Saturday, June 22, 2013

Book Review: GJ Meyer's "The Borgias: The Hidden History"

The Borgias are hot on TV right now, but according to G. J. Meyer, the characters portrayed on the small screen are even more a fiction than most of us realized. Turns out, the Borgias weren't half the villains many historians have thought they were.

 Meyer's book is more about Italian history, pre-Renaissance and during the Renaissance, than about anything else. The Catholic church figures prominently as a player on the Italian stage along with the mafia-like families who controlled many of the small city states.

The Borgias were Spaniards who made it good in the Catholic hierarchy when Alfons Borgia was chosen to serve as pope taking the name Calixtus III. The Cardinals chose him because he was an honest, able administrator, in poor health and seemed to have no ambition. Turns out, he did have ambition: retrieve the cities which were supposed to belong to the Vatican from the thugs who were running them and defeat the Turks before they over-ran Italy.

Calixtus III didn't get very far in achieving his objectives, though he struggled mightily and overcame obstacles that had defeated earlier popes. As was the policy of the day, he selected relatives to serve in the church and chose his nephew, Rodrigo Borgia, to serve as Vice Chancellor--an administrative post handling papal correspondence and the like.

Meyer describes Rodrigo as charming, cheerful, intelligent and good at his job--but could find no recorded evidence from his peers that he had ever broken his vow of celibacy or did anything, which at the time, would have been judged corrupt. Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI and made his nephew, Cesare Borgia a Cardinal and commander of the papal fortress in Rome. Cesare became one of the youngest Cardinals ever chosen and the first to resign from that position.

Cesare was considered the most handsome man in Italy and at one time the most feared (by the corrupt thugs running the city states) and best military commander of the time. He resigned his position as Cardinal, but retained command of the papal military forces. With his uncle's help and an alliance with the French king, attempted to depose the thugs that had been in charge of papal city states for generations. Most of the city states he conquered appreciated his just dealings after centuries of corruption and capricious viciousness. He was largely successful in unifying much of Italy and might have finally solidified that unity, but both he and Alexander VI fell ill with fever at the same time. The pope died and though Cesare recovered, he was a changed man who could no longer maintain his famous control over his emotions and make the surprising, but astute decisions that had characterized his career up to that time. Cesare's peers recorded that he had mistresses everywhere and suffered from syphilis, but unlike most commanders of the day, his soldiers were paid on time and the cities he conquered enjoyed more liberty and economic prosperity under his just rule.

Alexander VI showed an astonishing indifference to the negative gossip that circulated while he lived, seldom refuting any of it, yet those closest to him or those who had actual dealings with him found him to be affable, amiable, honest and devout. Italians had a natural dislike for any person of a different nationality having power in their country, thus, in the absence of personal contact, they tended to believe the worst about this Spanish pope. Not long after Alexander VI died, his primary rival and nemesis, a corrupt French Cardinal, became pope and corroborated the evil gossip as truth. He encouraged others to elaborate on the evil Borgia myth. And so, to this day, most people think the Borgias were libertines.

Meyer warns up front that his book covers a lot of territory very quickly and does not delve into much detail. He also admits that among the documents created while Alexander VI and Cesare lived, there is actually very little written about their personal lives. Their genealogy is confused because names were reused and a family branch, the Lonzols attached Borgia to their surname due to the prestige of being associated with a pope. Meyer presents an alternative genealogy which he supports with the extensive scholarship of a man who collected six or more volumes of Borgia documents and historical records but was never able to take the work to a cohesive finish--hence he has been ignored by most historians who find digging through the vast quantity of information quite vexing and tedious.

For a fast history of Italy and how the church played a role in the development of that nation, G. J. Meyer's book is an excellent source. It gives the reader a window into a different era, one that becomes increasingly alien, yet also terrifyingly familiar in our modern day. Fiction writers do well to study history as those who figure in it do the most astonishing and outrageous things. A student of history is a student of human nature and that is, after all, our primary subject matter.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Story Ends Here

Comments for Writing Rogues on:
Dysfunctional Narratives: or: “Mistakes were Made”
The first essay in Burning Down the House, by Charles Baxter, 1997 Greywolf Press

Baxter frames his examination of passive narrative in critique of the politically conservative. He points to Nixon’s use of plausible deniability as a catalyst for a cultural shift. Baxter states: “The greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years may have been the author of RN, not the writing but in the public character. He is the inventor, for our purposes and for our time, of the concept of deniability... they (public figures claiming deniability) create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading. Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling.”

Putting aside the essay’s political framework, Baxter’s point surfaces in this last sentence. Storytelling suffers without clear villains. Without discernment or its coarse cousin, judgement, an author seldom delivers on plot or even character. Often I’ve heard writers, including myself, exclaim that our fiction is character driven when what we mean is; ‘I don’t have much of a plot and I really don’t want to offend anyone, least of all my characters.’ This failure to act coupled with paralysis of thought, limits the story and removes the reader. Protagonists and antagonists lose punch. Weak and fungible, these two character roles fade and a victim emerges. The victim has been put upon by a gathering of nebulous villainy without a face. A soft fuzzy glow surrounds the pedantry of the non-protagonist. Blug. According to Baxter, eventually blame is assigned and the story ends. What story?

Most of us writer types have been eviscerated for using passive voice in our work, so we remove it and grumble. Surely passive voice leads to deniability, but Baxter speaks of an umbrella passivity; a monster cumulonimbus pouring–scratch that. Way too active. A damp, tepid blanket of a plot coupled to moist, rotting fibers of character. The book may or may not use passive voice, but it employs deniability as its overall failsafe; as if we’re saying, “you won’t catch this author having an opinion. Un-huh. I’m as much a dupe as my lackluster story.”

Perpetual victims make for tedious tales. Baxter cites C.K. Williams’ discussion of narrative dysfunction as the process by which we lose track of the story, stating, “one of the signs of a dysfunctional narrative is that we cannot leave it behind, and we cannot put it to rest, because, it does not, finally, give us the explanation we need to enclose it... Stories about being put upon almost literally do not know what to look at. The visual details are muddled or indifferently described or excessively specific in nonpertinent situations.”

In a passive book, characters don’t make mistakes and muhaha-bad-guys don’t exist. Villainy gives a character and a book “largeness, a sense of scale.” Without accountability, villains don’t color the landscape of the story. The plot fails and the characters float in a hopeless sea, unmoored and hapless. The characters remain sketches unaided by mistakes or flaws without direction. Quoting Baxter, “There is such a thing as the poetry of mistake, and when you say, “mistakes were made,” you deprive an action of its poetry, and you sound like a weasel... And I suppose I am nostalgic–as a writer, of course–for stories with mindful villainy, villainy with clear motives that an adult would understand, bad behavior with a sense of scale that would give back to us our imaginative grip on the despicable and the admirable and our capacity to have some opinions about the two.”

Baxter defines the novel employing dysfunctional narrative as an emerging artform in America. I would add, “but not a story.” In using what Baxter calls dysfunctional narrative, an author sketches a poignant scene, cleans his brushes then leaves the work unfinished. As my mother would say, “poor pitiful Pearl, just so forlorn,” after a doll from the 1950's (great blog And forlorn describes this artwork. Another word which recalls the original meaning of forlorn is Godforsaken.

Taking a tiny punch at Calvinism and later Protestantism, Baxter argues predetermination. I don’t argue that predestination, poorly constructed, accurately describes this artform, entirely managed and without recourse. I will argue that Calvin and Arminius were strong proponents of accountability in the form of confession, contrition and reconciliation, all of which make for wonderfully flawed characters and Tolkien’s famous story type, eucatastrophe. Baxter notes that the characters are fated in passive books, “all personal decisions have been made meaningless, deniable. It is a life of fate, like a character disorder.” Call it a book disorder?

The passive novel is a new concept for me and a delightful way to describe a type of book. Thank you Charles Baxter.

Enough for now. BEV
Also posted on Just One Beggar

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Thoughts on Microsoft/Sony conferences at E3:

Hello Writing Rogues!!!

I don't know how many of you guys are gamers but I know Isaac and I are, so here's my review of the 2 conferences I was most looking forward to, Microsoft and Sony at the Electronic Entertainment Expo.

Microsoft came out swinging with a Metal Gear Solid V trailer, showing that, yes, the Xbox One is still about the games, taking what was traditionally a Sony based IP and showing it off on their stage. They continued to crank out game after game, Forza 5, Dark Souls II, Project Spark, The Witcher 3, all of which were visually stunning and looked wildly entertaining and games across both the current and next generation. As a fan of The Witcher, I was glad to see that an open world game was in the works, and I look forward, greatly, to  playing it. Project Spark showed that it wasn't just shooters and dark fantasy for the console with a world creator like a three dimensional Little Big Planet with it's creation and sharing aspects in the Xbox Live community. Naturally, Halo made a very brief appearance on the screen, because everyone loves it and 343 Industries carries Bungie's legacy into the next gen. After the reveal several weeks ago, it was good to see actual games this time around, and eased some of my fear that this was just going to become an "entertainment" box.

One of my favorite, and in my opinion, most intriguing things in the Microsoft conference was the cloud computing features on Xbox. Your gaming patterns being taken and an avatar of yourself being up in the cloud is amazing. Being able to play against your friends even when they're not there, also really cool. If you didn't like anything else about the conference, that feature was worth the watch.

I was disappointed, however, that Microsoft didn't address the current allegations about required online check-ins, inability to share games freely, and very limited offline gaming features. These are huge issues, and have been blown out of proportions by the community at large. The price tag of the Xbox One was also $499. Looks to me that they might be pulling a last gen Sony, with an excellent piece of hard/software but the pricing is going to turn off the gamers that are already worried about an always on Kinect spying on their family and the limited offline features.

Sony's conference later that night was stunning. They, too, showed gamers that they weren't abandoning their current platforms and even made the PS Vita an integral part of the Playstation 4 experience. They briefly reviewed the the games they showed at their reveal back in February, they showed off new games both blockbusters and indie titles, they touched on the fact that they too are an entertainment console and have Sony films and music partnered with their computer entertainment division this time around for a more complete experience. Bungie made their appearance with a gameplay look at Destiny, which looks like a beautiful social shooter experience with a taste for group events and solo/small group missions.

They revealed the box. A sleek, angular console with beautiful lines and modern design. The Playstation 4 will look good, even though you don't even need to see it.

Playstation Plus features, I was glad to discover, carried over and will be available across all of Sony's Playstation platforms with all it's features. But! unfortunately with the coming generation Playstation Plus will be required to play games online. Many PS consumers will definitely be turned off, but we will still be able to use all of Playstation's other online features free from the extra charge.

My biggest disappointment was Sony's departure from free online play, one of the biggest selling points of the current gen. I was very glad that Sony addressed the concerns of online check ins and game trading/sharing that Microsoft had us so worried about. There will be no required online to play games and no limits on trading or sharing or reselling used games. That alone may have won the conference. Also, the price tag being set at $399 won't hurt sales.

Both electronic superpowers released some great info about their upcoming consoles and I look forward to finding out more. Microsoft still needs to address the rumors of online requirements and limited sharing, and the fact that they haven't worries me. If Sony keeps going in the direction they're headed, they will be the console to beat in this generation.

Enough of my thoughts, though! What do you think? Comment below.

Logging off!
The Trickster