January 7, 2009

R.A. Lafferty's The Fall of Rome

R.A. Lafferty's The Fall of Rome

Googling R.A. Lafferty the other day I found a few tantalizing excerpts from an interview he gave that I've been unable to get a look at in full as yet. In response probably to a question about the critics who say he's a better short story writer than novelist he said: "The short stories are more readable, but the novels really do say more." This statement (the last part--I find his novels just as readable as his short stories) is not only true but almost self-evident: if you're a master of multum in parvo as Lafferty is, you're not going to say at novel length only what you could say in a short story. But even Neil Gaiman, who certainly should know better, has said that Lafferty's a better short story writer than novelist I mean: Gaiman's a fine writer, particularly in the Sandman series, but I've read one of his novels, Neverwhere. It doesn't much commend his understanding of the form. Two or three fine short stories are embedded in its generally formless slop, but it's astonishing how often and easily he goes on autopilot and lets easy genre cliche take over the act of writing from him. Critics have special dispensation, they can complain about the sloppy construction of a two hour movie or a three hundred page book when they're personally incapable of a sentence whose tail end is on speaking terms with its front end, but writers ought to hold themselves to a higher standard. When Gaiman has written a book half as good as Past Master or Okla Hannali, which is to say ten times as good as Neverwhere, he might have something interesting to say about Lafferty the novelist.

Of course to say that Lafferty's novels are better than Neverwhere is to damn with criminally faint praise. I'm tolerably sure that if I had five hundred people in a lecture-hall, a reliable mike and a basket beside me filled with the collected works of both to flip through for quotes apropos, I could deliver a two hour lecture extempore on why Lafferty's as important a novelist as Dostoyevsky.And as Monty Python might put it, if you're calling Dostoyevsky an inferior novelist I shall have to ask you to step outside.

Then there's The Fall of Rome, anomalous even within his quirky oeuvre. He's written a number of historical novels, but this is more a novelized history--which is to say while he uses all the devices of a storyteller, they're secondary to the scholarship and careful sifting of evidence that an historical account demands if it's to be trusted as any close approximation to fact, and dammitall if Lafferty isn't just as fine a historian as he is a novelist and short story writer! piss you right off, such an intimidating cluster of genius level skills in a literary competitor. I console myself by reflecting that with a few notable exceptions he's no more than a serviceable poet, and so far as I know never even attempted to write plays.

The only way really to review The Fall of Rome is to give you a few generous quotes:

"This short history [Lafferty is here referring to the history, recorded in one particularly eventful chapter, within the larger history] should have something to satisfy every taste and perversion: action, treachery, fratricide and regicide, corruption, and bloodshed. It contains thirteen murders, the victims being mostly of one family. It lists the ways in which a man or an Empire may be surrounded and destroyed; and contains a veritable catalogue of subversions and finely wrought treacheries--which the reader may be able to make use of in his own life. And after this short interruption, we will return to our main action. . .

Constantine had been the last clear and absolute Emperor of all the Roman regions. Constantine was not the first Christian Emperor--that had been Philip the Arab a hundred years before--but he was the first Emperor who declared the Empire to be Christian: though he did not himself become a Christian till on his deathbed.

There were certain advantages in Constantine's advocating a Christianity for others he was not yet ready to practice himself. Nobody would question the sincerity of Constantine, but it was a sincerity that ran off in several opposite directions. He left, at his death, a rich heritage, and too many heirs.

The three sons, with their confusing and too-similar names, were to receive these territories:

Constantinus--Italy and Gaul.

Constantius--the East; that which was to become Byzantium.

Constans--Illyricum and Africa.

The territories which the two nephews, Dalmatius and Annibalianus, were to receive are not known for certain, but they are believed to have been Spain and Pannonia. This would have fragmented the Empire intolerably, but a rude sort of process was soon to simplify the holdings. These were not all the nephews--and possibly not all the sons--of Constantine, but they were the inheriting ones.

Keep your eye now on the three sons, Constantinus, Constantius, and Constans, as the shell game is played out. The three are very alike, but one of them will end up with the pea, and the others with nothing at all--not even their lives."

--pp. 61-62

"Sometime in this period Alaric did penance for forty days in reparation for his murderous raids in Greece. He was subject to remorse, for which reason he cannot be ranked among the great military leaders of the world. And in this period also, the Goths became un-Gothed to a great extent. They caught the Greek fever and discovered sudden new talents in themselves. they borrowed stringed instruments from the Greeks--they had had only horns and bull-roarers before--and went music crazy. It has been mentioned that rhyme in verse and song appeared at the turn of that century for the first time ever in the world. Nobody knew where it came from, but all the peoples took it up at the same time. The Goths made ballads in rhyme, in their own language and in Low Latin; and these became almost the signature of that rural Gothic springtime in Epirus that lasted four years.

When the impulse seized the Goths next, after martial interludes of more than five hundred years, they would be the troubadours of Languedoc in South France."

--p. 184

"Stilicho had already begun to be a little mentally deranged in those years. Though several of his most incredible feats of daring and effectiveness were still in the future, his failures had begun to appear. Some observers have claimed to see the effect of brain injury in the doughty old soldier.

The worst that can be said of him, however, is that he failed to solve certain problems that nobody else even saw. In retrospect, those problems are there clear enough. But the problems were not clear at that time; and the answers are not clear now. Stilicho was the only one who perceived that there were mortal dangers beneath the surface changes.

There were the affairs of soldiers; the affairs of governors; the affairs of Provinces. There were changes of jurisdiction and certain alterations of administration; there were settlements and resettlements; and there were the deaths and resurrections of certain countrysides. Old men were being replaced by new, and the long-time trend towards centralization was being reveresed. They were times of change, but only Stilicho realized that the Empire was dying in the changes; and only he cared.

It may not have mattered. It may be that he was wrong to care. It is only guesswork as to what sort of world it would be today if Stilicho had succeeded in his strong endeavours in those critical times. But for a weird combination of circumstances he would have succeeded. In such a case the empire would not have crashed; not, at least, in that decade and probably not in that century. Naturally, it would not have survived in the same form forever; but enough of it might have survived for a long enough time to have made a great difference.

It might not have been necessary to spend five hundred years just getting onto its feet again. It might not have been necessary to lose certain noble qualities forever. Certain institutions had to be wrought, heated and variously reshaped. Much of the furniture of the Empire was bad and outmoded. But it is possible that the house could have been cleaned without burning it down.

Nothing is inevitable till it has already happened. There, at the beginning of the fifth century, Stilicho still had a good chance of saving the Empire. For a while it seemed that he would save it, and there was undeniable improvement under his hand. The World did not have to end then."

--pp. 200-201


Unknown said...

I'm sorry, but you lose any credibility you ever had when you begin to badmouth Neil Gaiman, one the best prose writers currently living. You needn't agree with his opinion (as, clearly, you don't) but there is no need to attempt to discredit him in order to validate your own view. Lafferty wrote with a unique style, one that played with paradox and contradiction and one which, due to those elements, does not work as well in an expanded format. Different ones of his novels worked better (The Fall of Rome) than others (Fourth Mansions), but overall, his best work was in the shorter medium. And that's one opinion, you can disagree, but the more people you slander (I.E. Gaiman) without defending your views (you call his writing a cliched mess without ever expanding on that statement) the fewer people are going to bother paying attention to you. I ran across this blog because I was Googleing Lafferty, and I must say, this was disappointing. He has many defenders who praise his works, there's no need to be so caustic.

Clemens said...

I loved The Fall of Rome so much that I became an historian and now regularly teach classes on the fall of Rome. When I found this book as a teenager it immediately became my all time favorite book about the topic (well, maybe except for Gibbon). I have even written a post on his idea that Punic speakers may have gotten up north to mix with the Goths.

Thanks for posting this!

not Bridget said...

Arriving late to the party. But I do love The Fall of Rome. Well, I love most of Lafferty, but this book is special in a special way.

And I love Neil Gaiman--he seems to be a fine man & is a true Lafferty fan. But none of his writing has ever blown me away....