When Fact becomes Fiction

  • 8 August 2007
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The rise of Napoleon, revealing relationships and restoring an empireThe Conqueror and the Saviour
The first instalments of two vastly ambitious biographical projects have recently been published. Napoleon: The Path to Power is the opening volume of Philip Dwyer's unprecedented three-part life of the Corsican conqueror. In producing this biography Dwyer's intention has been to lay to rest the more persistent fantasies about Bonaparte and give readers the most comprehensive and authoritative account of his rise from overlooked infantryman to a general of the French Army. If the standard of scholarship Dwyer has achieved is sustained, Booknotes relishes the thought of the volumes to come, which will follow the momentous years when the fate of the world rested on each step Bonaparte took in his quest for immortality.

The only figure to have shaped human history more than Napoleon was Jesus Christ whose own early life is now the subject of an even more gigantic book, Jesus of Nazareth. Rising to this singular challenge is, appropriately enough, Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger. The Pontiff has meticulously studied countless translations of the Gospels as well as amassing a huge quantity of hitherto unrecorded historical material relating to the life of Jesus for this book and, in subsequent volumes, his Holiness will complete his personal search for the historical Christ.

The Storyteller
This month sees the return of one of the true gentlemen of Irish literature, William Trevor. After a very successful decade or so concentrating on novels, the results of which included the universally praised Felicia's Journey and the prize-winning The Story of Lucy Gault, Trevor's latest offering is a new collection of the impeccable and powerful short-stories for which he has become world famous. The twelve tales in Cheating at Canasta are all linked by the classic Trevor themes of childhood innocence, deceit within families and our inability as humans to surrender the past.

In his fifty year career as a professional writer Trevor has steadfastly avoided sensationalism, always preferring to look at his characters' lives in a more considered, sensitive light than most authors. It is Trevor's gentle, unobtrusive approach to the art of fiction which has won the admiration of readers but which has also blinded critics for far too long to the precision of his characterisation, his gift for producing perfectly-judged sentences and, above all, the emotional honesty of his work. Now, with Trevor himself fast approaching his 80th birthday, devotees and newcomers can enjoy the words of a superb storyteller who simply has no rival in modern fiction.
Empire of the Sun

It is only when faced with a flop summer as lacklustre as this has been that you realise the value of a good book. As the heavens open for what seems the thousandth time it is best to consider this miserable weather a blessing in disguise and withdraw to your favourite place of calm to read all the books you have been forced to set aside. Booknotes cannot promise real sunshine but the fictional variety will have to keep us going. For this reason there could be no better paperback choice for August than Robert Harris' Roman epic, Imperium.

Our hero is Marcus Tullius Cicero, a brilliant young consul from the provinces who travels to Rome set to become one of the greatest statesmen it will ever know. There he finds the power-mad Julius Caesar's vendetta with his equally megalomaniacal enemy Pompey Magnus about to develop into civil war. Cicero must use all his guile and wisdom to navigate these treacherous political waters and restore order to the empire. Aside from wine, women and a plethora of sun-soaked villas, Imperium is replete with all the adventure, intrigue, romance and fabulous historical detail that has made Harris one of the most envied historical novelists.