The Evening of the World - Allan Massie

The Evening of the World
A Romance of the Dark Ages
Allan Massie
Phoenix publishers
ISBN: 0753813106 (Amazon link)

I've read a few of Massie's excellent novels about the Roman Emperors, and have been impressed. This interesting novel opens a new trilogy, and deals with the final decline of Rome and the descent of the Dark Ages. The second novel promises to deal with The Matter of Britain by tackling the Arthurian myths, and the third The Matter of Europe by tackling the Charlamagne cycle. So, not at all ambitious then.

The structure of this first novel is also ambitious. Massie presents his typical foreword in which he pretends to be the translator of some lost documents. Personally, I can think of few books where this conceit actually adds anything, but it's harmless enough, and lets the author easily sketch out some themes, as well as more practical concerns like conventions for typography. In this foreword we learn that the lost document is a C13th novel written by the historically infamous Michael Scott for the education of his young pupil, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick the Second. This novel within a novel is also heavy on authorial voice, and rich in allegorical digressions. As the fictional author Scott notes, "[digression] is no sin in narrative, if the way of the digression be pleasant. Rather, you are to think of the digression (when I digress) as a staging post or hospitable inn where you may rest on the journey of the narrative". If writing a novel in the style of modern translation of a C13th novel about a C5th century character isn't demanding enough, Massie also decided to chuck in two previous commentators on the source documents. The first is a Templar, and the second a Rosicrucian. Both enable Massie to expound gently on some of his narrative for those of us less versed in the history and literature of the many periods, as well as to have some fun with misdirection and anachronisms.

As an aside, this book log entry has sat in unfinished draft form for two months, as I was all too aware that I rushed my reading of this complex novel the first time around and couldn't muster any coherent commentary. At least this one-long-sitting approach was a sign that The Evening of the World was an absorbing read. It's now the end of July and I've just finished a re-read, something I don't normally do, certainly not with a recently read book. Interestingly, this second read was greatly enhanced by having read The Iliad , The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Robert Grave's The Greek Myths in the interim.

Michael Scott's fictional narrative concerns Marcus, a young, handsome, intelligent, almost sickeningly perfect Roman nobleman. From the start the elements of myth and romance are obvious, as we hear disputed tales of Marcus' origins; he may be simply the son of a Roman nobleman, or the scandalous get of the Vandal general Stilicho, the priest of Nemi, or even the Archangel Michael. Whoever his father was, Marcus' undisputed patrician mother ensures he can at least trace his maternal bloodline back to Venus.

The dissolute Emperor Honorius summons the young prodigy to Milan. The pattern for the novel is set immediately; the immediate narrative concerns a simple journey by Marcus and companions to Milan, but immediately this is contrasted with digressions into some surreal, possibly allegorical, episodes. These initial adventures mix Arthurian, Celtic, Greek and Christian themes - with footnotes from the Templar and Rosicrucian - and set up a parallel narrative which carries through most of the novel. The effect can be disconcerting, and while the educating voice of Scott is obvious in some of these supernatural episodes, particularly those dealing with the tension between the civilised pagan world of antiquity and the current Christian era of dissolution and barbarians, others have less clear purposes or themes, although typically the reader is prompted by the footnotes.

Returning to the main thread; the weak and ineffectual Honorius tasks Marcus with an ambassadorship to the Visigoth General Alaric. Before leaving, Honorius' more capable sister Honoria draws Marcus aside and provides him with the McGuffins to start his adventures. Marcus is to carry a secret letter for Alaric, along with a token ring. In case of emergency, he is also entrusted with another token ring, this for a exiled eunuch of the Byzantine court, John the Adept. A familiarity with the history of the period makes the ensuing events obvious - complications must ensue. A traditional Roman man of virtue, Marcus sets off on his mission for an Emperor he cannot admire, to a barbarian he cannot but admire, and finds himself swiftly caught in a trap of honour. The first of his rapid reversals of fortune coincides with the advance on Rome by Alaric, giving him no choice but to turn to the murky world of John the Adept for help, and from then on we're reading a classical Romance, with Marcus' long and winding journey to fulfill his oath to Honoria the ultimate goal.

Throughout this novel I was reminded of Gene Wolfe's The Knight, with its reinvention of the classical Romance quest. I suspect the parallel would be easily explained if I was more familiar with their source material, certainly lots of themes sound familiar, whether dressed in Authurian clothes or involving a Cathar Perfect as the faerie princess in the magic castle. Indeed, my overall impression of this novel is that Massie was channelling Wolfe for structure, and Graves for world-building. That's supposed to a favourable comment if, as I suspect, it reads ambiguously!

So, we've got a heavily contrived structure, telling a classical quest story, with overt allegory, theological discussion, supernatural elements, and constant classical references. Overall, Marcus' journey through life seems to mirror that of the Roman Empire itself, and if there's a central motif, it's summed up by Marcus' constant denial of one character's view, "It's finished. Rome is finished. The great adventure is over. Those whom the gods promised empire without end, without limits, have proved unworthy of that promise. Night falls on Rome. Christendom is but a dream, a womanish dream that has unmanned Rome. And in this Dark Age of the world it's only what you call barbarism that has a right to flourish. The world is to the strong, and the weak must go down under their flail." By now you're probably thinking this doesn't sound like something you'd choose to read for fun...

You'd be wrong. The Evening of the World is a great read. The writing is of the first order; even with the layers of conceit layered on, the prose always rattles along crisply. The characters are well drawn and sympathetic, with intriguingly ambiguous handling of some central relationships. Though central to the plot, the scholarship is worn lightly for the most part. It helps that several of Marcus' companions play the part of ignorant foils, proving useful for brief, "As you know Bob..." moments. It helps a lot that the historical elements are fascinating in their own right of course. (As usual, I can't help but take this opportunity to recommend John Julius Norwich's histories of Byzantium.) The apparent plot is colourful, set mostly in and around the Byzantine world, never short of political intrigue or military action. There's humour too, generated either by crude behaviour by the supporting cast or more subtly, by obvious anachronism. These elements are combined in the person of the Green Knight who pops up mid-way through the novel, which while not unexpected in a novel about the transition to the Age of Chivalry, does lend a certain confused air to proceedings. particularly, as noted above, given the mistress he serves. Massie's Sir Gavin is a boisterous, burping, snoring anachronism, a transplanted lager lout from an England that doesn't yet exist. He serves to link the apparent and allegorical narratives, and both the passing and emerging worlds. I think your enjoyment of this novel will probably hinge around your reaction to this one character. His presence serves to highlight the contrived nature of the story, and his casual throwing in of phases like, "One for all, all for one" could equally well amuse or act as a suspension of disbelief destroyer. I have to admit I was expecting a more straightforward narrative, something more akin to his straight autobiographical approaches for books like Augustus or Tiberius, and it took me a few chapters to become accustomed to the novel treatment used in The Evening of the World.

Overall? Highly recommended.

Posted: Thu - May 13, 2004 at 09:21 PM