Historical novel is strong on detail
Themes of human mortality govern Empress
By Eva Stachniak Doubleday Canada
In his mischievously provocative novel HHhH, a fictionalized account of the Second World War assassination of high-ranking Nazi henchman Reinhard Heydrich, author Laurent Binet frequently pauses the action to ponder openly about the validity of historical invention.
And yet, for all its metafictional conceit — and, make no mistake, HHhH does make the reader think long and hard about the legitimacy of embellishing the lives of historical figures — the novel spins an absorbing account of what happened on those tensionfraught days in Prague in 1942. At the end of the day, Binet reminds us that historical fiction’s first duty is to fiction, not history.
Historical fiction, on a somewhat less exalted level than HHhH, is a solid staple of the publishing business.
Eva Stachniak’s Empress of the Night is her second novel about Russian ruler Catherine the Great. Not, strictly speaking, a sequel to The Winter Palace, which charted the life of an upwardly mobile Polish woman who served as one of Catherine’s attendants, Empress of the Night offers a parallel narrative told from Catherine’s perspective, as the extraordinary Russian monarch looks back on life from her deathbed.
The novel, based on Catherine’s memoirs, probes its protagonist’s struggle to assert her place in a world dominated by men. It is also steeped in themes of mortality, and the reality that all lives, no matter how exalted, are governed by elements that are “utterly and brutally banal.” Even an empress who rules over millions of subjects and the unfathomably vast dominion of Russia, is prey to the humbling affront of corporeal decline.
Catherine, arriving in Russia as a minor German duchess betrothed to the heir of the Romanov line, survived several setbacks to become one of the greatest rulers in Russian history. Her hold on the popular imagination today is largely owed to a reputedly voracious sexual appetite that, according to implausibly apocryphal legend, caused her to meet her end on the underside of a horse. Stachniak, a Polish-born writer who moved to Canada in 1981, gives us Catherine’s lifelong parade of lovers, whose difference in age from her grew steadily greater with time, but she also emphasizes Catherine’s stature as a progressive Enlightenment figure who opposed capital punishment and the use of torture to extract confessions.
The Winter Palace was a relatively conventional novel. Readers of that bestseller might initially be daunted by the less straightforward narrative approach in Empress of the Night, which emerges through a series of vignettes that shift back and forth in time. A consistent strength of both books is Stachniak’s unfailing attention to detail, whether describing the pain of childbirth or the manner of a courtier’s behaviour and appearance.
Empress of the Night