Friday, March 29, 2019

Characters in Conflict

In my recent New Books in Historical Fiction (NBHF) interview with Joan Neuberger, professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin, she talks about Sergei Eisenstein’s attempt, in his Ivan the Terrible film trilogy (1946), to create what Eisenstein himself called a “Bach fugue on power.”

By this phrase Eisenstein referred to his use of secondary characters as variations that illuminate the approach to power taken by his main protagonist, Ivan IV “the Terrible”—who in this metaphor represents the theme. To show the conflicts that drive Ivan, Eisenstein externalizes them (no interior dialogue in cinema!) by creating other characters who embody elements of these conflicts and allowing Ivan to argue with them, oppose them, overcome them, and at times yield to or accept them.

We’ll get to some examples in a moment, but what makes this idea interesting to me—enough that I decided to write about it—is that a version of Eisenstein’s fugue appears in many novels, stage plays, and films. In Ivan the Terrible the fugue is focused on power because power—its temptations, uses, misuses, and ultimate costs—is the underlying moral theme of Eisenstein’s trilogy. But the same phenomenon can occur around other themes: love, vengeance, justice, truth, and honor, to name just a few.

So how does the fugue work in Eisenstein’s films? In brief, as Joan and I discuss during the interview, he creates a pair of characters (actually multiple pairs, but let’s not get too complicated) who are presented as close boyhood friends of Ivan’s: Prince Andrei Kurbsky and Fyodor Kolychev (yes, the same family name that appears in my Legends novels; they were a real boyar clan, although everyone who bears that name in my novels is fictional).

In pursuit of his goal, Eisenstein—who had studied as many historical studies of Ivan the Terrible as he could get his hands on—had to distort history to some degree. That’s one way we know he was making a deliberate artistic choice. Both Kurbsky and Kolychev were real people, but only Kurbsky was of the same generation as Ivan and eligible for the role of boyhood friend. Even then, evidence of such early friendship is lacking.

Kolychev, in contrast, ran away from the court to take monastic vows under the name Filipp in 1537, when he was about thirty years old (Ivan was six). He then spent much of his time until 1566 as abbot of the famed Solovki Monastery in the White Sea. Only when the Russian Orthodox Church appointed him as metropolitan of Moscow did he return to the capital. 

But no matter. In Eisenstein’s understanding, Kurbsky and Kolychev mirror Ivan in different ways. Kurbsky wants the same things Ivan does, but for himself. He woos Ivan’s wife, he yearns for Ivan’s crown, and when he doesn’t get those things, he abandons Russia for its western neighbor, Poland-Lithuania, hoping for advancement there. Kurbsky doesn’t object to Ivan’s goals, only to watching someone else take the spoils.  

 Filipp, in contrast, wants nothing more than to retire from the court altogether. When Ivan lures him by dangling the power represented by the metropolitanate, Filipp gives in to temptation but also formulates a moral argument against Ivan’s excesses. Although he doesn’t succeed in deflecting Ivan onto a better moral path—at least not for long—he “gets into Ivan’s head,” as we might say today, causing Ivan to doubt himself and unleashing the extravagant bouts of repentance that punctuate the tsar’s descent into ever more extreme abuses of power, even after Ivan reverts to the crudest method of silencing his former friend: ordering Filipp’s strangulation.

Eisenstein makes similar use of other characters. Ivan’s aunt, who bears little or no resemblance to the historical princess of Staritsa, wants power too, but for her son more than herself—although we all know who will wield that power if she gets it, because her son is presented as a buffoon. Like Ivan’s wife, his aunt cares about relationships, something Ivan has no compunction about destroying. That wife adores him, although she can’t quite resist Kurbsky’s seductive gaze. The members of Ivan’s private army adore him too, even as their homosocial extravaganzas introduce elements of gender diversity that intertwine with the theme of power in the persons of King Sigismund of Poland and the (never filmed) Queen Elizabeth I of England, whom the historical Ivan IV once petitioned for asylum and whose lady-in-waiting he sought to marry.

It’s a clever tactic, and it works, even though the exaggerated acting and cinematography often seem cartoonish today. But the deeper point is that a quick look reveals a similar process at work in many works of fiction, cinematic and otherwise. In Song of the Siren, for example, the fundamental question is how to handle past and present injuries. Juliana has physical damage caused by smallpox, but the real hurt lies in her soul, the result of decisions made by others when she was very young. Felix, in contrast, has a clear physical disability, which does affect his sense of himself and his worth but is largely offset by the support of a loving family, a comfortable lifestyle, and a rewarding career. Alexei’s wounds are largely laid out and resolved in the previous series, but the effect of those wounds on his past relationship with Juliana enliven their interactions here. Koshkin goes about the world in blinders, oblivious to the damage he inflicts on himself and others. I could draw such parallels for any of my novels.

In this sense, stories involve casts of characters rather than individuals: a kind of hive mind that gives rise to distinct and credible people who happen to be working on different facets of a single problem. That reality, more than anything else, blends a series of solo performances into a single connected whole.

And if you’d like to learn more about the fugue of characters in Song of the Siren, including why I wrote it and which parts are fiction and which not, you can hear me talking about the book with Galit Gottlieb on New Books in Literature. Transcript and interview also on the Literary Hub as of Friday, Mar. 29, 2019:

Screen shots from Sergei Eisenstein, Ivan the Terrible, parts 1 and 2: Andrei Kurbsky swearing allegiance; Metropolitan Filipp (Fyodor Kolychev) taking a stand; the members of Ivan the Terrible's private army celebrating together.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Filming for Joseph the Terrible

In its early years, the Bolshevik regime wanted to burst all the bounds and set off in new directions—political, social, and cultural. The Communists aimed to create a new world and a new Soviet Man, and nothing from the past could get in the way of that bright future.

But by the 1930s, as Joan Neuberger reminds us in her interview on New Books in Historical Fiction, Joseph Stalin had second thoughts about the wisdom of tearing down the old to build the new. As tensions between the Third Reich and the USSR escalated, he ordered the revival—in a new, socialist garb—of heroes from the imperial and earlier periods. Including, somewhat improbably, Ivan IV “the Terrible” (r. 1533–84), the first tsar of the lands then called Rus. As part of this campaign, in January 1941 (just five months before Hitler’s army invaded the Soviet Union) Stalin ordered Sergei Eisenstein to direct an epic tale depicting how, against all opposition, Tsar Ivan created the Great Russian State.

The results were not quite what Stalin expected. Eisenstein, a master filmmaker from that early period of cultural experimentation who believed that history (personal and state) proceeded in spirals and bisexuality was humanity’s natural state, dove headfirst into Ivan’s troubled childhood—the subject of my Legends and Songs of Steppe & Forest series—looking for clues to Ivan’s psyche. What made him terrible (that is, terrifying—it’s an old translation using a word that has changed its meaning since the mid-sixteenth century), in effect. 

And Eisenstein found answers, which he then put on the screen, with the result that the first part of his trilogy was acclaimed, the second banned, and the third never filmed. Joan Neuberger explains how, and why, all of that happened. It’s a portrait of tyranny, exposed and experienced, and definitely well worth your time. Because it also shines a light on how great works of art are created, including historical fiction.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Most of the time, this podcast focuses on the products of those who create historical fiction—specifically, novels. But what goes into producing a work of historical fiction—especially in a dictatorship where the wrong choice, or even the right choice at the wrong moment, can send the unwitting author to the Gulag? And what if the creator is not an unknown toiling in the dark to produce manuscripts “for the desk drawer,” as the Soviet literati used to say, but the nation’s foremost filmmaker operating at the personal behest of Joseph Stalin? Such is the dilemma that faces Sergei Eisenstein in 1941, when he begins his unfinished trilogy Ivan the Terrible, an epic ordered by the Soviet government to glorify the Russian past and justify state terror. 

Often written off, especially in the West, as a toady to Stalin, Eisenstein—as Joan Neuberger  nimbly shows in her new and fascinating study, This Thing of Darkness: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia (Cornell University Press, 2019)—approached his complicated and risky project with a mixture of enthusiasm and caution. Over the course of five years, despite complaints about budget overflows and production delays, through exile and war and shifts in the party line, personal conflicts and health problems, Eisenstein skillfully alternated between tactics of submission and defiance in support of his idiosyncratic but richly textured portrayal of a tortured autocrat whose childhood traumas led him to ever more extreme exercises of power, even as his excesses stripped him of friends and family, leaving him alone against the endless, unstoppable waves—of progress? of the future? of his own battered conscience? Only the viewer can decide.

Part I won the Stalin Prize, the USSR’s highest honor, although not without controversy. Stalin personally banned Part II before release, and Eisenstein died with Part III unfinished. In this master work about a master filmmaker, Neuberger shines a light on all three. In doing so, she highlights the many decisions any author must make while balancing historical accuracy against dramatic potential and character motivation against a verifiable past. Fortunately, for most of us the stakes are nowhere near as high as they were for Sergei Eisenstein.

Images: Screen shots of Ivan IV “the Terrible” (Nikolai Cherkasov) and King Sigismund II Augustus of Poland-Lithuania (Pavel Massalsky) from Sergei Eisenstein, Ivan the Terrible. Reproduced according to the fair use doctrine.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Off to the Races

With Song of the Siren (Songs of Steppe & Forest 1) making its way in the world, and Songs 2 with its beta readers, waiting for critique and a final polish (or three), I have time on my hands to consider what’s next in this series. From the moment I started this project, I knew that I wanted to write at least one novel about the two Sheremetev sisters, linked to Nasan in several ways but most simply by having lived next door to her throughout most of her time in Moscow.

Indeed, the inspiration to tell their story was what caused me to undertake Songs of Steppe & Forest in the first place, even if I then chose to explore the lives of Juliana and Grusha first. So theirs was the book I sat down to plan as soon as I had sent Song of the Shaman off by print and e-mail.

Now, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, “plan” is something of a misnomer when it comes to my writing. Whether I put a lot of work into the planning stage or hardly any, when I sit down at my computer, the same thing happens: the story takes on a life of its own, and within five pages (on average), the characters have headed off happily in whatever direction pleases them while I watch, listen, and record.

That said, these days I do find it useful to construct a set of character profiles and a list of potential story events before diving in. Not because I know who my people really are or how they’ll get where they’re going—what fun is that?—but because it helps to have an ongoing sense of where they’ll end up and some reminders of what’s happening in the historical background so that if they head off into the woods and get lost, I can haul them out again in short order.

It’s also easier to see, when a story is a list of eighteen to twenty events instead of 300 pages, whether it has enough conflict and drama to sustain a novel. Same thing with the characters: if their goals are weak or poorly defined and their personalities one-sided, they need more work even before they get a chance to strut their stuff on the page.

So for the last couple of weekends, this is what I’ve been doing with Songs 3—and, as it turns out, Songs 4, because I realized early on that the book would become too complicated and diffuse if I had to follow both sisters at the same time, especially if I attempted overlapping first-person narratives. Hence Song of the Sisters (3) will set up a series of conflicts, of which it will resolve about half. The rest can percolate into the newly titled sequel, Song of the Sinner, and find their resolution there.

Which brings me to what I’ve discovered about the Sheremetev sisters so far. The older sister—Solomonida, now thirty-one—appeared quite often in bit parts throughout Legends of the Five Directions, so readers of that series will recognize her. After a disastrous marriage to Daniil Kolychev’s brutish cousin Semyon, Solomonida secured a divorce when Semyon fell foul of the government, and ever since she’s been refusing to enter a convent—the proper fate of a divorced or widowed woman in her culture. Her excuse is that she needs to bring up her daughter, Anna, and see her suitably settled, but the truth is that Solomonida hasn’t the slightest interest in taking monastic vows and never will.

Not so her half-sister Darya, who has successfully dodged one potential marriage partner and has devoted her last five years to caring for her and Solomonida’s bedridden father. She won’t be as familiar to readers, as she made only a cameo appearance in The Golden Lynx. Here, with her father gone, a male cousin shows up at the door intent on taking possession of the sisters’ estate. He’s determined to marry Darya off, even if it means wedding her himself, and she can attain her dearest wish—the opposite of Solomonida’s, for Darya longs to become a nun—only if she defies a lifetime of training in the virtues of female obedience. Even Solomonida can’t understand why Darya would prefer to retire from the world, and the one person in whom she does confide turns out to have ulterior motives.

Is that enough to get started, even with the addition of the complicated politics roiling the Russian court in the summer and fall of 1543? I think not quite. A heroine who refuses to speak up for herself, even in defense of her own best interests, strikes me as too passive to carry a book. If nothing else, there’s a danger she’ll bore me to tears. So even though I’ve written an opening scene, I have a few more rounds of character wrestling to do before I really stand back and let the imaginary people take over. But it won’t be long, because I can already sense them chomping at the bit, eager to hear the sound of the gate releasing them to race. And if they turn out like Juliana and Grusha, I can expect them to give me quite a run for my money.

If any of you missed my post on Elena Glinskaya, her death, and the surprising results of her recent exhumation, it went up again this week on the history blog Not Even Past. Big thanks to Joan Neuberger, who runs the site, and from whom you’ll hear more next week.

And thanks, too, to G. P. Gottlieb, who interviewed me today for New Books in Literature. Stay tuned for that link, where you can find out more about Song of the Siren, as well as some of its predecessors.

Images: Konstantin Makovsky, The Young Nun; Sergei Solomko, Young Woman in a Hat; and Sergei Solomko, In Pursuit of Happiness, all public domain via

Friday, March 8, 2019

Familiar Spirits

A late and short post today, due to the combination of a manuscript that had to get done (work, not novel-related) and the dreaded annual performance self-assessment, transferred to the Web this year for maximum inconvenience. I love almost every part of my job, but filling in meaningless forms is one element I can do without. It’s not as if the people I work with will fail to notice if I suddenly go AWOL and nothing gets done.

Still, I did have some fun this week—in addition to the manuscript, which was fascinating, and an interview with Joan Neuberger about her new book on Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible film trilogy, which should go up on New Books in Historical Fiction sometime next week or the week after.

On which, the Literary Hub put up a transcript of last week’s interview with Kate Quinn just yesterday, and you can find that here: . Wonderful picture of the Soviet women pilots who play such an important role in Quinn’s book.

 But the main point of today’s post is Stacey Halls’ new book, The Familiars, released on February 19. (The same day as Song of the Siren, as it happens.) It looks at what we might consider the British equivalent of the Salem Witch Trials, held in or near Pendle Hill in Lancashire, in 1612, and it asks a question to which anyone with a knowledge of Stalin’s show trials can relate: Why would someone confess to a crime that she knows will lead to her execution? Did the witches really believe in their own power? Did they just give in to outside pressure or despair at the certain knowledge that they could not expect acquittal? Were threats made against those they loved?

The story is told from the perspective of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a historical character who although she has been married for several years (despite being only seventeen) and has started three pregnancies, has not given birth to a living child. Now she is pregnant again, and she comes across a letter from her doctor to her husband, warning him that this, her fourth pregnancy, will kill her.

Understandably distraught, Fleetwood runs from the house. In her own woods, she encounters a young woman named Alice Gray, a skilled midwife and herbalist who agrees to help Fleetwood birth her child without sacrificing her own life. But as accusations of witchcraft sweep up the local wise women and a friend of Fleetwood’s husband takes it as his mission to stamp out all potential witches in the area, Alice’s skill with plants brings her under suspicion.

As neighbors and family members turn against one another, the situation becomes ever more dangerous. Even Fleetwood’s relationship with her dog leaves her open to accusations of consorting with a “familiar”—a servant of the Devil in animal form. When Alice is arrested, Fleetwood fights to save her, but the odds are stacked against them. And as Fleetwood’s pregnancy develops, her already troubled marriage continues to disintegrate.

This beautifully written debut novel asks hard questions, but its style is fluid and compelling, its characters—especially Fleetwood and Alice—sympathetic with no trace of sentiment. Definitely a find.

My thanks to Shara Alexander of MIRA Books, who sent me a review copy of this novel with no obligation on me to post a review. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

And to all my female readers, Happy International Women’s Day!

Friday, March 1, 2019

Hunters and Hunted

To find a new angle on a topic as saturated with fictional and nonfictional treatments as World War II is a challenge for any author. As Kate Quinn mentions during my most recent New Books in Historical Fiction interview, the war is garnering a great deal of attention at the moment, perhaps because the last members of the generation that lived and fought through it are passing away.

It’s all the more remarkable, therefore, that Quinn does uncover such an angle in her latest novel, The Huntress, released earlier this week. In fact, it would be fair to say that she uncovers three or four different angles, which perhaps explains why her book provides such a good read.

The first detour from conventional approaches to World War II is Quinn’s decision to focus on a female war criminal, not one of the usual leaders or even camp guards, and to pick up her story at the moment when she goes on the run to escape arrest and prosecution at Nuremberg. After an initial short scene from the point of view of this character, the Huntress of the title, we move to the perspective of Jordan, a seventeen-year-old American presented with a new stepmother and stepsister. It’s 1946, and Jordan, a typical American schoolgirl with no direct experience of the war—or, indeed, much experience of life—represents another new angle on the story.

Jordan’s new family members appear to conceal more than a few secrets and sometimes behave in puzzling ways. But what fugitive from the war zone doesn’t have memories she’d rather forget? And the new stepmother is, on the whole, loving and kind. She revitalizes Jordan’s lonely father and even supports Jordan’s own desire to attend college and become a photographer. The new stepsister is even more adorable, winning Jordan’s heart from the moment of their first meeting. Jordan chides herself for her suspicious nature and tries to push her sense of something “off” into a back corner of her mind where it belongs.

This brings me to the third and fourth elements that set this novel apart. From Jordan’s introduction to her new stepmother, we move forward four years to make the acquaintance of Ian Graham, a British war correspondent turned war crimes investigator, who’s intent on tracking down the Huntress and bringing her to justice, not least for the murder of his brother. He receives assistance from his green-card wife, Nina Markova—a former lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force bomber regiment known to its enemies as the Night Witches. Because Nina, it turns out, is the only survivor of the Huntress’s atrocities and thus the only person who can identify their quarry by sight. And how that happened takes us back to Nina’s girlhood on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia and forward through her military career and the sequence of events that lead to her encounter with the Huntress.

To say more would be to give away too many details of this wonderfully complex and beautifully realized story. Suffice it to say that the overlapping threads all come together in a satisfying conclusion. So listen to the interview, read the transcript, and most of all, buy the book. You won’t regret it.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction

When we think of World War II, we envision a catastrophe of massive proportions: millions killed in concentration camps, on the battlefield, during bombing raids and in the nuclear explosions that ended the war. But World War II can also be seen as a vast collection of small catastrophes—a dozen executions or experiments here, a casual act of antisemitism or cruelty there—committed by otherwise ordinary people who either had no moral compass to start with or lost their bearings in an environment that brought out the worst in them. That insight drives The Huntress (William Morrow, 2019), Kate Quinn’s fast-moving, compelling mystery about Nazi hunters in the decade after VJ Day.

Ian Graham, a British war correspondent, is chasing an escaped Nazi known only as die J├Ągerin, the Huntress. He is determined to see her tried for her crimes, and his motives are both professional and personal: she murdered his younger brother, as well as a dozen Polish children. With the help of the intrepid Nina Markova, former lieutenant of the Night Witches and the only survivor who can identify the Huntress by sight, Ian follows his quarry’s trail across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, in Boston, seventeen-year-old Jordan McBride welcomes Anneliese, soon renamed Anna—the love interest her lonely father brings home. A budding photographer, Jordan wants first and foremost to go to college, a goal that Anna supports but Jordan’s father overrules. He considers higher education unnecessary for a young woman in 1946, especially one with marriage plans in her future. But the camera does not lie, and Jordan’s photographs soon raise questions about what Anna really left behind when she fled Europe the year before. And before long, Jordan has to wonder why Anna seems so eager to get her new stepdaughter out of the house.