Other pasts, other places

The author of "Possession" recommends five unforgettable historical novels.

A.S. Byatt
June 21, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Beloved by Toni Morrison

A tale of pain and courage and terror in the days of slavery in the States, told from the point of view of Sethe, an escaped slave whose former "owner" comes to reclaim her. "Beloved" rewrites the great 19th century American novels, with their imagery of white and black, light and darkness; it attains real tragedy; and it is so well-written and so thoroughly imagined that it leaves the reader feeling triumphant instead of downcast.

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

This long tale usually comes in a volume with "The Cloven Viscount" and "The Nonexistent Knight." All three are wonderful stories of fantastic adventures which nevertheless reveal something about the life and ideas of the times in which they are set, as well, as Calvino himself said, as being inevitably also about our own times. "The Baron in the Trees" takes to living in the wooded canopy of his estates as a boy and uses his ingenuity in order to never come down. Set before and during the Napoleonic Wars, this is a modern philosophical tale derived from the 18th century philosophical tale. It is full of wit and surprises.


Abba Abba by Anthony Burgess

This is a short and perfect novel about the death of Keats in Rome. Burgess invents an encounter between Keats and the scurrilous Roman dialect poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, who was also a priest and censor. Burgess' brilliant Lancashire translations of the Belli sonnets are part of the richness of the book. "Abba abba" stands for the rhymes of the octet of the sonnet, Christ's cry of despair on the cross and Burgess' own initials, carved on his tombstone, as Keats had carved "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." Burgess is usually unevenly brilliant and inventive -- in this tight, moving book everything comes off.

Lempriere's Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk

A huge, ambitious book about plots, cabals, wars and commerce in 18th century London and France. The hero is John Lempriere, author of the classical dictionary, whose life gets wound up in fantastic versions of his own myths. Norfolk has said that everything that seems farfetched is true, and everything plausible is invented. The book gallops and glitters, and Norfolk writes delectably.

The Blue Flower or possibly The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

How to choose? I only know that writing about other pasts in other places released Fitzgerald's always precise and philosophically witty imagination into new energy. "The Blue Flower" is brief and funny and dreadfully moving, and condenses the (short) life and (compendious) thought of the poet Novalis into a series of unforgettable tiny scenes and thoughts. The "Beginning of Spring" is set in Moscow in 1911 (before war or revolution) and tells the story of an English printer who lives there. It is Jane Austen crossed with Chekhov and Turgenev; its world is Russian. Its plot is surprising and funny and alarming. There is no other writer like her.


A.S. Byatt

A.S. Byatt is the author of the Booker Prize-winning novel "Possession" and, most recently, "Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice."


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