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Fall of Giants

Last Monarch Standing

The British novelist Ken Follett’s two-part medieval epic, “The Pillars of the Earth” (now a TV miniseries) and “World Without End”, teemed with oppressed peasants, bloodthirsty warlords and lusty wassailers. His new novel, “Fall of Giants”, is the first volume of a projected trilogy in which the 20th century has replaced the Middle Ages as a stage for life’s grandeurs and miseries, but the book’s narrative structure is the same: multiple plot strands woven through a vast tapestry of times past. In this huge panorama, empires rise and fall, wars break out and characters of varying social backgrounds live mostly happy or mostly unhappy lives – mostly happy, more often than not, because Follett is an optimist, and firmly on the side of the good guys. He prefers to save history’s horrors for the villains, who are frequently humiliated in satisfying ways.

The giants of the title, the crowned heads of Europe, are solidly ensconced in their palaces when the story begins in 1911 but all gone (except King George V of Britain) when it ends, in 1924. In between, various upheavals remake the world, affording plenty of scope for action, and Follett takes full advantage of this opportunity. Apart from the destinies of the monarchs, we follow the intertwined fates of five families, rich and poor, in Wales, England, Germany, Russia and America: a Welsh coal miner and his suffragist sister; an arrogant English earl who is their nemesis; two orphaned Russian brothers, one a scoundrel, one a working-class hero; a pair of star-crossed lovers, she sister of the British earl, he son of a Prussian nobleman, divided by war; an ambitious young diplomat from Buffalo, whose path crosses those of the Russian scoundrel, the English earl, the earl’s sister, her German lover and President Woodrow Wilson; and so on.

Six pages at the front of the book are devoted to the cast of characters, a list that runs the gamut from “King George V” to “Theo, thug”, via “Winston Churchill, M.P.”, “Gini, a bar girl” and “Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg”. Czar Nicholas II is one of the few big celebs who never actually show up, but his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm makes a couple of cameo appearances, complete with tetchy temper and withered left arm. Churchill has a brief role as an acerbic guest at a country home, where the king and queen are also guests on another occasion. We stop in at Wilson’s White House and sail with the idealistic president to Europe in 1919 in his vain attempt to sell peace to the world through his League of Nations. Lloyd George and Lenin step onstage once or twice, the former a roguish ladies’ man, the latter a humorless megalomaniac – accurate depictions, to go by historical accounts.

Indeed, in an afterword, Follett says he never attributes inaccurate or unconfirmed characteristics to his real-life characters, or puts them where they could never be. This may be true; unfortunately, he also fails to flesh them out. We get just enough to render them more than mere caricatures but something less than real people. Neither they nor the novel’s lesser characters come across as much more than convenient vessels of exposition to carry the story forward.

But carry it forward they do, unflaggingly. The novel opens in the underworld of the Welsh mining country in 1911, with an account of young Billy Williams’s first day down the mine, following in the footsteps of his forebears. Follett ably evokes the everyday minutiae of an impoverished village:

“All the miners had a tin ‘snap.’ If they took food underground wrapped in a rag, the mice would eat it before the midmorning break. Mam said: ‘When you bring me home your wages, you can have a slice of boiled bacon in your snap.’ ”

Meanwhile, up top – Upstairs, as it were, to the miners’ Downstairs – the local toffs, the Fitzherberts, are hosting a banquet at their stately country home, which was built on the labors of the miners below. Their fare, unsurprisingly, is somewhat more lavish:

“The menu began with hors d’oeuvres Russes, … little blinis with caviar and cream, triangles of toast and smoked fish, crackers with soused herring, all washed down with the Perrier-Jouët 1892 ­Champagne.”

Young Billy’s sister, Ethel, is a housekeeper in the Fitzherberts’ mansion, in thrall to the magnetism of the earl until that man, out of social necessity and misplaced amour-propre, refuses to acknowledge paternity of the son he has with her. Ethel quits her job, accepts a discreet settlement from the earl and moves to London with the child. Subsequently, she and Billy and other characters oppressed by the class system seek liberation in the heady atmosphere of the progressive politics of the day.

This is the book’s main theme: the superiority of broad-mindedness and liberal thinking over unthinking adherence to the old ways, especially those exemplified by the decadent aristocracy. As themes go, it’s not a bad one. It lacks subtlety, but it provides dramatic conflict and an easy story line to follow, and it’s a shortcut to engaging the modern reader’s sympathy. It also gives the author free rein to broadcast his own indignation through his characters, sometimes to vivifying effect:

“He was narrow-minded, outdated and deaf to reason,” one character thinks of his father, “and he persisted in these faults with a kind of gleeful obstinacy that Walter found repellent. The consequence of his foolishness, and the foolishness of his generation in all European countries, was the slaughter of the Somme. Walter could not forgive that.”

The passage refers to the German ruling class (Walter being the token liberal in a nest of hidebound Junkers), but Follett is equally damning of the shortcomings of his own countrymen, especially when it comes to the one-sided version of history taught to British schoolchildren:

“When they learned about British justice,” he writes, “there was no mention of flogging in Australia, starvation in Ireland or massacre in India. They learned that Catholics burned Protestants at the stake, and it came as a shock if they ever found out that Protestants did the same to Catholics whenever they got the chance.”

Follett is of the old school of didactic novelists, combining a boisterous tale with an uplifting lesson in history and civics. He understands that his average reader’s knowledge of both is probably rusty, to say the least; accordingly, he meticulously reconstructs an era and leads us through the follies and occasional heroics of its protagonists real and imaginary. His word-dioramas include most of the major battles of World War I – Tannenberg, the Marne, the Somme – and events elsewhere, including (in flashback) the failed 1905 uprising against the czar that led 12 years later to the Russian Revolution, the strongest of the novel’s set pieces. Follett romps around revolutionary St. Petersburg as if it were his own private sandbox.

The Russian brothers Lev and Grigori, downtrodden metalworkers, follow their divergent destinies through an ingenious series of missteps, lucky breaks and the intervention of history (and Follett). Meanwhile, Lenin prepares to return to Russia from his Swiss exile – smuggled, in Churchill’s words, “like a plague bacillus” across Germany in a sealed railroad car – with the connivance of the German authorities, who want nothing more than to see the Reds take over and Russia knocked out of the war. This is high-octane storytelling, all the more powerful because the story it tells is, mostly, true. Follett’s command of the vast forces he unleashes is as impressive as the battle strategies of his generals, and in many cases more so.

But amid all the bustle a few infelicities sneak past the authorial or editorial radar. For instance, we learn that a particularly nasty czarist policeman “had a small head and a mean face,” only to be told again a few hundred pages later (plus ça change) that “he had a small head and a mean face.”

Hello! you want to call out. Is there an editor in the house? Equally annoying is Follett’s reliance on potboiler shorthand to convey mood: “Her eyes flashed with fury”; “General Galliéni’s eyes glittered behind his pince-nez.” Eyes smolder, twinkle and glow; plug in the appropriate emotions, as needed. (Also, if all the sex scenes were excised, it would be no loss to the narrative and a boon to the reader.)

Still, these are small blots on a vast landscape. Overall, Follett is masterly in conveying so much drama and historical information so vividly. He puts to good use the professional skills he has honed over the years – giving his characters a conversational style neither pseudo-quaint nor jarringly contemporary. That works well. And for all his belief in the redemptive quality of liberal humanism, he makes sure not to endow his characters with excessively modern sensibilities. As for the occasional cliché – well, unless you’re Tolstoy, you’re not going to have the time or the ability to be original throughout your 1,000-page blockbuster. Ken Follett is no Tolstoy, but he is a tireless storyteller, and although his tale has flaws, it’s grippingly told, and readable to the end.

Roger Boylan, The New York Times, 30 September 2010