The Glory of the Empire by Jean D’Ormesson
Translated by Barbara Bray
As publishers go, NYRB can be relied upon to bring you something different or interesting or challenging – and always worth reading. “The Glory of the Empire” by Jean D’Ormesson, released today, is certainly one of the most intriguing they’ve put out for a while, and I was pleased to be provided with a review copy by the publisher. Wikipedia describes D’Ormesson as a “French novelist whose work mostly consists of partially or totally autobiographic novels” which grabs the attention to start with. I could only see one other of his works available in English, so kudos to NYRB for making “Glory” available.
Subtitled “A Novel, a History”, the book tells of a fictional Empire, from its genesis as “the City” in the far past, through the height of its fame and glory, to its inevitable decline and fall. Parallels with Rome and Greece spring to mind immediately, and the tale has that kind of epic quality. Central to the work is the story of the Emperor Alexis, during whose reign the Empire reached its height, and much of the book tells of his picaresque and colourful life, from boyhood through an early life of excess, then to periods of wandering and asceticism till he finally ascends to the status of Emperor.
No one would dwell on this flash in the pan, these riches for a day, this weak showiness so soon swallowed up again in darkness, if the Empire yet to come had not lent them significance. But every element in every story derives its meaning and importance from the ever-open future, which will give it its place, role and rank. Nothing is ever complete at the time it happens. If the Empire had not come into being, if there had been no Arsaphes, no Basil, no Alexis, the City would have left behind only a minor trace. But the Empire did come into being, and Alexis did arise. And the first golden age of the City, instead of remaining in men’s minds as a dead end and a failure, was transfigured into a sign and a promise.
What’s so clever about the book, and this is an element thoroughly explored in the introduction, is the mingling of fiction and fact. D’Ormesson weaves into the fictionalised Empire elements of real history, from references to Rome and Greeks and Genghis Khan, through to more modern elements. The book has detailed notes, bibliography and an index, and you’ll read of a certain document from the Empire’s history that was translated into Russian by Esenin and Mayakovsky, for example. The notes refer to numerous (fictional) works by real writers and historians, and Jorge Luis Borges is mentioned (and channelled!) at many points through the work. In fact, having recently read Borges’ fictionalised retellings of historical lives, I really felt his spirit hovering over this book.
The story the book tells is a fascinating one, though I would argue myself with the subtitle; I would personally think a more accurate one would be “A Fiction, a History” because although the book is made-up it certainly isn’t a novel. And ironically it is the book’s very strengths that create its weaknesses; as a fictional created saga it succeeds and convinces brilliantly; but as the story is told as an epic, sweeping piece of history the reader is kept at something of a distance from events and I did find that I never warmed to the characters in the same way I would have done with a novelistic telling of the Empire’s story. There are battles and tortures and countless, countless deaths which is some ways blunt the sensibilities; though I think what the author is doing is perhaps using the book as a vehicle to comment on the study of history itself, and perhaps even parodying the whole process of historical writing. Certainly, he ponders this at several points in the book, and the way it’s written, with the unnamed historian questioning sources, giving his opinion about controversies of interpretation, and discussing the whole act of writing history, makes the book itself an exercise in historiography.
History, though it consists of memory, has a poor memory. Death and disaster come fast, and so do forgetfulness and the wish to survive.
That said, “Glory” is a remarkable achievement of scholarly forgery; I was mightily impressed by the prodigious skill the author used to build in the real historical information and though I didn’t get all the references I knew enough to be able to see the amount of knowledge D’Ormesson brought to the book. At one point, he even refers to a particular opinion being held by four gentlemen, three of whom who happen to be aliases or characters of Borges himself, and I think there were probably plenty of in-jokes I didn’t get. There are even illustrations of artefacts, and a lovely map, all adding to the ‘authenticity’ of the book!
I found myself looking at the business of writing about the past with a new eye after reading this book; I’ve often thought to myself that history is a remarkably subjective thing, depending on your bias, the information available and how it’s interpreted, and “The Glory of the Empire” throws this strongly into relief. It’s a clever, brilliantly written and challenging work – definitely worth exploring if you’re a fan of the history of fictional regimes!