attic, among a set of books that used to be in my old room, I stumbled upon Mistral’s Daughter by Judith Krantz.
I didn’t expect Mistral’s Daughter to be my holiday read, but I adored that book in my early teens, and so I decided to revisit its pages. Rereading this book all these years later, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and I was struck by how different this book would have been received had it been written by a man.
Mistral’s Daughter is the story of three generations of women–Maggie Lunel, her daughter Theodora (or “Teddy” for short), and her granddaughter Fauve–and their relationship to the genius artist and painter Julien Mistral. The story starts in the artists quarters of Montmartre in Paris in the 1920s and then branches out to New York City and Provence in the south of France where it ends sometime in the 1970s. It is a story of love, women’s empowerment, male narcissism, and art. The main characters are all women. Except for Julien Mistral, the men are side characters.
First published in 1982, Mistral’s Daughter was Judith Krantz’s third novel after Scruples and Princess Daisy. In 1984, it became a star-studded miniseries, starring Stephanie Powers as Maggie and Stacy Keach as Mistral.
Krantz began writing novels at the age of 50, after a long career in the magazine publishing business. She would go on to write ten novels and one autobiography and sell 85 million copies of her books, which were translated into 50 languages and spawned three TV mini series, despite the fact that the literary establishment immediately and for the duration of her publication career labled her work as schlocky.
When Krantz passed away in 2019, she was remembered as an author of women’s fiction who reveled in the glitz, glamour, and superficiality of high fashion and high-end magazine publishing, and who peppered her novels with explicit and gratuitous sex scenes. In their obituary of Krantz, The New York Times wrote that Krantz’s success came from “a formula that she honed to glittering perfection: fevered horizontal activities combined with fevered vertical ones — the former taking place in sumptuously appointed bedrooms and five-star hotels, the latter anywhere with a cash register and astronomical price tags,” while The Guardian stated that the “shopping in the novels of Judith Krantz had an intensity the sex could never match.” These are assessments that can be traced back to the original reviews of Krantz’s books. In her review of Mistral’s Daughter from 1983, New York Times’ art critic Grace Glueck states that the prose of Judith Krantz is so over-laden that she feels as if she is digesting 1,000 calories every time she turns the page, and that the book is filled with earth-shattering sex scenes with “multiple orgasms every dozen pages.”
What I find interesting is that when Krantz’s work is discussed, the focus is either on Scruples or Princess Daisy, never Mistral’s Daughter. Probably because, even though Mistral’s Daughter clearly is a Judith Krantz novel, it doesn’t fit the critic’s formula.
Yes, Mistral’s Daughter takes place in the world of high fashion and glossy magazine publishing. (But only partially.)
Yes, there is a headstrong female protagonist. (In fact, Mistral’s Daughter has three of them, but ultimately, this is Maggie’s story.)
But. The novel only contains four sex scenes. They are all at the beginning of the book (which should tell you how much of the novel Glueck actually read back in 1983), they are all important to the plot, and all of them take place at lower-class locations, such as Mistral’s Montmartre studio, Maggie’s scruffy Paris apartment, and a room above a countryside inn in Provence. It is notable that the relationship between Maggie and her life-partner Jason Darcy, which begins when both of them already belong to the elite of New York City, is never given its own sex scene. They hardly even kiss. Fauve, who clearly has an active sex life, is never given her own sex scene. The closest the book comes to giving her one is when she wakes up naked in a bed that is not hers.
Nobody goes shopping. Maggie agrees to be taken shopping by others, but only reluctantly because her clothes are worn out and because she is moving up in society. What eventually will be of consequence to the story are items that initially are mentioned only in passing. Teddy wears the clothes her stylist gives her without any input of her own. Fauve treats fashion as an after thought. Kate Browning, the woman Mistral eventually marries, doesn’t go shopping either; she’s too busy controlling her husband’s career. Daughter of Kate Browning and Julien Mistral, Nadine Mistral goes to a showing at Yves Saint Laurent where she jots down the numbers of all the clothes she wants to buy. However, the scene is written in anger, and in the end, she leaves without buying a single thing.
Krantz’s text is peppered with adjectives, which understandably comes across as subpar writing to a publishing world where “show-don’t-tell” reigns supreme. But what this prolific use of adjectives does is to draw the reader in and place them in the scene. It is direct, cuts to the quick of what is important, and paints a vivid picture using only a couple of brush strokes instead of a whole paragraph. This becomes particularly important in a novel such as Mistral’s Daughter where the artistic talent of Julien Mistral is at the center of the plot. To be able to convey someone’s visceral reaction when they see a painting by Mistral only adjectives will do.
What is completely overlooked when it comes to Mistral’s Daughter is that it is a book steeped in Jewish spirituality. The story builds towards its climax by having Fauve research the persecution of the Jews of France during World War II as it played out in Provence, and as part of her quest visit a centuries-old synagogue and learn about Mistral’s behaviour towards his old Jewish friends. The climax of the novel takes place after the death of Mistral with the unveiling of his final paintings, which turn out to be a series based on the Jewish holidays. And the coup-de-grace: as Fauve exits her father’s studio after seeing the paintings, there is a small piece of paper nailed to his easel, and she bends over to take a closer look. By having Fauve read the note out loud, part of the last sentence of the novel’s climax is the Shema.
What is also overlooked, is that behind the glitz, glamour, and the idolizing of Mistral as the alpha male that affects the lives of three generations of women is an indictment of the veneration of the male genius. Mistral is a genuinely unpleasant person who puts his work before everyone, including his family and friends running for their lives. Where everyone else would be held accountable for their actions, Mistral gets a free pass because he is a Genius.
The reception of Judith Krantz’s work as an author is a typical example of how fiction centered on women is villified by literary critics and society in general. Krantz was a good writer, she knew her craft, she created compelling stories propelled by the actions of well-rounded characters, and Mistral’s Daughter is one of the best books I have read. Had she been a man writing about Julien Mistral and the women he seduced, rather than a woman writing about Maggie Lunel and her descendants, she would have been declared a genius. Because as Krantz herself makes clear for those who are open-minded enough to see, the man who is declared a genius can get away with anything.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
Copies of the books have been provided by the publisher in exchange for a review.
The western part of the Roman Empire ceased to exist in the late 5th century CE while in the East it continued all the way to the late Middle Ages, or 1453 to be precise. Still, this long-gone civilization continues to capture our imaginations, as evidenced by two recent novels from British independent publisher Head of Zeus, namely Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fort and Sons of Rome, written in collaboration by Gordon Doherty and Simon Turney.
As a historian, it was an interesting experience to read these two books back-to-back. They both belong the same subgenre–Roman military historical fiction. They are both set in the later centuries of Roman history; The Fort during the 2nd century CE and Sons of Rome around the turn of the 4th century CE, as Rome is coming out of the Crisis of the Third Century. Neither book takes place in what we conventionally think as Rome, that is the western part of the European continent and the Italian peninsula. Instead, The Fort takes place in what is now Romania, while Sons of Rome is mainly focused on the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.
When reading historical fiction, there are two ways to approach the material: history and plot. When you approach it through history, you are concerned with the historical correctness of context and details. When you approach it through plot, you are concerned with the historical plausibility of the action. In the case of The Fort and Sons of Rome, Goldsworthy has taken the first approach, Doherty & Turney the second. The Fort is about the fictional character Flavius Ferox, while Sons of Rome chronicle the lives of real-life Roman Emperors Maxentius and Constantine.
The result is two different types of stories. One where the context is based in historical research while the characters are fictional, the other where the characters are based in research while the context is fictional. (However, in the case of Maxentius and Constantine, so little is known about them as people, that Doherty & Turney’s characters are near fictional as well.)
Regardless of the approach, what matters in the end is the story. But again, when it comes to historical fiction, there are certain things that need to be taken into consideration that we don’t need to care about when we read fiction that is purely creative. If we go back to the two approaches to historical fiction, i.e. historically based context with fictional characters or fictionally based context with historical characters, the writer’s choices are determined by which approach they take. If we look at The Fort versus Sons of Rome, the first story is fictional and therefore unknown. The second story is historical and consequently known. I wouldn’t be guilty of any spoilers if I told you the plot twists of Sons of Rome, because we know the general outline of the lives of Maxentius and Constantine, but you would be very upset if I told you the twists and turns of The Fort.
Even though the choices each writer of historical fiction makes are limited due to history, there is still the fine balance between how much of history to actually include. Historical fiction is meant to entertain first and educate second, while the purpose of history is the opposite. The main critique levelled at historical fiction tends to be that it is so preoccupied with entertaining that it forgets to educate. In other words, the problem with a lot of historical fiction is that there isn’t enough history, or that history has been bent to fit the story, rather than the other way around.
But what about the reverse? Can there be too much history in historical fiction? My answer to that question is that yes, there can be. Take The Fort for example. As I’ve stated above, the context is historical (Roman fort at the border between the Roman Empire and Dacia, present-day Romania) but the characters are fictional (main character: Flavius Ferox).
Goldsworthy himself is a leading authority on Rome, in particular its army. And this is, paradoxically enough, where the novel stumbles.
To create a historically accurate environment for Ferox to work within, Goldsworthy loses sight of the narrative forest for the historical trees. Unless you, like Goldsworthy, are a Roman army geek, and also somewhat fluent in Latin, names of legions, military terms-of-art, military ranks, and categories of weapons will fly right over your head. This is usually not a problem, but when the text is peppered with italicizied Latin terminology, most of which cannot be found in the sparse glossary nor is explained in the chapter on the historical background, the attempt at historical accuracy becomes a nuisance.
What’s more, for a novel written by a considered authority on Rome, the world presented is surprisingly outdated. The Fort is a story about men, which is not surprising since military settings tend to be male dominated. But that is not an excuse to feature women as background characters only brought to the fore as eye candy, or when the male characters are in need of engaging in some witty banter, or both. Moreover, the Roman army is known for its diversity as it recruited people from all over the lands it conquered and then deliberately stationed them far from home. Very little of that comes across here (unless the character is British). Doherty & Turney are also guilty of pushing women to the back, as well as non-Christian religious movements and ethnic groups. In their case, it’s not as egregiously done as in the case of Goldsworthy; there are women featured, who speak for themselves and take action, albeit in their role as auxiliaries to the men.
All that being said, I enjoyed both books very much. Sons of Rome does a great job of going inside the minds and hearts of two young men who lead their lives at the center of Roman Imperial politics, not because they chose to, but because their social status and family lineage forced them to without any possibility of opting out.
As paradoxical as it might seem, despite its outdated history and sometimes stiff characters, I enjoyed The Fort the most out of the two, and the reason for that is Flavius Ferox. As a historian, I am well acquainted with characters who have lived to make a mark in history. I am familiar with their motivations, I know their life stories, and I know their end. The same goes for any battles that are fought. This is why, out of all the characters in The Fort, Hadrian, future emperor of Rome, is the least interesting to me.
In enjoyed The Fort because Ferox is a clean slate. The end of the siege that he finds himself under together with the people who populate the fort under his command is unknown to me. Whereas I know how Constantine and Maxentius’s careers developed, it is with Ferox I stand on the top of the fort, staring into the thick fog, looking for signs of the enemy, and wondering if we will live to see another day.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
A copy of this book has been provided in exchange for a review.
Smyrna (modern name: Izmir) is one of the oldest cities in the world. Located on the Anatolian coast of present-day Turkey, Smyrna traces its history back 5,000 years, making it a contemporary to the fabled city of Troy, located not far away. Smyrna is mentioned in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation when Jesus tells the book’s supposed author, John of Patmos, to send messages to the Seven Churches of Asia.
Destroyed in the 7th century BCE, Smyrna was reestablished in the 4th century BCE by none other than Alexander the Great. Over the centuries, Smyrna grew to experience prosperity, tragedy, conquest, and liberation all the way to the early 20th century when the Greco-Turkish War, fought in 1919–1922 as a result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, caused excessive damage to the city and forced a large part of its population to flee and never return.
The events of the Greco-Turkish War and their impact on the city of Smyrna serves as the backdrop to Defne Suman’s novel, The Silence of Scheherazade (Head of Zeus, 2021), translated into English by Betsy Göksel. Told in hindsight by a mysterious woman given the name of Scheherazade as a child, the story focuses on four families and their lives leading up to the disaster. Among these many individuals, Scheherazade pays particular attention to her mother, a woman she never knew. Born out of wedlock, Scheherazade was given to another family, and as a result the girl became mute, her new name a cruel historical joke.
Time and again, Scheherazade describes the city where she was born–Smyrna. She wants to convey the magic and mystery of this ancient place, to share what she experienced and what she remembers. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Smyrna was still a multicultural and multiethnic city where the inhabitants spoke several languages out of necessity, where the three Abrahamic religions and their subdivisions rubbed elbows in neighbourly relations going back centuries. Scheherazade mentions streets, buildings, and squares by name. She describes people as they go about their daily business.
And still, the novel’s city of Smyrna is as mute as Scheherazade. It doesn’t reply when she calls on it. The crowds are without faces, characteristics, and names. The Jewish community–one of the largest in the Ottoman Empire–is conspicuously absent. The four families blend in with each other, and turn into people who come and go without leaving an impression. An attempt at magical realism when toads rain from the sky only elicits a shrug from the characters. Violence in the streets as Smyrna is drawn into the armed conflict becomes a nuisance rather than the disaster it actually was.
It feels as if the novel, and Scheherazade inside it, are reaching for something. There is something the novel, the woman, and the city want to communicate, but their voices refuse to make a sound. Is it because Scheherazade herself is not present in the stories she is telling? Is it because Smyrna of the past millennia no longer exists? Renamed Izmir in 1930, the ties to history, shattered by the disasters of the war, were severed. How to speak of the trauma you have experienced if every time you bring it up first need to explain who you used to be? It renders you mute, whether you are a city or a woman.
There is beauty in this novel. There is history. There is grief and loss. Independence, strength, love, and happiness. But in the end it is difficult to say whose story is being told. Smyrna and Scheherazade both reach for their past and for a knowledge of who they are. Perhaps that is where the story lies.
The more I learn about the human activities in the past we choose to label as history, the more interested I become in the epistemology and historiography of history as an academic field of study. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and how knowledge is created, or How We Know What We Know and Why This Is What We Think We Know. Historiography is a term that carries two meanings. It means the study of the history that has been published by historians and the history of history. I find both the epistemology and the historiography of history endlessly fascinating. How It’s Made: History Edition.
My fascination for how history is made is why I am happy to have been able to publish my second book review for the International Network for the Theory of History, an international community of scholars and web hosted by the University of Ghent in Belgium. This time I have reviewed TIME’S MONSTER. HOW HISTORY MAKES HISTORY (Belknap Press, 2020) by Priya Satia, Professor of History at Stanford University. In her book, Satia takes a closer look at how British historians were complicit in rationalizing and making legitimate the actions of the British Empire, particularly in India.