Popular Byzantium: An Interview with Paul Kastenellos, Part 1

Right before Christmas, I was surprised and excited to receive an unsolicited copy of a novel set in Byzantium: Paul Kastenellos, Count No Man Happy. (New York 2011).  I was even more surprised to discover that Paul Kastenellos was the pen name of Vincent O’Reilly who was a history major at the University of North Dakota in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Needless to say, the intersection between Byzantium and the University of North Dakota is exceedingly rare, so I contacted the author and struck up a conversation about Byzantium, popular culture, and life at UND.

I discovered that Vincent had more than just a casual interest in Byzantium. His book is richly textured (with pleasant edge) and historically vivid making it more than suitable for a fictional companion to an undergraduate Byzantine history course. For the uninitiated, Vincent has provided some companion material on his website including a lovely Illustrated History of Byzantium.

The following is a lightly edited version of our email correspondence which focuses on that often strange intersection between the academic community and passionately interested lay reader. As most Byzantinists realize, the past two decades have seen a growing popular interest in Byzantium which, so far, most Byzantinists have not successfully captured to our field’s advantage. Perhaps this interview with a participant in this popular revival can provide some new insights for us…

CNMH

Bill Caraher: Thank you so much, Vincent, for taking the time to chat about your book and giving those of us on that academic side of the aisle a perspective on how you came to learn, to love, and to write about the Byzantine centuries, and why (and whether!) we are genuinely experiencing a “Byzantium boom” in the popular culture of the first decades of the 21st century.

Paul Kastenellos:  I thought I might anticipate your questions with a little general background. I need not tell you how important that is to understanding. I entered UND in 1957. At that time TV was fairly new, most families not getting a set until about 1950. Educational TV was a bore – some college prof in a suit lecturing at a podium. What we learned in high school was mostly English history with a few asides to Charlemagne, Julius Caesar et c. My only recollection of anything Byzantine was the statement in some textbook, talking about the fall of the Roman empire, that “it maintained a shadowy existence in the east for another thousand years.” Now imagine my shock in Dr. [Felix] Vondracek’s class when he,, who saw history as a succession of battles. told us about Adrianople and stirrups, Belisarius and Antonina (Wow); and insisted that we memorize lists of popes and Byzantine emperors (Yawn!). Vondracek had his faults, no doubt about it; but his lectures were never dull.

*[Felix Vondracek was a popular and cantankerous history professor at the University of North Dakota.]

Fast forward fifty years. Students learn more. High school teachers are better prepared. Television is running out of things to tell people about. Perhaps most important, the comfortable parochialism of my youth is no longer acceptable. Black history was assumed not to exist in those days and we studied American history in a vacuum, ignoring anything south of the border after the conquistadors and never realizing that colonial history is intimately interlinked with European.

In my college years there were not more than four or five books on Byzantium in print at any time. We had Bury, Diehl, Pirenne, and Vasiliev; and Vondracek was anxiously awaiting a translation of Ostrogorsky. Once in a while Oxford University Press might kick out a new volume but they were pricey and would not long remain in print. But Praeger was creating expensive art books some of which were about Byzantine art.

To confirm what I just wrote I looked at my aging Viking Library “Portable Medieval Reader” (c 1949). In seven hundred pages the only Byzantine author is Anna Comnenaand that is her description of the western crusader knights. With such a dearth of information it should not be surprising that there was little interest even among the educated. We were still stuck in Gibbon’s negative view because no one was reexamining it at the high school level.

Today Americans have a broader outlook. Most educated people have traveled. TV has run out of fresh Hitler footage. Color images on videotape are much more vibrant than even color film, much less the black and white of 1950s television. Modern art may possibly have made people more willing to look at stuff other than the purely representational.

So there is nothing remarkable about the interest in Byzantium. There is also interest in Mongolia and substantially more interest in the Indian cultures of South America than when I was young. In grade school and high school my only knowledge of these peoples was which Spaniard had killed them. Our understanding of Persia was entirely through Greek eyes, and of Spain through British eyes. There was a definite prejudice against Byzantium inherited from Gibbon, just as there was against Spain which we viewed through the filter of Elizabethan English propaganda. One look at the Hearst papers leading up to the Spanish American War will show that.

We knew nothing of the Byzantines but then we knew nothing of Japan (see my essay on the Asian War on my website) and what little we knew of India was still through the eyes of Kipling. North Africa was to us Beau Geste and the French Foreign Legion, Africa was witch doctors and safaris, and Egypt was still “The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb.” Our parents had at best a high school education as did our newspaper reporters. China was seen through the eyes of “China watchers” who seem never to have left the bars of Hong Kong. Now all these states are intimately intertwined.

My point is that the interest in Byzantium can not be seen as something unique. It is not that somehow it has become interesting, but rather that my youth was a benighted pit from which internationalism and international travel and communication has raised us. We are looking for new interests.

But only so far. There is Byzantine stuff on TV but it doesn’t go much beyond pretty pictures of Hagia Sophia. The Orthodox church still remains outside the interest of most people. In fact religion generally is something modern secularists don’t want to discuss except in a negative way. I do think the Metropolitan exhibitions gave a boost to Byzantine art. I saw the first one and it definitely was broader than the expected bunch of old icons. Why not “Russia and Byzantium,” “Byzantium and the West,” The Crusades Through Byzantine Eyes,” and of course, “The Fall of Constantinople.”

I just checked Barnes and Noble and am amazed with the variety of material now available. There are many popular books on the Byzantines. I have one on their cuisine (and would readily pass on it.) There is even fiction though the two novels I’ve read were disappointing (Stock adventure stories with a cross thrown in here and there.) Alternative history is blessed with David Drake and Eric Flint’s “Belisarius series” which I enjoyed. Though it had little to do with Byzantium, I liked their take on the character of Belisarius. One might ask why these authors chose to write six books with Belisarius as the protagonist. I would answer that the motivation was not Byzantium, but alternative history which sells well. I wish it were the reverse.

BC: So, you became interested in Byzantine history through Prof. Vondracek’s classes, but surely not everyone in these classes has gone on to write novels on Byzantium. Was there any other thing that influenced your interest?

PK: Let me detail a bit of personal history… Vondracek threw a searchlight on my understanding of medieval history which up to then had been entirely western. In a way that was understandable if narrow. Our society does descend from western European. After graduation I had to earn a living. Although I pretended to be as interested in Byzantium as in my college years in truth it faded. I was going for a masters in library Science and working. When my daughter graduated from St John’s College in Annapolis she took a job with Bill Moyers and used her first paycheck to give me and my wife, Tamiko, tickets to Istanbul.

To my great surprise and delight my interest in Byzantium came flooding back as though it had never waned. Two characters in Vondrachek’s lectures had never really left me:

BC: Which two characters are those?

PK: Belisarius and Constantine VI.

BC: Why those two of all the memorable characters from Byzantium?

PK: Belisarius is obvious. How can it be that such a notable general went unmentioned in any history of great generals that I had read? Pure western ignorance and bias. That Antonina accompanied him touched the romantic in me and her infidelity to a man who loved her deeply made me curious. (These things I had learned from Vondracek who loved nothing better than to reveal the private lives of famous people.)

Vondacek also told us of poor Constantine VI and related how he was blinded by his mother and how Theodote, in his words, “followed him around like a puppy dog for the rest of his life.” He also told us that he had been infatuated with the daughter of Charlemagne whom he was betrothed to but never met. I have no idea why these things stuck in my mind when so many other things in Vondrachek’s lectures have faded out of memory, but they did. Unfortunately, while I remembered both these things about Constantine I somehow had a disconnect in my mind that they were the same person. Nonetheless they stayed in the back of my mind and came back with other things about Byzantium when I first visited Istanbul.

Now I had always wanted to write. In fact I entered the news business (United Press – Movietonews) in order to simplify and improve my writing style which I was aware had been damaged by too much reading of diverse authors in college. Why had I not gone into a field of history after college? Because my interest was in Byzantium and as the worst language student who ever lived I knew that I could never be a scholar in that subject. I had no interest in simply teaching high school.

Somewhere along the line I saw the movie Laura wherein a detective falls in love with the portrait of a (presumably) dead woman. I did not think the movie played out the idea all that well but was fascinated by the concept. So somewhere in the mid ’90s I started to write a bit of fluff that I jokingly referred to as Constantine VI meets Bettie Page. (It is amazing how many guys of all ages [and even gals] are familiar with Bettie, but one doesn’t know that until someone in the group dares to bring up the subject. I even joined the BettieScouts of America fan club.) Then I remembered that Constantine was the same guy whose mom blinded him.

Problem.

One can’t write fluff about someone whose Mom blinded him. I tried writing Beth (inspired by Bettie) out of the story but had come to like the character that I was developing too much. I needed such a character to boost an otherwise depressing tale of Constantine and his mother. I thought to have him dream of someone who’d lived before him. That would not have had to be fantasy but I couldn’t find anyone that I could use without totally changing her character. So Beth stayed. Of course it means a story that will turn off people with a serious interest in serious history; but whatthehell, to quote Mehitabel the poetic cockroach.

Click here for Part 2 of the interview with Vincent O’Reilly author of Count No Man Happy.

2 Comments

  1. What a fun interview, and how encouraging about the state of History education today! I have to agree. My children have had a much broader exposure to History in their elementary years than I did by the time I finished high school.

    Reply

  2. Very cool that you were able to connect with Vincent. He sounds like he would be a great source for understanding the department at that time.

    Reply

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