There are stumbling blocks for every author--we each have our crutches, our weak points, our awkward moments--but what sets a good author apart is thaThere are stumbling blocks for every author--we each have our crutches, our weak points, our awkward moments--but what sets a good author apart is that, despite these things, there is always something that carries them through it, some verve or strength that makes up for it.
This is especially true for pulp and genre authors: their work may be unpolished, even bordering on the cliche, but some aspect of their approach and vision still shines through. Lovecraft's pacing and voice often left much to be desired, but his unique vision of cosmic horror still makes much of his work intriguing. Early on, Moorcock struggled with subtlety and sophistication, but his odd conceptual approach often saved him. Indeed, for Howard, the more polished his style became, the more it lost the vitality that set it apart.
With Wagner, I struggled to find the unique aspect of voice that makes a story worth telling--and worth reading. Certainly, there are some things he does well: his writing shines when he is setting a scene, in descriptions of places, structures, weather, the tapestry of a landscape passing the lonely traveler by. There is some real loveliness there, some fine turns of phrase and genuine tone.
However, outside of these passages the style becomes finicky. The action scenes get bogged down in deliberate, meticulous description, preventing them from flowing, from being dramatic and wild. It all begins to feel like a foregone conclusion. Wagner doesn’t seem to be able to create interesting tensions within the action to keep us interested.
In actions scenes, there is always the obvious, overarching conflict that must be resolved. In combat, it is the naked question of who will prevail, whose sword arm will prove stronger. In the chase, it is the question of whether the quarry will escape, or be captured. In order to lengthen these into full scenes, there must be a sequence of smaller conflicts playing out which are progressively dealt with en route to the final conclusion.
However, it is vital that these smaller conflicts be interesting in themselves, and not just be an extension of the larger. So, it cannot just be ‘our hero sees a new foe before him’, to be cut down and defeated in a repetitious succession of thud and blunder. There must be some wrinkle, some particular that must be overcome in a way that requires something specific of our hero, that engages him. It is not enough simply to have a quick foe, or a massive one--that quickness or size must be given some particular thrust--some detail that makes it feel true to the reader, that makes it imperative to the hero’s momentary survival.
Kane is meant to be preternaturally skilled and competent--but even the most certain man must grit his teeth and will his way through at least some of his struggles. The combat often ends up lacking a sense of danger or thrill or unpredictability to keep things moving. It shows how difficult it really is to produce the kind of exciting flow that Howard seems to create so effortlessly--almost thoughtlessly--in the Conan stories.
Wagner’s dialogue likewise shows a niceness that causes it to lose much of the punch it might otherwise have. Firstly, he walks that line le Guin marked in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in that when he makes his language conversational, it can start to feel overly modern and plain in the mouths of these outlandish characters. That isn't to say that characters in fantasy should all speak like chivalric knights errant, but creating conversation that is both rough and retains a period feel is no easy feat.
Secondly, like many authors unsure of their own voice, he seems to fear being misunderstood. So, he leaves nothing implied, allows no subtle nods, instead making sure the whole is stated outright for the reader. So, if we have our hero speaking with a shady character, a dark-cloaked spy who works both sides, you can be certain that at some point, there will be an aside where he thinks to himself ‘I’m not sure if I can trust him’. If two characters are planning to break into a castle, one will probably mention that he doesn’t want to be caught and tortured.
There’s a reason that writers don’t do this: ‘While fully dressed and facing forward, he walked with his feet across the green grass lawn’--most of those words simply aren’t necessary. The exact same image is communicated by ‘He walked across the lawn’. The true job of a writer is deciding what needs to be shown versus what can be left unsaid. If our hero walked backwards on his hands while naked across a perfumed lawn of purple bones, that might be worth mentioning. Ultimately, it makes Wagner’s writing tedious to get through--less like characters engaged in conversation and more like two writers plotting the outline for a script.
The Cthulhu bits are played too straight, too matter-of-factly. Wagner isn’t adding anything or putting his own spin on it, he’s just lifting Lovecraft’s descriptions whole cloth. Indeed, the characters often speak of magic and demons with all the wonder and fear of a mechanic talking about rebuilding an engine.
Moreover, the events of the story don’t really seem to touch Kane, to change him moment to moment. Of course, his immortality would give him an unusual point of view, and it’s certainly not unthinkable that he should feel disconnected from the world--jaded and detached. But even so, this jadedness does not seem to drive him, it does not modify his reactions, it simply leaves him blank. With Moorcock's Elric, we get the idea that he has grander desires that drive him, even if they tend to be personal ones, and he otherwise feels separate from the world.
Now, if the intent were to explore the existential ennui of immortality, that could make for an interesting story, but the events of Kane’s life are very much the norm for a sword & sorcery hero--battles and demons, pirates and assassins. His own actions in this world are also very much the norm, so it’s not as if we’re being provided with some fresh outlook or approach to underscore his unique perspective.
I was excited to try this series, based on it's reputation--a darker Conan, a modern take on Eddison's and Anderson's violent, blood-and-glory tales--unfortunately, the tone, characterization, dialogue, and plotting simply weren't up to the challenge. Ultimately, though Wagner is certainly reaching for what might be an interesting vision of fantasy, he never quite succeeds at bringing it to life, on the page.
Carthage holds a certain fascination for me, as a classics scholar, in that it was an empire of power, influence, and grand personalities--and yet theCarthage holds a certain fascination for me, as a classics scholar, in that it was an empire of power, influence, and grand personalities--and yet the legacy Carthage has left to us, her history, her culture were deliberately erased, burned to the ground with nary a trace remaining, and then replaced with the politicized fictions of Rome, who destroyed her, followed in her footsteps, and replaced her. The shadow of Carthage looms large across the ancient world, but she is always a shadow: dark, unknowable, menacing, cloaked in rumor. Her real presence, her real character still remain unknown to us.
Some things we do know: that she was a colony of Phoenicians who became a power in their own right, the figures of Hanno the navigator, Hannibal the general, and some other greats, mostly sprung from the grand Barca line. Yet our knowledge is always filtered through Roman eyes, Roman words--to the point that the great Roman cultural epic, Virgil's Aeneid, personifies Carthage in the figure of Dido: the angry, jilted lover intent on preventing Rome's ever being born. In the end, warmongering Cato's oft-repeated line Carthago delenda est--'Carthage must be destroyed'--was followed to the letter.
In preparation for this book, the follow-up to his acknowledged masterpiece of psychological Realism, Madame Bovary, Flaubert spent months researching, burying himself in ancient histories, trying to recover the lost empire--even visiting its former site. One can see the fruits of his labors in the book's mostly delightful details--which at their best evoke the poetic list-making of Ovid or Milton--while at other times, they run to the banal, as a certain lengthy explanation of the difference between the catapult and the ballista.
There is definitely a sense that Flaubert is working more in the milieu of history here, not melodrama--which is unfortunate, because the story cries out to be told with pathos and character, to be sung. We're never allowed into the characters, psychologically--instead of seeing their thoughts develop toward the moment of decision, Flaubert sticks us with mere descriptions of what has happened. What a Shakespearean performance this might have been--full of contentious dialogues, arguments, coercions, seductions--I longed to see these grand figures strutting the stage, demonstrating their mastery, their force of personality, their depth of emotion. It's no wonder that luminaries like Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff tried to craft operas from the tale.
Without these passionate struggles, these subtle turns and manipulations, the entire melodrama grows ever more flat, preconceived, inevitable. Yet, as the author, himself wrote:
"I would give the demi-ream of notes I've written during the last five months and the ninety-eight volumes I've read, to be, for only three seconds, really moved by the passion of my heroes."
Sometimes, alas, the work simply does not come together as we wish it might--as indeed we know that it can, for that is what draws an artist to the project in the first place: his sure knowledge that there is a story here worth telling, and the reader surely comes away with that same impression, that there is fertile ground here.
The bloody anecdotes--especially an early one about the crucifixion of a full-grown lion--are rife with opportunity for symbolism, for multilayered writing, if only it had all come together. If only. They do not work as pure history--Flaubert lacks that scholarly depth and breadth, for all his researches--but neither can he quite turn them to an artistic purpose.
In the end, the most interesting way to view the work--and indeed, likely the reason it failed--is as a grand piece of Orientalism. We do not quite get Carthage-as-Carthage, but neither do we get Carthage-as-France. Instead, we get a distancing, a view of Carthage as unknowable, as impossible to sympathize with--that same distance that the Orientalist stance was constructed to produce.
It is either fitting or ironic that we end up here, since in many ways, Carthage-by-way-of-Rome is the original example of the Orientalist posture: the foreign power is destroyed, conquered, converted, and then rewritten by the conqueror as self-justification. The voice of Carthage, its power and influence was so great that Rome had to reduce it, to transform it into something less threatening--even as Rome dutifully copied both the technology and the methods which Carthage established as the necessities of the first true maritime trade empire to dominate the Mediterranean.
Aeneas is not merely a snub to Carthage, after all--but also an attempt by Rome to rewrite Persian greatness into their empire, which was always more Cult of the God King than Rhetoric of the Demos--then, in the wake of the Renaissance and the Reconquista, the European powers once again take on the Roman cause and identity, intent on making an abused lover of Islam, which had so long dominated and loomed over them. For France, Algeria became the colonial site where they most fully explored the perverse decadence that is the ruler's right--at the same time blaming the natives for whatever was inflicted upon them, through the standard process of Orientalist distancing--a process we still use to this day, insisting that any group who cannot prevent themselves from being dominated must, in some way, be asking to be so dominated.
The most extreme example of alienation and vilification crafted by the Romans against the Carthaginians is the Tophet--a site where, it was claimed, infants were sacrificed to the brutal gods as offerings to stave off defeat, disease, and blight. Flaubert repeats this accusation in the most florid and merciless way, as the blood-mad crowd gives up child after child to the mechanized maw of their titanic idol. Recent archaeological study suggests that the Tophet was used for interring the numerous stillbirths and victims of high infant mortality in the ancient world.
Though clearly influential on adventure writers like Haggard, Kipling, and Mundy, Flaubert does not quite achieve the rollicking pace that make those stories enjoyable. Neither can he deliver upon the wild personalities which might have carried the tale as a proper melodrama--the required psychological distance between himself as a French citizen and the necessarily depraved East is too vast a gulf for authorial sympathies to bridge. Neither can it quite be called a history--it is rather too close and personal, too invested in the blood and depravity for its own sake to maintain more objective judgment.
Perhaps Melville--if anyone--could have melded these disparate types of story, through extended symbolism and precisely-constructed moments into a tale that managed, ultimately, to hang together and surpass the mere sum of assembled parts. In the end Flaubert, despite his particular skills and the time he invested, could not....more