L'écrivain , chroniqueur, journaliste, acteur, philosophe et membre de l'Académie Française Jean d'Ormesson en 1995, Rome, Italie. Picture Credit: Eric BRISSAUD/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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Empire of the Imagination

Historical metafiction

I recently returned to a book that had a profound impact on me: The Glory of the Empire (La Gloire de l’Empire) by French novelist and legendary dean of the Académie Française Jean d’Ormesson. Little translated, d’Ormesson is one of those figures who towered over French public life but has left barely a ripple in the English-speaking world. 

Those who do know him, and his most famous novel, encounter a French Borges — a master of irony and metafiction, but, in the French manner, one as concerned with the science of history as he is with picaresque works of philosophical fiction. 

We are lost in a world of reflections

The Glory of the Empire reads somewhat like a work of popular history, recounting the history of a universal empire from its primitive civic origins to its apotheosis and fall. Variously resembling the empires of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Barbarossa, Kublai Khan, Ashoka, Moctezuma, Henry II and Justinian, but fully according with none of them, the Empire serves as a sort of Kingdom of Prester John, perpetually residing just beyond the borders of the map and just outside our own time; its existence recorded by a book referenced but undiscoverable. 

As well as Borges, modern British readers may find themselves recalling the almost history of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, as the fictional Empire comes complete with a thorough appendix, index and bibliography (the latter assures us that “A 27-volume History of the Empire by the author of the present work is in preparation”). 

Like Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings was published about 15 years before The Glory of the Empire), d’Ormesson is a world-builder and synthesiser of myth; but unlike Tolkien his Empire intrudes blatantly onto the stage of history, its imaginary geography pooling at the centre of Eurasia, and its fictional influence subtly re-orients every “real” historical event it touches.  

Jean d’Ormesson posing with his book “La gloire de l’empire”. Picture Credit: ARCHIVE/AFP via Getty Images

The great babel-like tower of fantastic history is if nothing else, exceptionally lovely. The clear and elegant style of good narrative history writing is mixed with a poetic and philosophical reflection: “Childhood escapes history; it belongs to the magic world of poetry and, even in lives most brightly lit by fame, retains an aura of happiness that neither power nor glory can destroy or tarnish.” 

The work functions as an extended discourse and satire on the nature and significance of history, both as academic discipline and narrative hinterland. The high drama of the murder of Thomas of Beckett, the fall of Troy, the conquests of Alexander, Henry IV on the road to Canossa, the “divine wind” of Japan, Lancelot and Guinevere, and many other events of myth and history are transplanted to the Empire in a reimagined form, woven together into a single narrative which places the dream of universal empire at the heart of history.

The synthesis is emotionally and intellectually persuasive on its own merits, but what renders it exceptional is the subtle layering of fictional history — events are disputed between scholars, re-imagined by artists, our perspective on them transformed by archaeological excavation or textual analysis. To the shining mythology of an empire with all the pre-modern mystique of royalty and religion are applied every modern philosophy of history and psychological framing. The universalism of the empire, which is its ethic and ideal, is fractally mirrored in the thousand interpretative lenses which each claim the empire as embodying and demonstrating the personal philosophy of the observer. 

In this metafictional and metahistorical game the author is a lively participant in his own work — he is playing the part of an earnest if sometimes arrogant scholar who tends to leap to romantic conclusions. To say our narrator is unreliable is to miss the point — the layers of fictional history and historical fiction are too richly applied; we are lost in a world of reflections so dense that the image can be truer than the original.  

As if the vast Empire that ruled the world had never existed

The book is more than a literary game, however, nor is its message one of postmodern relativism — far from it. History is understood as what it truly is, a realm of contingency and chance, but one touched by teleology. It is inevitably and necessarily cyclical — but it is perpetually driven and drawn by the force of hope; the greatest sense of romanticism is combined with an extraordinarily clear-eyed account of the cruelties of political power. 

Jean d’Ormesson’s book may be clad in the greatest sense of irony about the folly of scientific history, but it raises as counterpoint an unapologetic humanism — this is a “great man” version of history that makes human agency the engine of historical change. The purpose of studying the past is relocated from the dream of establishing a science of history, with which we might master events and masses of people, and instead looks to history as a source of moral and spiritual inspiration and education. 

The past is dead: this is the basic fact that motivates the book. By definition it is what has been and is no longer. It becomes alive again, is made real again, only by an imaginative exercise. History and legend, mythos and logos, are not ultimately separable. The attempt to rationalise history, though it can have valuable results, ultimately risks folly. The modern historian stands alongside, and not above, the old poets and chroniclers, the prophets and the bards, as interpreters of the past. 

The Empire serves as the invisible womb of history, a concealed realm of hope and expectation that re-enchants and remythologises the history that we think of as “real”, fixed and stable. History through metafiction is rediscovered as a living thing, again changeable, again uncertain: 

The Dead have no life but in us. There would be nothing left of Alexander and Caesar, Virgil and Dante, if we ceased to think of them. All that power and genius, all that knowledge and glory would disappear at a blow. And if we stopped thinking of and loving Alexis, there would be nothing left of him. It would be as if the vast Empire that ruled the world had never existed.

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