William Hickling Prescott was an important 19th century historian (The Conquest of Peru, The Conquest of Mexico). George Ticknor, a childhood friend, was also a distinguished Bostonian man of letters. Ticknor was also Prescott’s biographer. Contemporary Canadian youngster Sheila Heti has used the lives of Prescott and Ticknor to structure her little slip of a novel, Ticknor (2005). It looks like it might be a historical novel, but Heti is just having her clever postmodern fun. The two most authentic historical scenes in the book are a detailed description of a hospital and a first-rate Christmas scene that are pinched directly from Florence Nightingale and others (see the Author’s Note). It’s that kind of book.
Here’s the line, a good, and typical, one, that tipped me off, on Prescott’s leisurely labors on The Conquest of Mexico:
“And hurry he did not, but rather put it off so that three months were passed in loafing before he was able to sit down at his desk, beginning only a few days’ labor for it was to be another six months before he would again put a word on paper, given the interruption of a voyage to Nigeria on account of his daughter’s ill health and the death of his brother Edward at sea, two things that together prevented him from coming to his labors for another half year.” (p. 46)
Sorry, what’s that? A trip to Nigeria, you don’t say? For his daughter’s health, you don’t say? There might be some fun in separating fact from fiction here, but not much, I think. Forget the history – it’s just a hook on which to hang a novel about jealousy and betrayal.
Self-perceived betrayal. The Prescott of the novel is wealthy, well-married, famous, and important. The Ticknor of the novel is none of these things. So there we have the jealousy. Prescott has known Ticknor since they were children, but has other, better friends and only sometimes invites Ticknor to his parties. There’s the betrayal – in other words, no betrayal at all, just ordinary life, and Ticknor knows it, which embitters him more.* This all seems acutely observed.
Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation has championed this book. He has praised it for its evocative period details, for example of the Prescotts’ kitchen. This is a great testament to the power of the imagination, since the kitchen scene includes almost no concrete details whatsoever (at least of the kitchen - Prescott’s wife’s “wide” posterior “was like a whole other being entirely; a lovely creature stuck to her legs”, p. 32). I have seen other reviewers,** Sarvas, too, praise Ticknor’s voice for its authenticity, which I don’t hear at all. Ticknor’s voice is more like that of the narrator of The Good Soldier or Malone Dies than of Hawthorne or Emerson or Longfellow or Parkman. All to the good, too, since it’s consistent and without jarring archaicisms.
It might sound like I’m knocking Sarvas here, which is not my intent. He actually pointed me toward this book, which is very much worth a look. Sarvas’s own novel (Harry, Revised) just came out. While doing some Ford Madox Ford-style page 90 tests in the bookstore last weekend, I picked up Sarvas’s book, and not only did he easily pass the test, but out of the dozen or so books I tried, he was only topped by Irène Némirovsky.
I strongly recommend Ticknor, all 118 pages of it, to any reader who finds this funny: “She can vouch for my character. I have a pie” (p. 52), and later “I thought you said ten. Put the pie in the flower bed. Leave now.” (p. 54) I do, and there’s more like it.
* And there’s a final shocking revelation, which I won’t go into, since it’s so oblique yet so obvious that I assume it’s a parody.
** This Village Voice review is in a class of its own: "Lately, this reader's been occupied with a dismal question. Do any of the books we adore leave us feeling they really, truly need to exist?" Time, perhaps, to take a break from book reviewing, then?