Epic novels: neither big nor clever

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James Thackara's The Book of Kings, like many novels published these days, comes with an approving quotation printed on the front cover. "If Tolstoy were writing War and Peace today", declares John Bayley, "he would have to imagine and invent it in the same form as The Book of Kings." As puffs go, you can see that this isn't bad - the unchallenged heavyweight titleholder is invoked, and, what's more, there's an implication that he enters the ring on the contender's terms, rather than the other way around. Tolstoy's very imagination is to be subject to his successor's rewriting of the rules. And though Thackara is reported to be mildly irritated by the frequent comparisons between himself and the man one of his own characters calls "the devout Russian count", you can see that he probably didn't fight very hard to keep that remark off the cover.

James Thackara's The Book of Kings, like many novels published these days, comes with an approving quotation printed on the front cover. "If Tolstoy were writing War and Peace today", declares John Bayley, "he would have to imagine and invent it in the same form as The Book of Kings." As puffs go, you can see that this isn't bad - the unchallenged heavyweight titleholder is invoked, and, what's more, there's an implication that he enters the ring on the contender's terms, rather than the other way around. Tolstoy's very imagination is to be subject to his successor's rewriting of the rules. And though Thackara is reported to be mildly irritated by the frequent comparisons between himself and the man one of his own characters calls "the devout Russian count", you can see that he probably didn't fight very hard to keep that remark off the cover.

When you look a bit closer at the compliment, though, it begins to look a little odd - and (this is likely to be my own prejudice at work) even slyly ambiguous. Because that "if" is an enormous one. If Tolstoy were writing today, would he actually set about writing War and Peace, or would he feel the world required a different kind of narrative? And if Tolstoy wouldn't write War and Peace now, why exactly should anyone else?

Thackara himself has offered one kind of answer. "I work on the basis the writer can and must still make an advance on the great works of the past," he was once reported to have said. In some respects that is a rather primitive notion of what a writer does - taking on his or her predecessors and establishing a kind of supremacy. "Advance" is not a word you can use without its ghost companion - the notion that Tolstoy (clearly the looming shadow behind Thackara's book, whatever he says on record) will be left behind. And since competition is at the heart of this idea, there's a sense, too, that Tolstoy has first to be beaten at his own game - the writing of an epic narrative in which historical events, private emotions and intellectual disputation are wrought together through Herculean labour. Like War and Peace, The Book of Kings sets out to be one of those holy mountains of literature, a determinedly grandiose uprearing in the landscape. Unlike War and Peace, climbing it turns out to be a knee-shredding experience that has you checking the altimeter every 30 yards.

It had a suitably purgatorial genesis, exhausting more than one good editor before it finally made it into print and taking some 25 years in the writing. But its arrival now doesn't feel just a few decades late - it feels as if it has missed its moment by at least a century. Partly this is to do with a solemnity of purpose that is now unfashionable, but there are more specific markers, too.

Thackara employs the word "soul", for example, with the kind of unembarrassed casualness with which you might use a concrete noun such as "table" or "chair". Nothing in the writing suggests that it is a word that, if not quite extinct yet, is already going the way of "humours" and "phlogiston".

The overall effect is of a curious exercise in literary re-enactment, as if Thackara wanted to offer a variation on Borges's Pierre Menard - who set out to write a contemporary Don Quixote by exactly replicating the original several centuries on. "Initially", Borges writes, "Menard's method was to be relatively simple: learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918 - be Miguel de Cervantes." In the end Menard decides that would be too easy and sets out to write the book as himself. Thackara, I think, has taken Menard's "easier" route, expunging the last 30 years of literary history and immersing himself in provoking detail.

I imagine Thackara is perfectly happy to be counted as unfashionable, but he would be wrong to think that changing styles necessarily outlaw the ambitions that The Book of Kings undoubtedly displays. If you want panoptic scope or historical seriousness, you can find them in novels that live in our world - not that exclusively European cultural enclosure that is the domain for Thackara's book. David Mitchell's Ghostwritten, for example, acknowledges the fluid geography of the modern world while dealing with some of Thackara's grand themes, while Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon takes the same period of history, the Second World War, and brilliantly untangles its subterranean connections to cyberspace. Neither is a self-consciously "great" novel, and yet both make The Book of Kings look arthritic in its grand gestures and philosophical solemnity. James Thackara's book is not just a historical novel - it's a historical artefact, too, and much the worse for it.

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