Friday, June 26, 2009

All that is solid melts into Stone

Iain Pears dazzles again with his latest foray into historical fiction

The following review was also published at the History News Network book section.

One of the pleasures of reading historical fiction, especially historical mysteries, involves the (often anachronistic) experience of encountering familiar characters or archetypes in novel settings: the headstrong female bucking paternalistic tradition; the prescient innovator whose genius goes unrecognized by his contemporaries; the likeable scoundrel whose necessary rule-breaking paves the way for a modern happy ending. That’s not why you read Iain Pears, though. Pears, whose fiction of the last decade is often astoundingly saturated in historical detail that spans the Roman Empire to the Second World War, is certainly entertaining enough. And his new novel, Stone’s Fall, features a gamine female character whose spirited defiance of social custom would be familiar enough in an Elmore Leonard novel. But Pears aims higher; his latest has echoes of Balzac, Thomas Mann, and even a dollop of Dickens. Moreover, it’s hard to finish his books not feeling haunted. Pears doesn’t simply capture the strangeness of the past, even as he makes it legible in a new way. He also makes you aware of the highly temporary quality of the moment in which you happen to be living, and how the concerns you’re apt to consider thoroughly modern would be thoroughly familiar to characters in the past who are likely to have thought them through a good deal more than you have.

This lesson in humility takes on a special relevance for U.S. readers of Pears, who is British. American history is at best at the margins of his work. In his thrilling Restoration drama An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998), England’s North American colonies surface as a surprising coda to the main narrative line. In The Dream of Scipio (2002), a recurrent motif of imperial decay implicitly invites comparison with waning U.S. hegemony. Interestingly, one could say that American history is the narrative tripwire for Stone’s Fall – the Civil War, and the British government’s reluctant decision to reverse a policy allowing military contractors to sell ships (like the fabled Alabama) to the Confederacy is what puts the plot in motion – but the larger effect of this novel, like all the others, is to make one aware of how the great forces that shape history are finally beyond human intention, much less understanding.

The set-up of Stone’s Fall is simple enough. In 1909, an immensely wealthy (and acrophobic) arms merchant John Stone, a.k.a. Lord Ravenscliff, plunges to his death from a window in his London home. Was it an accident, foul play, or is there another explanation? His grieving widow hires a newspaper reporter to investigate. But as in Fingerpost and Scipio, the storyline is complicated by multiple narrators of uncertain reliability. The first is Matthew Braddock, the naively intrepid reporter who begins working for Lady Ravenscliff. His investigation lurches across theories of varying accuracy, among them that Stone was murdered by his wife, that Stone’s business was being sabotaged from within and/or by left-wing radicals (who again may include his wife), and that Stone himself is involved in a conspiracy to trigger a general European war in order to force a reluctant British government to buy the armada he was building at his own expense before his death. Braddock’s movements are being shadowed by Henry Cort, a spy who then takes the story backward to Paris in 1890, when the mysterious and alluring woman who will become Stone’s wife emerges from the mists and Stone himself is manipulating financial markets so as to gain permission to win naval contracts from the Russian government. The final leg of this triptych is narrated by Stone himself, who in the process of revealing the information that will finally explain his death, describes a sojourn in the languid Venice of 1867, in which he seized financial control of a newly invented torpedo that its hapless but talented inventor actually believes will level the naval playing field and thus become an instrument of world peace.

Saying much about the plot line of any mystery novel is a risky business, but it’s especially true of this one, which is more intricate than most. (The multitalented Pears, by the way, has a background that includes financial journalism as well as the authorship of a series of more conventional detective novels featuring a contemporary art-historian/private eye named Jonathan Argyll.) At almost 600 pages, Stone’s Fall is not one you can read quickly. But its satisfactions are real, sustained, and quickly apparent.

Again, what sets Pears apart is an exceptionally acute historical consciousness. Sometimes, you encounter it as a sly inside joke, as when a onetime war correspondent consigned to reporting on celebrity aristocrats in Biarritz brags to another by saying “I was in Afghanistan doing really well.” His companion asks, “But there isn’t a war in Afghanistan, is there?” The response: “There’s always a war in Afghanistan.” (The Brits fought three wars there.)

But in its broadest sense, Stone’s Fall is a novel about the sweeping force of historical change and the emergence of a modern order rooted in industrial capitalism. “Money,” an old intelligence operative explains to young Cort in the heart of the Belle Époque. “All the world is now convertible to money. It used to be that the sole determinant was the number of men you could march out to meet your enemies. Now more depends on the convertibility of your currency, its reputation among the bankers.” The purest embodiment of the new order is the aptly named Stone. Torpedoes don’t kill people; people kill people, he tells an incredulous Cort, justifying an avowedly amoral approach to commerce that includes a desire to sell weapons to Britain’s enemies. “If men do not have torpedoes, they will use cannon. If there are no cannon, they will use bow and arrows. If there are no arrows they will use stones, and if there are no stones they will bite each other to death. I merely convert desire into its most efficient form and extract capital from the process.”

But Pears also insists that Stone and his ilk cannot simply be dismissed as brutes. The conversion of desire and the extraction of capital is an art no less than the chiseling of a sculpture (or the writing of a novel), and the motives of such people are no less human than those of anyone else. As one character explains, extrapolating from Stone’s financial records, “He seems to have approached what he did rather as an engineer approaches a problem, or an artist a picture. He took pleasure in creating something that was harmonious, integrated, and balanced. He could have been an architect, I think. Or maybe he would have liked these new crosswords, where the delight lies solely in solving the puzzle.” Later in the book Stone endorses this perception: “I find it astonishing that man can regard fine machinery without admiration. The machines our age has produced can induce an awe in me that is as powerful as the impulse to religion in other men.” (Stone's sentiments echo those of his contemporary, Henry Adams, who like Stone, was intrigued by newfangled motor cars.)

It is a measure of Stone’s accomplishment than even people like the callow Braddock cannot fail to apprehend it, as in this scene in which he beholds the construction of Dreadnought battleships at Stone’s shipyard in northern England:

“I stared in utter amazement, with emotions verging on awe. The yard was gigantic, so big you could not see the end of it, whichever way you turned, it was simply swallowed up in the haze of sunlight through smoke. A vast mass of machinery, cranes, yards, buildings, storage areas, assembly sheds, offices, stretching out before my eyes in every direction …It seemed chaotic, even diabolical the way the landscape had disappeared under the hand of man, but there was also something extraordinarily beautiful in the intricacy, the blocks of brick buildings set against the tin roofs and rusting girders and the dark brown of the river, faintly in view to the east. And there was not a tree, not a bird, not even a patch of grass, anywhere to be seen. Nature had been abolished.”

Literally – and, arguably, figuratively – Twitter is small by comparison. So are contemporary hedge fund managers who indulge in little more than idle speculation. One need not romanticize the terrible cost of the Pax Britannica to wonder whether the achievements of its successor will be any more impressive, or durable. In any event, an imperial imagination is an artifact no less than a piece of pottery. “I was a great patriot then,” Braddock reflects at the beginning of the story, which opens in 1953. “I do not know whether I say so in pride or sorrow.”

Stone’s Fall has its shortcomings. Pears takes a comic potshot at the suffrage movement at one point, and the resolution of the story seems a bit forced. Some may not like a vein of supernaturalism that runs through what is otherwise a realistic novel. (There was a comparably surprising and, perhaps, misplaced religious angle in An Instance of the Fingerpost.) But this is an endlessly provocative book by an extraordinary popular novelist. In the decade since I first plucked a rack-sized paperback Fingerpost from a train station at Boston’s South Station, I have encountered no author who writes historical fiction of any kind better than Iain Pears. I strongly recommend you have a look.