Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Books: Eric Jager

The Last Duel, a book of medieval history, by Eric Jager.

History that reads like a novel, this is the story of a joust to the death by a knight and a squire over charges of rape put forth by the wife of one of the men. It's a fascinating look at the process of medieval justice, building to one of the most exciting climaxes you'll ever read. Based on historical accounts, the narrated joust gives the lie to the idea that books can't compete with movies and TV. Jager skillfully displays the advantages of words-- descriptions of the weight of armor the men wore, the weapons they carried, the rituals they performed, the physical and emotional stress they were under, the people who watched them-- all of which adds to the suspense. The fight to the death itself is filled with heart-pounding excitement. Yet this is non-fiction! What could a novelist add to the mix?

As it stands, The Last Duel is as thrilling a book, or media experience of any kind, as you're likely to find, demonstrating the fundamentals of literary art-- mystery, characterization, information, simplicity, drama, tragedy. When done well, it's as precise and exhilarating a show as a ritualized medieval joust.

Very highly recommended to everyone who loves to read.

(Available at bookstores and libraries.)

1 comment:

Jeff Potter said...

Sounds good, King.

But I want to make sure Soul is in the mix. In addition to techniques a really viable artwork has a deep connection to life and its root challenges. It's not just technique, research and skill. I don't want to just learn facts when I read. I need a push, a shock, a wake-up, that relates to my life. No art is excluded, certainly not nonfiction history. A good exploration of knights could readily have it!

Also, an artist should be a master of the basics but after that they may well be compelled by the lies of their age to press on further. (New Journalism did this for us in the 70s---one of the last times we had Populist Lit.) It's not just to give the shock of the new. That's trite. It's to keep in touch with what is---and it's required to really spark up the public. Even nonfiction history can do it if it has soul. Soul lives and moves...at the same time it has a kind of bedrock. Change is needed to keep up with the street, with reality. Old structures might serve, might not. Great new work will freak out those who look to the rules, but deep down the main rule is respected. Of course, in an age that tosses everything out in an effort to sell, to lie, just sticking to the basics is radical. We can't see ourselves or our culture on our own. Art is our mirror. The part that can relate to our own lives has to be in there.