A God Against the Gods (Magill's Literary Annual 1977)
When Advise and Consent appeared in 1959, the Kirkus reviewer announced that “a powerful new writer, who can use the political arena as his theatre, has been introduced.” Advise and Consent became a bestseller despite its mixed critical reaction. Reviewers generally admitted that it was a compelling saga that might even have a useful pedagogic impact in allowing the reading public a realistic glimpse into the corridors of power Drury had frequented for years as a Washington reporter. But Charles Rolo, writing in Atlantic, commented, “One feels throughout that the real figures are more remarkable, the real events more startling” than Drury’s fictionalized counterparts. A similar reaction greeted the sequel, A Shade of Difference (1962). One critic put his finger precisely on the weak point of Drury’s journalistic fiction in saying that he seems “boxed in by his need to . . . fit recognizable characters into [his] framework.” In order to make a fictional world fully convincing, the author must create a definite psychic distance between it and the real world of the reader. In creating that distance, there is no better ally than time.
In A God Against the Gods, and its sequel Return to Thebes (1977), Drury has found his artistic milieu. Combining the talents of an assiduous researcher and an empathetic journalist, he has become a considerable historical novelist, practicing adroitly techniques currently in vogue among scholars of “the new psycho-history.” Drury explains his own approach in a most interesting preface (complemented by an excellent bibliography of his sources). “Much of professional Egyptology,” he writes, “consists of intrepid conjectures stoutly declared, passionately defended, and constantly revised.” As an example he cites the case of Horemheb, the last pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty (which he calls the “House of Thebes”). This pharaoh, depending on scholarly speculation about the vocalic sounding of Egyptian hieroglyphs, is variously known as Har-em-hab, Harmhab, Horemhab, Haremhab, Haremheb, Harmhab, Harmheb, Herm-en-heb, as well as by the form Drury himself chooses. The truth is that we have no factual knowledge about roughly sixty percent of events, personages, and beliefs during the seventeen-year domination of the cult of Aton (“the Amarnan period”).
Since Howard Carter’s epoch-revealing discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamon IV in 1922, however, Egyptologists have formulated a score of scenarios for the general period covered in Drury’s novel, 1392 (the birth year decided for the novel’s protagonists Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti) to 1330. The result is universal disagreement within the field—absurd disagreement, since, given the common certain facts, no one theoretical scenario is better or worse than any other. This is where Drury’s approach displays its greatest strength and makes its most significant contribution to our general rapport with the mystery of the Eighteenth Dynasty. The novel accomodates factual material accurately; those known facts that do not enter into Drury’s reconstruction of political and psychological events and motivations, or that contribute nothing to the forwarding of the plot, are omitted—but not twisted to support a scholarly theory. Drury’s basic thesis, as he explains in the preface, is “that the ancients were . . . human beings before they were anything else,” a thesis he finds strikingly absent, or even contradicted, among most Egyptologists. Although the basic historical outline of the book generally follows Cyril Aldred’s Akhenatn: Pharaoh of Egypt, Drury straighforwardly applies with consistent conviction the principle that “the novelist must consider himself, within the bounds of logic and common sense, quite as free as Pharaoh to decide for himself what Pharaoh did.” Yet the only material he bends to his own devices are those known events, persons, objects, or relationships that have yet to be definitively locked into the factual, proven body of evidence.
(The entire section is 1672 words.)
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