In A Brightness Long Ago, the latest novel by Guy Gavriel Kay, longtime readers will encounter the elements they’ve come to expect: Epic historical events set in an exquisitely detailed milieu—this time, an analogue of fifteenth century Italy—delivered through the prism of the fantastic.
How this novel differs from previous offerings is in its focus on one the intimate experience of one man, told from the first person. His perspective is juxtaposed with those of others, but overall the tale remains his version of events. As history unfolds, we are urged to recall the ways in which even the most world-changing events are experienced differently by each individual.
I caught up with Guy Gavriel Kay to talk about the themes of this novel as compared with previous ones, his choice to write the protagonist in the first person, and more.
In a letter you wrote that was attached by the publisher to advance copies of A Brightness Long Ago, you note that we are psychologically and neurologically programmed to internalize the memories from our teens until our mid-twenties more intensely than any other time of life, a fact that is an underpinning to this book. Do you care to expand on that thought?
There’s a wry aspect to this, as my psychoanalyst brother (to whom this book is dedicated) mentioned this to me 15 or so years ago! When I started writing this novel, using as one of the point of view characters—a man looking back on events form his twenties that loom large for him—that conversation came back from my memory! I asked my brother and he sent some scholarship on the subject.
It wasn’t strictly necessary for me at all, but I always like when some research can underpin things I do in the books (from female doctors in Al-Andalus [in The Lions of al-Rassan] to the politics of exile and return in Song Dynasty China [in Under Heaven and River of Stars] to a small city of raiders on the Dalmatian coast [in Children of Earth and Sky]). I like the idea, for this book, that not only are these recollections of that time genuinely dramatic, worth remembering, but Danio Cerra is more likely to remember them because of this aspect of our collective nature.
Of course memory is always selective, erratic, sometime self-indulgent, and this plays a role in the book, too. He says at one point he remembers those years as if a wind was always blowing… even though he knows it isn’t so at all.
Memory has been a strong theme in your books. While Tigana is about the interplay of individual and national memory, and River of Stars is—broadly speaking–about the perils of historic memory, in A Brightness Long Ago, the focus is on one man’s intensely personal memories against the backdrop of historic events.
What do you think it is about this theme that leads you to return to it in different ways in books that are dramatically different from one another?
I think you are right, but I’m not sure any artist can truly pin down why certain motifs engage them, seen (as you say) in varying and sometimes opposing ways. I honestly think it flows naturally when you write about history, even with my “quarter turn” to the fantastic. Why does the past matter? (Does it, some might ask.)
And we deploy history so politically, always (not just today). We choose what we want to extract (or remember) of previous events and times. Two people remember their first meeting (or their breakup!) very differently. Two historians look at the past of a culture or country in dramatically different ways. All of this fascinates me, on both the micro and the macro levels.
A Brightness Long Ago is the first of your books to employ the first person point of view. Can you talk about this choice, its inherent challenges, and its opportunities? Did you learn something about yourself as a writer, from employing this technique for the first time?
I worried about it, because I knew it would be only one of many voices in the novel. That’s been done, but not often. In the writing, however, right from the start, it felt natural. (I’ve done a lot of first person poetry, of course. Not same thing, but some of them are characters speaking in first person, not me.)
The first person voice, someone looking back, opened the window for me to explore some of what you’ve raised above—the meaning of looking back. How we see our lives, and our time. From a craft point of view, it felt to me (this was unexpected) as if this even becomes an aid to readers as I switch perspectives. When we get to first person, we know who we are with.
In Tigana and A Song for Arbonne, the protagonists are empowered to shift historic events. In particular, in Arbonne, the protagonists reverse what in real life was a historic atrocity. This is in contrast to your later books, in which the currents of history are inexorable even for the most heroic figures. Can you comment on this gradual change of perspective?
I don’t think in terms of a collective view in my works, nor any deliberate migration of tone or theme. If you think about it, France “winning” the Albigensian Crusade is just as much an impact on the time as Arbonne causing an invasion not to succeed, In other words, within the framework of the story, it isn’t anything different. One side wins, one loses, people (or the forces of history!) caused each. You are right that the novel explores or raises how our world might be different if certain things had fallen out otherwise. I do the same thing in Lord of Emperors, as to the real-world invasions of Italy by Justinian and Belisarius.
You are also right, I am sure, that there’s a shift in what engages me, how I see the world and even the purpose of writing. What one wants to do with a novel. I really do believe if we are the same person at sixty that we were at thirty, and the same artist, something’s awry in our growth. Not trivially, for an writer, this can mean gaining some passionate readers, and distancing some. Not everyone wants to move to a new part of the forest, as it were, just because a writer does. My own great good fortune has been that I seem to have readers willing to explore different takes and perspectives and aspirations with me. That’s nothing less than a gift.