“Is it genuine?”: Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolò Rising

niccoloInspired by my excitement about King Hereafter, I have finally started reading Dorothy Dunnett’s other big series, The House of Niccolò. I’ve actually owned Niccolò Rising for many years, and I’d started it a few times before, but it is another story with a slow burn and I’d never made it past Chapter 2. If I hadn’t been schooled in this trick of Dunnett’s so recently, I think I would have bogged down once more, and it did take a bit of determination to keep on. I remembered, this time, that I have to trust her and that if I do, I won’t be disappointed.

I wasn’t disappointed in Niccolò Rising — but mostly I wasn’t enthralled either, though I was almost always interested or curious. There are certainly sporadic sequences (as in King Hereafter) that are exciting or dramatic.  Then, a lot happens in the last 50 pages, and I was reminded that while King Hereafter stands on its own, Niccolò Rising is just the beginning of a much longer saga, so the real pay-off for her elaborate set-up (and it really is a tangled web she and Niccolò are weaving) is yet to come. I’ll certainly pursue it! Though I haven’t quite given my heart to anyone in this book the way I lost it so completely to Lymond, Claes / Nicholas is a really intriguing figure. Pobably the best thing about Niccolò Rising, in fact, is watching him transform from the wide-eyed, powerless, good-natured boy Claes into the much more poised man Nicholas and wondering, as his friends and associates do at the end of the novel, if I really know him at all. “He’s won the good will of everyone who has ever beaten him,” observes the doctor Tobie,

‘by being cheerful, placid, long-suffering, and, above all, by bearing no grudges. It makes him attractive to work with. For me, it would make him attractive to work for. But I’ve begun to wonder about this submissive role. Is it genuine?’

Julius grinned. He said, ‘Have you seen Nicholas putting up with a beating? It’s genuine.’

‘Oh, he puts up with it, at the time,’ Tobie said. ‘But what if he doesn’t immediately forget it, as you seem to think? What if every slight, every punishment is being quietly registered, because he is really a different sort of person altogether?’

‘I’ve wondered,’ said Gregorio.

‘Yes. So have I,’ said Tobie. ‘Is he what he seems? And then, from wondering, I started to notice things. The chief being this: whom friend Nicholas dislikes, it seems to me, friend Nicholas kills.’

“I started to notice things”: that’s Dunnett’s recipe, isn’t it, that we should notice things, and from there, do our best to connect them, as Tobie, Gregorio, and Julius proceed to do. They are much better at it than I am, though, and that is something that is starting to bother me, not so much about Dunnett as about myself as a reader. Is it my fault that here too I was so incapable of following the multiple threads that make up Dunnett’s incredibly intricate pattern? Is the pattern really so intricate, or am I not working hard enough, as a reader? I imagine that the pleasures of her books are greater for those who can keep track of the allegiances and loyalties and double-dealings, overt and covert, actual and possible, the way her heroes do. What makes them heroes, of course, is that they can do this, so maybe we aren’t expected to be in the know: as a device, it keeps us both surprised and impressed as she pulls out her version of the detective’s “reveal.” Other Dunnett readers: do you follow the game as it’s played, or wait, as I mostly do, for the outcome and the laying down of the hands? I grasp enough to appreciate the human confrontations, but that’s also mostly what I’m reading for, and maybe that’s a sign of weakness.

In any case, I do want to read on: she populates her novels with characters who provoke complex responses, which I really enjoy (here, so far, Katelina van Borselen is a particularly tricky one, and Marian de Charetty is particularly appealing) and there are worse expectations than that I will be consistently outsmarted even as I’m entertained and moved.

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9 Responses to “Is it genuine?”: Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolò Rising

  1. Miss Bates says:

    Ha, I loved this! Like you, I am not a good plot-thread(s)-follower; actually, I’m utterly stinky at it! Which is hazardous considering I DO like to read murder mysteries and such. Romance, for the most part, is comforting and easy that way. I love your strategy and practise it too: I give myself over to the plot and let it take me along. A lot like when someone else is driving. I’m good at reading the details and nuances, but ask me a plot detail and I carry off the benign clueless face pretty well. 😉

  2. Teresa says:

    I, too, mostly give myself over to the enjoying the ride and don’t worry much about following each thread. I sometimes think that’s a sign that I’m a bad reader, but I can only do what I can do. And it’s reassuring to know I’m not alone in this.

    With Dunnett, I find that the details are easier to pick up on in a second read, but even on second reads, there are twists I can’t follow. When I finish my Lymond reread, maybe I’ll turn to Niccolo. I liked him better than Lymond, almost from the start, but I think that’s because I enjoyed watching that transformation.

  3. Prue Batten says:

    I so enjoyed the way you describe the unfolding of Niccolo for you as a reader. I remember the first time I picked up a Dunnett book (Niccolo Rising) and how I wondered at the convolutions as the story progressed. So I stopped at Chapter Two, went back to Chapter One and sank myself into Bruges and its colour and life. I became a part of the narrative, loving the story, standing on street corners and spying on Niccolo and his friends and enemies. I could read without wondering if I should be concentrating harder.
    The depth of Dunnett’s intricacies was dealt with in subsequent re-reads over the last twenty years. It’s hard to believe that even now I’m picking up lines that I missed – that’s the very reason that these would be my desert-island books!

    • mary says:

      I couldn’t agree more…here I am, the third time through and am still learning more, especially the future glimpses that haunt Nicholas (concerning Lymond) and the hints about his convoluted family. There is so much layered here in these books, that I can cheerfully look forward to a fourth reading!

  4. Michael Brain says:

    before this new novel by DD was published she wrote to me that it involved ‘A priest , a painter , and a devil’ (which were Tarot links), so did you figure out who they were?
    If they ever wrote the musical ( and there has been an amateur version performed) I want Julius and Claes to sing the duet ‘SPLISH SPLASH I WAS TAKIN A BATH’

  5. I never read any of Dunnet’s books, though they always look like fun to me. Some day someone should buy me a complete set of one series, then I might give them a try.

  6. Terenia says:

    Like you, I found myself a bit lost as to the many, many connections and subplots and secrets involved in the stories the first time around. As you did, I waited for the reveal generally (well, that and I googled extensively on the big plot points, usually actually hoping for spoilers). I’ve just started Niccolo Rising for the second time now and I find it fascinating how it feels as if I am reading an entirely different story. Whatever is there on the first go round remains, but when you read it knowing secrets and subplots and connections and motivations, there is a second story mapped onto the first. It’s like those clear overlays in the old encyclopedias that would show you different body systems in each layer.

    I must admit to being a huge fan of Niccolo. Lymond is fine, but he’s a bit of self-flagellating patsy at times (a lot of times). Niccolo, I think, is in a constant struggle throughout the series (resolved, I believe, in Gemini) between being a brilliant but amoral historical player who uses those surrounding him for his own ends with no thought to the impact on them, and being a brilliant human. As you asked, is it genuine? And which “it”? I think Niccolo may be his own Gabriel and so, perhaps, there is not another Gabriel written into the plot.

    I enjoyed reading your posts on these and I hope you’ll continue, post-Anne-of-Cleves. 🙂

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Thank you, Terenia. You Niccolo people are very persuasive — and overall, Dunnett inspires unusual loyalty among her readers, doesn’t she? It’s a much better club to belong to than the Ferrante club — less faddish. 🙂 That’s a fascinating observation about Niccolo being his own Gabriel. I don’t feel I have that rich a sense of his character at this point, but your description of the effect of rereading is very convincing.

      I have Race of Scorpions ready to go, but things just kicked into gear at work and it seems like the wrong moment for it, so I’m puttering through some lighter (or at any rate less dense) books for now. I will certainly keep going with the series, though.

  7. Just started reading Niccolo Rising for the fifth time. I’ve not read it since book six came out. I used to re-read the whole series when a new book was released, but stopped doing that from the beginning for the last few books. So now it’s been 10+ years since I’ve read it. I’m almost halfway through and find myself re-reading paragraphs just so I can savor the descriptions and nuances.
    I visited Bruges in 2000because of this book. I painted the Guild Hall and a couple other sites. (I am an oil painter). I LOVED Bruges. I loved seeing Adorne’s crypt and the true story that his heart went to Scotland. Dorothy made my life richer because of this amazing series.
    Like most of the women in these stories, I find myself to be a bit in love with Niccolo.

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