“History is the witness of the times… the life of memory…”— Marcus Tullius Cicero
Preserving the past is linked most often to physical assets, such as buildings, or artifacts like paintings, jewelry or utensils. But what of the people? How do we preserve the memories that tell us about those no longer with us? By telling stories about them. I’m working currently on a novel of historical fiction about a young man who lived in 18th century France before and during the chaotic French Revolution. The turmoil ruling that period known as the Reign of Terror makes it hard to write about without losing one’s way in the maelstrom. But this young man of whom I write lived a story that made him one of, if not the most celebrated man of his time. What’s left to tell about him if he’d earned such notoriety? Almost everything, because very few of his life stories were preserved to pass down. How could that be when one of our own Presidents, John Adams, praised him as ‘the most accomplished man in Europe’? Mozart praised his musical abilities and complained of his enviable relationships with the royalty of France, connections he himself yearned for but did not have.
And so the questions about him still echo today, largely because over two-hundred-years of silence have produced an anonymity of prejudice. Stories can’t be preserved if they’re not told, and we know that some narratives are lost by the choice of those living with them. How often do we hear the question asked, you never heard any of this in your family? To be followed by the answer, no, never. We know nothing of it.
My new novel takes place in a time that separated many heads from royal shoulders with Madame de la Guillotine. All of the most famous ‘losers’, including Marie Antoinette, were known to or were friends of my protagonist. He was the most famous swordsman, soldier and musician in France, and yet he’s been largely missing from the historical record because he was a man of color. Much of his music was lost during the destruction of Paris during the decade of fighting. But what does remain of the music of this extraordinary man is virtuosic and tender, telling his story in a way that cannot be forgotten.
I dearly wish the mood of the times had been otherwise and his stories and music had been fully preserved. But as it is now, we can piece together a fictional narrative that is most likely very close to the truth. Even the telling of ‘tall tales’ helps to preserve the connections between our past and present. So in the name of preservation, I hope my new book can conjure up the extraordinary Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges with all the gentle glory he deserves. We can only do that by making him part of our stories, as this book will do when it emerges late this year, hopefully to entice you with tales of the amazing ‘God of Arms’. See if you agree with John Adams that he was the most accomplished man in Europe at that time, which basically meant on earth.
Wow, you certainly make me want to learn more about Joseph Bologne and I appreciate how you are taking the time to research what is left of any material about him. Indeed stories about people from the past are essential to understanding and appreciating our own lives. I believe that historical novels can be even more real than just the facts. Everything takes interpretation and and making relevant to our lives and that’s what artist writers like you do essential. I for one need guidance from someone in the know and makes the story come alive.
Thank you, Paul
I agree with you about the facts, but even those can take a different form that we find very illuminating. I the case of this character, I think the music becomes an even louder voice leading to the truth. We won’t know until we get to the end of his story.
Thanks for the thoughts on historical preservation, Paul.