Friday, May 31, 2024

Book Review: The Glory of the Empire

Contingency springs eternal

One of the things that consistently provides me with a mild degree of amusement as an alternate history fan is how writers from other genres, and especially outside the speculative fiction scene, and especially outside of genre fiction, accidentally reinvent alternate history. Mystery and thriller writers doing it is one thing, as alternate histories can provide interesting new settings for such plots (some of the best writing in the genre is from authors from those traditions trying their hand at it; I can name The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon, Fatherland by Robert Harris, and Dominion by C. J. Sansom as good examples thereof), but ‘literary’ types doing it is something else. Part of me finds it funny that writers from a tradition that derides science fiction and fantasy as focusing on setting to the detriment of character find their way to a subgenre whose setting is perhaps the defining feature. Of course, that doesn’t mean they always do it well—I found Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America to have an ending that would never be taken seriously in a genre space (although the HBO miniseries improved on that substantially), and I found Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham to not have a clear idea of what to do with the premise. It is with all this baggage I encountered Jean d’Ormesson’s 1971 novel The Glory of the Empire, originally published by Éditions Gallimard, with its English translation released in 2016 and published by the New York Review of Books.

Earlier than most, d’Ormesson invents textbook-style alternate history (a subgenre with pre-d’Ormesson antecedents in works such as H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come), almost contemporaneously with Robert Sobel’s For Want of a Nail, a book by an economist which set the stage for much of alternate history, professional and amateur, that followed it; you can feel its echoes still felt today if one knows where to look. Indeed, I kept thinking of Sobel as I read d’Ormesson, so similar are they in their conceits and yet so different in terms of subject matter. Sobel’s book is known for its commitment to paralleling, some would argue satirizing, academia with its in-universe scholarly debates and its pages upon pages of nonexistent sources in its bibliography. d’Ormesson does all of that, to my great surprise, but in some ways he goes further than Sobel.

On its face, The Glory of the Empire is simply a cipher, where history goes mostly the same as ours with one historical element replaced with a fictional element. Here, the Roman Empire never rises, and in its place rises a Mediterranean colossus that is only ever referred to as the Empire, which is governed from a capital only ever referred to as the City. d’Ormesson deliberately leaves the details vague, which in modern alternate history circles would either be tarred as lazy writing or understood as a sign that the work has another focus (it’s not alternate history, but see the hand wringing over the implausible politics of Alex Garland’s film Civil War vis-à-vis its narrative focus on the actual human experience of civil wars to get an idea). As my dear friend Gary Oswald has argued, if you don’t have a traditional narrative, your history has to be good to make up for it, but d’Ormesson, not confined by the arcane discussions of hobbyists, has taken a third option: a meditation on the meaning of history itself.

The book is written like a textbook, and one of a style that feels like something out of 1971 if not before; indeed, the earlier parts of the book read almost like an old chronicle. The text is awash in references to nonexistent historians that d’Ormesson’s alter ego has consulted; there are even footnotes! These historians are squabbling, deeply funny to history nerds like myself, but I wonder if it may come off as obtuse to general readers. He also invokes many real historians and other historical figures, such as Walt Whitman and Vladimir Lenin, to enliven the commentary, and provides cartons of Easter eggs to aforementioned history nerds.

The broad contours of the Empire’s history are essentially Roman history from the mythical foundation by Romulus and Remus to the fall of Constantinople put in a blender and made into a peculiar but surprisingly tasty nutrient shake. You have the ancient creation myths, the squabbling of cities and the eventual consolidation of the heartland, the conquest of the surrounding areas, the succession disputes and civil wars, the barbarians, and all that jazz. Admittedly, the religious aspect can be a bit confusing, and I’m not entirely sure where Christianity fits in. In any case, it’s something of a funhouse mirror of European history, and it gets stranger as you move East. The Empire, after a certain point in the book, begins to resemble the Mongols more than anything else, marching ever eastward, becoming the greatest power the world had ever known.

There are a number of figures that take center stage during the course of the book, fitting for a work whose scope spans several centuries. Some are clearly mythical, with a generous description of latter-day mythmaking served alongside the historiography. But the most compelling of these characters is by far Emperor Alexis, who would be given the mantle of ‘main character’ if one absolutely had to be chosen. His life seems mythical, and d’Ormesson deliberately doesn’t let you know what, exactly, is ‘real’ about him. He has a properly epic story, from a life of mind-dulling hedonism in Alexandria, to wandering ancient Asia learning and dispensing wisdom, to returning to the Empire as its savior à la King Arthur in the hour of its greatest need. Through Alexis, who in this world seems to be all the virtues said to be held by a constellation of Classical-age luminaries rolled into one, d’Ormesson is asking a rather big question: what is heroism without the scaffolding of circumstance behind it? What does that mean for a civilization which, through its great men, inspires civilizations beyond its own fall?

The decision to never name the Empire or its capital city, or even to provide a proper location of its heartland (although it is definitely along the Mediterranean somewhere, and I got the impression that it was at some undisclosed point on the Italian peninsula), reminded me of the Race, the invading aliens in Harry Turtledove’s WorldWar series (incidentally, the series that got me into alternate history). The Race has homogenized itself to the point that it needs no other signifiers for itself, nor for its government; before meeting humanity, there’s no ‘other’ to define themselves by. In d’Ormesson’s novel, the namelessness of the Empire is in in-universe terms murkier than in Turtledove’s work, but in a Doylist sense it is very clear: it is the Empire, and nobody would bother thinking of any other upon hearing that word. The West likes to define itself as the successor to Rome and Greece, as does Russia to the Kievan Rus (to Ukraine’s great chagrin), and China to the Qin, among many other examples. Even as history grinds all things beautiful and sordid into dust with the passage of time, people like to define themselves as the clear successors to some historical entity, not acknowledging that change renders a complete continuity of essence laughable, something like how the human body replaces almost all of its cells every seven years or so.

This all becomes more clever at the ending (spoilers for a fifty-year-old book incoming), where, through what is admittedly more than a little jerry-rigged, history returns to something we would recognize. So much of the alternate history genre is committed to questions of contingency and of inevitability, be it the course of wars or the course of empires. Doing enough of this sort of thinking, I found the truth in what Buddhists call ‘anatta,’ or ‘non-self,’ the idea that nothing has a fixed essence, as its constituent parts can be recombined in myriad ways. In other words, nothing is inevitable. Most alternate history does this by changing the past and seeing what other presents could happen; d’Ormesson does something I would have thought to be impossible to do in a compelling manner until I read this book: change the past that leads to our exact present. It’s a deeply weird way of going about things, but it throws the contingency of everything into stark relief.

I am mildly appalled that it took me wandering around my local library to learn of The Glory of the Empire. It’s the sort of book that alternate historians like me should love; indeed I love it for what it has done, although it confused me at times (but many great books do). History as a discipline is about asking ‘why?’ The speculative genres are about asking ‘what if?’ d’Ormesson has blended the two here in a way I’ve never seen before, and the end result feels very new, despite it being half a century old! It’s a book that hammered into me the point that everything could have been different. It is an unmooring experience in the best way possible.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.

Reference: d'Ormesson, Jean. The Glory of the Empire [Éditions Gallimard, 1971].