The LeopardBy Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
The Leopard was the life work of a Sicilian aristocrat, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Rejected by the two publishers to whom he sent it, it was recognized as a masterpiece by the great novelist Giorgio Bassani and published by Feltrinelli in 1958, by which time Lampedusa was dead. Bassani, who was himself then engaged on his own great cycle of novels about the state of Italy before the Second World War, recognized that, like many of the best historical novels, The Leopard was not simply about the Risorgimento in Sicily. It was also a fable about Italian life. “If we want things to stay the same, things will have to change,” says the young Tancredi to his uncle the Prince. Tancredi joins Garibaldi and marries the rich bourgeois beauty Angelica. The old kingdoms of Italy are dissolved. The Prince dies, Tancredi too, in due course. Italy remains the same, and that, as Lampedusa knew, is both its joy and its curse. The Leopard is both elegy and celebration; a beautifully measured, moving and poetic evocation of a way of life that seemed to be passing but yet remained.
War and PeaceBy Leo Tolstoy
Well, I can’t not have it. Still the greatest novel ever written; still, for me, full of undiscovered treasures after five readings. Another characteristic of great historical novels is that they transcend not only their ostensible subject matter—in this case the disastrous French invasion of Russia in 1812, and the triumph of the Russian historical will—but also their era. In War and Peace Tolstoy asks the granddaddy of historical questions: is history made by remarkable individuals who impose their will upon it, or does it represent the flowering of the spirit and will of the people? Ideologically Tolstoy inclines to the latter, but temperamentally, and as a novelist, his genius and interest all flows towards the concrete and specific. In the end War and Peace is a great novel because Tolstoy creates characters of such human virtues and flaws—all mediocrities, as Henry James pointed out—that they live forever. As an adolescent I devoured this book for its love story between Natasha and Prince Andre. As a young mother I read it again and found its depiction of family life moving and true. As a historian I read it a third time and ploughed through all Tolstoy’s musing on history with pleasure; and recently, living through the death of one parent and the old age of another, I was moved to tears by the death of the monstrous old Prince, and Tolstoy’s intense insight, which can turn on a single word, and immense sympathy for every single one of his characters.
Vanity Fair, a Novel Without a HeroBy William Thackeray
Vanity Fair, which deals with the same period at the end of the Napoleonic Wars as War and Peace, is something of a dead end for the historical novel, as well as an early example of the realist novel tackling the past. It is a comedy, and I have included it as I think every list can do with a dash of comedic leavening. Whereas the historical novel as it developed, following the model of Stendhal and Tolstoy, has tended to tackle the grand historical themes of war and, later, empire and its disintegration, and therefore to have men and masculinity to the fore, Vanity Fair is a lighthearted satire and has two women at its centre. Its sassy heroine Becky Sharp has come to seem like innumerable chick-lit heroines and the heroines of many popular historical novels set in courts. But in fact Thackeray’s novel is retrospective in its outlook, unlike the majority of great historical novels in the nineteenth century, which have tended to look to the present and the future while dwelling on the past. Becky Sharp is modeled on the great courtesans of the eighteenth century and Regency period, while Thackeray’s story is essentially a satire on the futility of the very notion of progress. All his characters are found wanting, and none are very likeable, unless it is Becky herself who navigates a vitiated world with spirit, humour and, in the end, an unexpected moment of kindness.
The Radetzky MarchBy Joseph Roth
Whereas The Leopard is really about stasis, Roth’s masterpiece is a true elegy, a great hymn of bafflement about the slow extinction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which, as much as a geographical entity, was a way of life and a state of being. The fabulous translation by Michael Hofmann is the one to go for; he’s made something of a speciality of Roth and captures his long, elaborate sentences beautifully. Rather like the way of life it celebrates, The Radetzky March hinges on trivia and bathos more than any real grand gesture. The family at its centre, the Trottas, are ennobled because one of them saves the life of the Emperor Franz Joseph at the Battle of Solferino. As Roth puts it—and here is the fabular element of his story—“Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” The Trotta family’s accidental greatness and slow decline stand for that of the Empire itself. Not surprisingly, then, this is a book about heredity, about fathers and sons and their awkward relationships. It’s a gentle, charming book that waltzes gracefully with ideas about decline and death. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was an amalgam of nations and religions held together more by expediency than by the driving nationalism and dreams of expansion that powered its European rivals. Unusually, it was an empire that had no progeny, either in the form of ideas or colonies—unless we credit it with the dreams of Freud, the music of Liszt or the architecture of Vienna. Fittingly, therefore, Roth ends his elegy with the death of the last of the Trottas, his son killed, with Austria itself, in World War One. Trotta dies as the Emperor’s coffin is lowered into his grave at Schönbrunn and the rain drips down, rather like the snow in Joyce’s great story, its soft patter sounding the unceasing funeral music of the Empire.