Friday, May 30, 2014

Challenge Update

So back in January, I announced that I planned to take part in two challenges for 2014, the History Challenge: A Sail to the Past, and the Reduce the TBR Mountain Challenge (which I sorely needed, since I have tons of unread books lying everywhere, including on my e-reader). My friend Courtney J. Hall called me crazy—and she was right. But since it’s now more than a third of the way through the year, how have I done?

On the History Challenge, I passed seven books (the Historian level) ages ago, although I have not gone much beyond that due to other commitments, mostly interviews and my efforts to get The Winged Horse ready for publication (stay tuned for the announcement: it’s now less than two weeks away). These seven books were:

1. Stephen M. Norris and Willard Sunderland, Russia’s People of Empire: Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present
2. Nancy Shields Kollmann, Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia
3. Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years
4. John Keegan, The Face of Battle
5. Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England
6. Elizabeth Kendall, Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer
7. Christine Ezrahi, Swans of the Kremlin: Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia

I also read John Keegan’s Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle; John A. Lynn’s Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe; Barbara Mertz’s Red Land, Black Land; and at least three books in Russian that qualify as history but aren’t readily searchable on GoodReads or, so I left them out of the challenge list.

For the Reduce the TBR Mountain challenge, I had set a level of 24 books (Mont Blanc). The seven books listed above, plus Keegan’s Soldiers and Lynn’s book on women and warfare, all count for the TBR challenge, giving me nine books going in. In addition to those, I have read:

10. Tasha Alexander, Behind the Shattered Glass
11. Jason Goodwin, The Janissary Tree
12. Bernard Cornwell, The Last Kingdom
13. Bernard Cornwell, The Death of Kings
14. JJ Marsh, Raw Material
15. Cathy Marie Buchanan, The Painted Girls
16. Deanna Raybourn, Silent in the Grave
17. Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

And I am about a quarter of the way through Silvia di Natale’s wonderful Kuraj, about a girl from the steppe who is sent to Germany—why remains unclear.

So one-third of the year down, and 1.75 challenges completed. If the six books I read for interviews counted (but they don’t, because most are advance review copies), I’d be done by now.

Either I really am crazy, or I love to read—I suspect it’s a bit of both!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Lives in Bondage

Last week I posted about my interview with Tara Conklin. Her novel, The House Girl, reveals from the inside the daily experience of a slave, in prose that is simultaneously beautiful and shattering—at times shattering precisely because of its beauty.

In the United States, the tendency to sweep the topic of slavery under the rug arises in part from embarrassment. We are the democracy built to a significant degree on bondage, the land of the free—unless you happen to be born black or brown or female, in which case God help you. Thomas Jefferson, the articulator par excellence of democratic principles, had six children with the enslaved half-sister of his wife, Sally Hemings, who achieved her freedom only with his death. The hypocrisy is inescapable.

Slaves Steadying the Khan's Wagon
Screen shot from Nomad: The Warrior (2005)

But slavery was not an institution unique to the antebellum South. The domestic servants in my Legends of the Five Directions series are all slaves. Grusha—a major secondary character and future heroine—is a slave. The nomadic Tatar horde that forms the setting for The Winged Horse owns slaves. Tatar khans of the period supported themselves largely through slave raids, scooping up thousands of young Slavs each year for sale in Istanbul. H├╝rrem, better known as Roxelana, who managed harem politics with such skill that she eventually persuaded the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent to marry her, was a Ukrainian noblewoman captured in one such Tatar raid.

But is slavery the same everywhere? Scholars have traditionally regarded the version that prevailed in the U.S. South as unusually harsh, not least because its racist underpinnings made it impossible to escape. As the recent film Twelve Years a Slave highlights, even after it became illegal to import slaves from abroad, free blacks could be captured and enslaved, purely on the basis of their skin color. The social distance between slave and free was much less in Russia, where slaves resembled their owners in appearance and in culture. One might not confuse a slave with a noble, but one could not easily distinguish between slave and peasant or slave and artisan. Nor were the poor as free as they might have liked: they bore heavy obligations in taxes and tolls, and of necessity their lives focused on subsistence. Indeed, slavery functioned in Russia as a kind of social welfare system. Grusha ends up in the Kolychev household because her parents cannot afford to feed all their children, so they sell the girls and keep the boys, whom they consider more useful on the farm.

Even so, the life of a slave can’t have been pleasant. The things that Tara Conklin’s slave character Josephine dreams of being able to do—eat when she’s hungry, love whom she chooses, hang a painting of hers on the wall of a room that belongs to her—would also be on the lists of Grusha and her fellow servants. Indeed, Grusha has a list of her own: “Why should she not dress in satins and velvets? Ride in palanquins? Eat delicious food whenever she felt hungry?” (The Golden Lynx, 163–64). The only answer is because she was not born to the right family. Poverty, not skin color, keeps her in her place.

Nobleman's Servant (Slave)
From the Mayerburg Album of 1661

Of course, Nasan, the heroine of The Golden Lynx, doesn’t control her life either, despite being a khan’s daughter. Noblemen could no more choose their professions than peasants; Daniil’s brother, Boris, would have liked to paint icons, but society demanded he go to war. Russian nobles referred to themselves as slaves of the ruler, a custom that horrified the rare Western visitor. And the word now commonly translated as “sovereign” in fact means “master,” in the sense of slave owner. The element of hypocrisy was missing: duty far outweighed freedom as the primary value of Russian traditional society. Yet even in a world where according to popular lore, “he who wears the keys is a slave,” it must have been much better to be the master or mistress, warm and well fed—if not exactly comfortable (comfort is largely a modern, “bourgeois” notion; our ancestors cared more about prestige and honor)—and able to call the shots in one’s household. In that sense, lives in bondage look much the same wherever and whenever we find them.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Echoes of the Past

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of interviewing Tara Conklin for New Books in Historical Fiction. Her book, The House Girl, appeared last year. I learned about it, as I hear about many interesting books, from National Public Radio. I think it was the Sunday Morning Edition, but I no longer feel certain of that. Whatever the show, I knew at once that this was a book I wanted to read and an author I would love to interview. And since the paperback version came out a few months ago, this seemed like the perfect time.

The book was everything I had imagined and more: beautifully written, it moves seamlessly back and forth between past and present, contrasting the lives of two young women: Lina, a 24-year-old lawyer in 2004 New York; and Josephine, a 17-year-old slave experiencing what she hopes will be her last day on a Virginia tobacco plantation in 1852. Although Josephine works in the house, not under the even harsher conditions that prevail in the tobacco fields, she suffers plenty of indignities, small and large, against which she has no defense except to immerse herself, when possible, in the paintings that her mistress permits her to make. And it is those paintings that eventually bring Josephine to Lina’s attention, raising the possibility of a well-deserved if long-overdue vindication of an old wrong.  

The rest of this post comes from the New Books in Historical Fiction interview page:

Lina Sparrow can’t believe her luck when the boss at her fancy New York law firm offers her a once-in-a-lifetime chance: find a suitable plaintiff for a class-action suit to be lodged against the U.S. government and fifty rich corporations that profited from slave labor before the Civil War. The wealthy technocrat intent on pushing this suit for reparations claims he has a deal that will protect Lina’s law firm from going head to head against the government, and the case seems guaranteed to generate lots of publicity and a lovely bag of cash for the law firm. But the pressure is on: Lina has only a few weeks to find the right person and convince him or her to play along.

Luck again appears to favor her when a friend of her artist father alerts her to a recent controversy surrounding the paintings of Luanne Bell, a plantation lady from the 1850s whose art portrays her slave laborers with extraordinary complexity and compassion. Are the paintings Luanne’s, or the work of her house girl Josephine? And if Lina can prove that Luanne has received credit for Josephine’s work for the last century and a half, can she also find a descendant who can serve as living evidence of the devastating damage inflicted by slavery?

The House Girl moves deftly back and forth between past and present as Lina works to trace the history of one young girl enslaved on a Virginia tobacco plantation while fending off challenges posed by her coworkers, the man who may be Josephine’s descendant, and even her own past. Tara Conklin’s debut novel hit the bestseller lists within weeks of its release. You’ll have no trouble figuring out why.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Duels of Honor

Something new and different this week. Pauline Montagna, who had planned to participate in the Writing Process Blog Hop on March 31, has organized a blog tour to celebrate the release of her novel The Slave, pictured here. You’ll find more information about the book, Pauline, and her website—including a time-constrained offer for a free e-book—at the end of the post. The Slave is set in Renaissance Italy, where, as Pauline notes, dueling in the sense that most of us think of it first developed.

The judicial duel was known in medieval Russia, too, but the duels of honor described in Pauline’s post did not exist there at that time. The custom, imported from the West like so much else after the reforms of Peter the Great (1682/89–1725), took hold in Russia in the early nineteenth century. Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin is arguably the most famous literary example of the trend. Tragically, Pushkin himself died in a duel defending his wife’s honor in 1837.

And now, take it away, Pauline!

The Duel of Honor

The Italians invented the duel of honor during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance and were the most prolific both in resorting to such measures and in their writings on the subject. For Italians, a duel was not just a fight between two men but a highly sophisticated and formalized judicial procedure defined and regulated by a set of rules as complex and binding as those of any court of law. In fact, the first treatises that appeared on the subject of dueling, as early as the fourteenth century, were written by Italian jurists.

The duel of honor grew out of practices that date back to the most distant historical times. The earliest type of duel was the state duel, where representatives of opposing armies or factions would decide the winner in one-to-one combat between champions. The judicial duel dates from the Dark Ages and was introduced into Italy by the Lombards. This state-sanctioned duel would be fought to determine the guilt or innocence of a man accused of a crime. The accused would fight his accuser under the auspices of his lord who would decree the appropriate punishment for the loser, be it the accused who would have to suffer for his crime or the accuser who would be punished for perjury.

By the twelfth century, the judicial duel had fallen into disuse, but out of it had grown the duel of honor, fought now to prove or disprove an accusation of a dishonorable act. Duels could also be fought to acquire fame, out of sheer hatred, and, of course, over the love of a woman. However, it was only the formal public duel fought on a point of honor that was considered ethical and justifiable. Though tacitly endorsed by both state and church authorities, official canon law decreed all dueling unlawful and deemed the losing party a suicide and the winner a murderer.

The duel would begin with an accusation or an insult. The offended party would then challenge the other to a duel. Which party was the official challenger could sometimes be disputed if, perhaps, several insults were exchanged, or the duel was deliberately provoked by a man who considered himself already injured. Their friends would beg them to fight only as a last resort and find a peaceful solution such as an apology or a retraction, or by providing proof of the accused party’s innocence or guilt, for no duel could be fought over a manifestly true accusation.

Duels of honor could be fought only among the nobility and knights. It was considered dishonorable to challenge a man of lower rank. A man of lower rank could challenge one of higher rank, but the man of higher rank had the privilege of refusing the challenge. While a challenger would be expected to fight on his own behalf, the challenged party could bring in a substitute, except in the case of an accusation of a crime that could incur the death penalty. One could also fight of behalf of an injured party that was unable to defend themselves.

The challenged party had the choice of arms, though, as noted earlier, which party had that right might be disputed. When there was any doubt, the choice would go to the offended party. The parties must find a suitable field on which to fight, then ask permission of the local lord to hold the duel. The duel would be presided over by a judge, who would be either the local lord or a man chosen by both parties. After trying to bring about a peaceful resolution, the judge would ensure the duel was fought according to the rules and declare the winner.

A practice which originated in Italy was the calling in of seconds or padrini. Preferably men of experience, moral courage, justice, and urbanity, the seconds’ duties were to inspect the field and the opponent’s equipment, ensure his principal received his rights and seek to resolve any questions in his principal’s favor even if this led him into a dispute with the opposing second, a dispute which might also be resolved by a duel on a later date. Seconds might also be called on to avenge their principal’s death.

Before the duel could be fought, the judge had to ensure physical equality between the opponents. This might involve fasting or bloodletting by the stronger man, or tying one arm up if the opponent was one-armed or covering an eye (some advocated putting out the eye) if the opponent was one-eyed. As the duel could also be fought on horseback and in armor, they, too, should be equivalent so that no man had an unfair advantage.

If the duel was to be on horseback, the most honorable weapons were the halberd and the lance and on foot knives, daggers, and swords. Defensive equipment could also be used such as shields or cloaks, though the sword alone was the weapon of choice. Armor was considered an honorable option as only ruffians fought without it.

The outcome of the duel was considered to be decreed by fortune and determined by one’s guilt or innocence. For this reason opinions differed on how the fight should be conducted. One school of thought decreed that it was acceptable for the duelist to take advantage of his opponent’s mishaps; others thought otherwise. So while it was technically permitted to stab a man fallen to the ground, to attack one recovering his lost sword, or kill a wounded man, many thought it was only chivalrous to let the opponent recover his feet before continuing the fight. If a sword was bent or broken, the judge would decide whether it could be replaced.

Unless otherwise agreed the duel would be fought to the finish, the point where either opponent died, or when one man recanted, surrendered or fled the field. If one opponent was in the power of the other and still refused to recant or surrender he could be killed, though an honorable man would spare the loser’s life. It was considered very bad form to pretend to surrender and then attack your opponent. If the fight ended in nonfatal injuries, or if both opponents died, it was up to the judge to decide the winner.

The loser might have to pay a fine, forfeit his armor to his opponent, or even become his prisoner. Although not considered a slave or servant, an imprisoned loser would have to serve his conqueror, or if released on parole, promise to come and serve him when called upon. The winner might also turn his captive over to his lord, bequeath him to his heirs or demand a ransom. Now technically without honor, the loser might never be allowed to fight another duel, or only with the permission of his conqueror.

Of course, not everyone followed the rules. If the opponents could not get their lord’s permission, or could not afford the expense of a formal duel, they might fight informally or alla macchia, in an out-of-the-way spot with no judge or rules. Unfortunately, despite their promulgation of the rules, Italians were reputed to flout those very rules with impunity, calling on cunning tricks and ruses to kill their opponents in whatever way they could, in ogni modo, maiming them or ambushing them afterwards. 

In my novel The Slave, the two men in the heroine’s life resort to a duel to settle the matter once and for all.
Roberto saw that Baldassar, Batu, his second and a handful of men were already waiting for them in a patch of dappled, afternoon sunlight. Baldassar stepped forward when the Graziano party arrived, his brow creasing as he surveyed Lorenzo’s entourage of men-at-arms. The party dismounted and Lorenzo followed Baldassar to where Batu was standing, his sword resting jauntily on his shoulder, but his eyes cold.
“Right, gentlemen,” Baldassar began, “we’ll follow the usual procedures. Captain Batu has chosen arming swords. Is that acceptable, Signor de Graziano?”
Lorenzo shrugged. “If that is his preference.”
“And your seconds?”
Aldo and one of Batu’s men stepped forward, sizing each other up.
“If everything is in order, then, we begin at my signal and fight to first blood.”
“To the death.” Batu’s voice rang out.
Baldassar turned to Batu. “There’s no need for this surely…”
“To the death,” Lorenzo agreed coolly.
Read more

Short Description of The Slave

Aurelia Rubbini, the only child of a rich merchant in fourteenth century Italy, has been raised to be a dutiful daughter, wife and mother, but she longs for something more than the restricted life intended for her. Then one day, her father brings home from a buying trip an Asian slave boy, Batu, who will reshape Aurelia’s destiny.

The Author

Pauline Montagna was born into an Italian family in Melbourne, Australia. After obtaining a BA in French, Italian and History, she indulged her artistic interests through amateur theater, while developing her accounting skills through a wide variety of workplaces culminating in the Australian film industry. In her mid-thirties, Pauline returned to university and qualified as a teacher of English as Second Language, a profession she pursued while completing a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. She has now retired from teaching to concentrate on her writing. She has published two books: The Slave, a historical romance set in medieval Italy; and Suburban Terrors, a short-story collection. 

Find out more about Pauline and her books on her website. If you join her mailing list by May 31, 2014, you can get your own free e-book copy of The Slave.


The Duel: A History of Dueling by Robert Baldick (1965)
The Sixteenth-Century Italian Duel by Frederick R Bryson (1938)


Hendrik Goltzius, A Duel on Horseback (circa 1578), from Wikimedia Commons
Hans Talhoffer, Fechtbuch (Fencing Book, 1467), from Wikimedia Commons

These pictures are in the public domain because their copyright has expired.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Revisiting Varykino

I can no longer recall whether I first encountered Yuri Zhivago through David Lean’s 1965 film or Boris Pasternak’s novel. Logically, based on how I thought as a teen, I would have seen the film, fallen in love with Omar Sharif, and read the book as a result. I was in high school at the time, and Rod Steiger’s nephew (Rod Steiger plays Lara’s nemesis, Komarovsky, in the film) happened to be in my French class—a source of great prestige for him. But the timing doesn’t quite add up, since by then I also had two years of Russian under my belt, so I should have been able to follow the book better than I did. So perhaps I read the novel first, having heard how great the film was, and saw the movie only later.

Either way, that was a long time ago, so when the Dead Writers Society on GoodReads decided on a group read of Doctor Zhivago in May, I volunteered to lead it. Only problem was when to fit in a 550-page book among the various novels I was reading for interviews—not to mention the temporarily neglected Reduce the TBR Challenge, for which this book counts, and my Sail to the Past History Challenge, for which it doesn’t. As group leader, I figured I needed to get my act together, so I grabbed the old Max Hayward/Manya Harari translation sitting on the bookshelf and started early. As of today, I’m two-thirds through.

So what do I see, that I missed the first time around? As with most of the books I’ve revisited after decades, the answer is “tons.” The perceptive observations on life, the skillfully delivered philosophy, the clear-eyed portrayal of revolution and civil war, the sheer gorgeousness of the writing. To pick a page at random:

The light, sunny room with its white painted walls was filled with the creamy light of the golden autumn days that follow the Feast of the Assumption, when the mornings begin to be frosty and titmice and magpies dart into the bright-leaved, thinning woods. On such days the sky is incredibly high, and through the transparent pillar of air between it and the earth there moves an icy, dark-blue radiance coming from the north. Everything in the world becomes more visible and more audible. Distant sounds reach us in a state of frozen resonance, separately and clearly. The horizons open, as if to show the whole of life for years ahead. This rarefied light would be unbearable if it were not so short-lived, coming at the end of the brief autumn day just before the early dusk.
Such was now the light in the staff room, the light of an early autumn sunset, as succulent, glassy, juicy as a certain variety of Russian apple.
It’s easy to see that Pasternak was, first and foremost, a poet, even without the thirty pages of poems attributed to Zhivago at the back. And the poems themselves are exquisite, defying the occasional clunkiness introduced by translation—another feature that escaped me as a teen.

At the same time, I understand why I found the book difficult to follow in high school. I’m curious to see how the reading group will react to it. The first two chapters—a good 60 pages—are laid out like a string of beads, opening with Zhivago as a boy at his mother’s funeral and hopping across the Russian landscape from one character to another, scene by scene, each loosely connected to the one before it until the story closes the circle at the end of Chapter 2. Every character has both a three-part Russian name and at least one nickname; even I, by now accustomed to Russian naming conventions, struggled to keep them straight. Long after the central thread of the story entwines around Zhivago and Lara, then braids them together, characters mentioned only in passing continue to leap out a hundred pages on, leaving the reader with a vague sense of having encountered this person before with no recollection of when or under what circumstances. I have never wished so much for an e-book version, where I could enter the mystery character’s last name and find that earlier reference.

Yet despite sowing a certain amount of confusion, the story hums along at a surprising clip. What I half-expected to view as a chore (however uplifting or impressive) turns out to be nothing of the sort. Knocking off 50 pages a night has not strained my capacities one bit. I’ve even read all the poems.

And in exploring those beautiful, aching verses, I have to wonder: did Pasternak write them first, as he felt his way into the novel? Or afterwards, once he knew where his characters would go? For what is more evocative of Zhivago and Lara’s hideaway than these opening stanzas from “Winter Night”?

It snowed and snowed, the whole world over,
Snow swept the world from end to end.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned....

The blizzard sculptured on the glass
Designs of arrows and of whorls.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

As one of the stock characters on Saturday Night Live used to say, “Discuss amongst yourselves!” Or stay tuned, as I update you on the ongoing group read.

Varykino, abandoned in winter, in a screen shot from the 1965 film.

Quoted passages are from Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, trans. Max Hayward and Manya Harari, poems trans. Bernard Guilbert Guerney (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997), 185 and 542.