I’ve been traveling on vacation for the last couple of weeks, so haven’t had the opportunity to post my most recent reviews and interviews. I’ll be trying to catch up this week and next.
Omphalos is the third novel of Mark Patton, who in addition to writing novels is an academic, an archaeologist by profession. It’s unlike the other historical novels I’ve reviewed so far, because it’s not about a particular era in history. Instead, Omphalos tells six different stories set in different eras, all of which involve in some way a stone tower built above an ancient underground stone structure on the island of Jersey, known today as La Hougue Bie. The stories range from prehistory to contemporary times and include revolutionary France, medieval travelers, and the Second World War.
I applaud Omphalos for its ambition — it’s a novel that is unafraid of taking risks and stretching the genre. It also uses a mix of narrative methods; the French Revolution story takes the form of diary entries, while the Second World War story is epistolary. You have to be ready for lots of changing times, situations, languages, and characters. But the pervading sense of how themes and characters recur over time makes this book compelling.
I’ll confess that not all the stories held my interest to the same degree, but that’s to be expected in a novel this wide-ranging. This isn’t so much a “historical novel” as it is a novel about history itself, about the way history is made and the stories that come to be accepted as history. The omphalos of the title, a tower that reaches deep into the heart of the earth and stretches toward heaven, is the novel’s connecting point and central symbol, a sign of how our stories connect over time even when we’re not aware of it. It’s a lovely, meditative work, and one that well deserved its M.M. Bennetts nomination.
SW: Omphalos takes a very distinctive narrative approach, involving not one story line, but six. What inspired you to take this approach?
It all started with Italo Calvino’s If, On A Winter’s Night, A Traveller…, which influenced David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which in turn influenced me. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando was also there in the background. I didn’t know this until a late stage, but, as I was writing Omphalos, Kate Atkinson was writing Life After Life; Sebastian Faulks was writing A Possible Life; and Ali Smith was writing How to be Both; all of which have comparable structures, so it seems to have become something of a contemporary trope, a wave I was more than happy to ride.
SW: The stories connect through a location on the island of Jersey that is used for various human purposes, both sacred and secular, through the centuries. I understand that this site is one you are personally very closely connected with. Could you give us a little background?
I was born and grew up on Jersey, and was later Director of the Archaeological Museum there. La Hougue Bie is one of the most important archaeological sites there, which I excavated in the 1990s. There is a megalithic tomb covered by a cairn, built around 6000 years ago. On its summit is a 12th Century chapel, to which a 16th Century cleric added a crypt styled on the Holy Sepulchre, on top of which an 18th Century prince built a pavilion. During World War II, the occupying German forces built an observation post over one end of the chapel. It is now a museum complex, and I had my office there for three years.
SW: As an archaeologist, I suspect you have a different relationship with objects and artifacts than most of us. Omphalos uses certain objects (a bead, a model of a chapel, etc.) as connectors between the stories. What has the practice of archaeology brought to your fiction writing in that respect, i.e., seeing stories in objects?
An archaeologist studies the human past backwards. The 20th Century layer is always on top of the 18th Century layer, which is always above the 16th Century layer, and so on. Thus we always experience it in reverse order as we excavate, and then try to tell the story in the other direction. That gave me the structure for the book: I take the readers back in time to 4000 BC, and then bring them home again, revealing aspects of the story along the way. Archaeologists are telling stories with objects all the time (I even teach my students how to write “object biographies”), so it seemed to me that this was something distinctive which I could bring to fiction, something that might make my novels a little different from those written by others. Objects feature as “characters” in all of my novels, and some figure as connecting devices between them.
SW: I find one of the challenges of historical fiction is the immersion into an era, getting a feel for what characters of that time would have been thinking, what their world-view would have been, and so forth. Were there any of the eras you write about in Omphalos that were particularly difficult for you to immerse yourself into?
My writing practice is something close to method acting. I surround myself with the literature, art and popular culture of the time as I “become” the character. The most emotionally draining story to write was that set in the 1940s, because my two protagonists are (at least at the outset) members of the Nazi Party. Inhabiting their world, as the events of the war and its aftermath unfolded, took me into some of the darkest corners of the human psyche. The most technically difficult to write was that set in 4000 BC because, like Tolkien, I had to invent an entire world view, social system, code of ethics, religion and so on, based on very meagre archaeological evidence: places and objects are real, but everything else is necessarily pure fiction.
SW: Because it uses intertwined story lines, each with its own pace and sets of characters, Omphalos doesn’t follow the classic rising action/climax/falling action structure of many novels. Were you concerned about deviating from this familiar pattern?
Not at all. My first novel, Undreamed Shores, follows quite a conventional story arc, but my second, An Accidental King, has flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, in a structure that owes as much to the films of the French Nouvelle Vague as it does to anything in literature. By the time I came to write my third novel, Omphalos, I was actively looking for a new means of expression, one that would allow my readers to travel through time, even though my characters don’t.
SW: When I hear the word “omphalos,” one of the literary antecedents that comes to my mind immediately is James Joyce, who gives the term a kind of free-floating symbolic importance. Does the concept of an omphalos have similar symbolic resonance for you?
It has had a resonance for me since I visited Delphi, the omphalos of the ancient Greek world, and it occurred to me that other cultures might be thought to have their own omphalos, and that for Jersey, it would have to be La Hougue Bie. James Joyce, however, is certainly an influence on my writing. When I was working on my third or fourth draft, I came up with the idea that each of the stories should have one or two “presiding geniuses” – past or present writers that I would not try to imitate, but whose influence I would specifically invite. These were: James Joyce; Johann von Goethe; Jane Austen (with M.M. Bennetts sitting alongside); Francois Rabelais & Miguel de Cervantes; Hilary Mantel; and Sally Pomme Clayton, a performance storyteller whose work I have long admired.
SW: In addition to its unusual narrative approach, Omphalos also uses a variety of devices such as letters and diaries to tell some of its stories. What drew you to these methods instead of more conventional narration?
In part, it was about distancing the characters’ voices from my own. My first two novels each have a single male viewpoint and, in a sense, the protagonists, Amzai in Undreamed Shores, and Cogidubnus in An Accidental King, might be thought to be projections of my own personality back into the past. Omphalos has ten protagonists, some male, others female, and if all of them spoke with a variation of my own voice, the book would probably seem very stilted. Writing in entirely different styles made it easier for me to avoid this, but it was also an opportunity to experiment with new modes of writing: I am still learning my craft (and will be until the day I die).
SW: What’s next?
The Cheapside Tales – again made up of several stories set in different periods, but set in London. The linking device is a hoard of jewellery, discovered in 1912, buried in the 17th Century, but including individual pieces that go back to the 1st Century BC.