It is perhaps inevitable in this video age that upon reading a historical novel such as Alfred Coppel's "The Marburg Chronicles," one immediately envisions the possibilities for a television mini-series. The ingredients are just too perfect: a fractious, wealthy family, a great love affair (with a judicious dollop of sex), a cluster of exotic locales and a suitably colorful supporting cast. This is not to suggest that Coppel has written this broad-shouldered epic with any but the most literary of motives. In fact, "The Marburg Chronicles" is a well-structured novel whose muscular prose sustains a satisfyingly meaty narrative for nearly 600 pages.
The book begins in 1860, in Spain. The prosperous Santana family has hired a German banker, Micah Marburg, to straighten out its tangled finances. Shortly after arriving at Santanilla (the Santana family's ancestral home), Marburg falls in love with Adriana Santana, the 17-year-old daughter of the family patriarch, Don Miguel. Don Miguel, who is somewhat of a liberal, and who is totally in the thrall of his headstrong daughter, agrees to allow the two to marry, providing Marburg converts to Catholicism. Marburg, who is Jewish, chooses love over religion and moves to Santanilla, bringing with him his teen-aged son from a previous marriage. (If you guess that the son, Aaron, and his new stepmother fall in love, you've been watching too much television.)
Fall in love they do, although at first they don't recognize that the attraction is more than relative, so to speak. When Aaron becomes embroiled in an embarrassing scandal with a local girl, the family is honor-bound to send him away. He lands in America, which is locked in civil war, and joins the Union army. His ability to speak German gets him a commission as the leader of a squadron of German immigrants from Wisconsin. He is wounded in battle, and after a lengthy recuperation decides to try his luck in Mexico as a merchant. For the next 40 years or so, Coppel teases the reader with the question: "Will Aaron and Adriana ever get together?" It is to his everlasting credit as a novelist that he refrains from delivering a predictable denouement. Not that they never get together, but without revealing too much of the plot, suffice it to say that their union is somewhat bittersweet.
Half the fun of historical novels is that the usual love affairs and family struggles are set against real events (this is called the "sweeping panorama of human events" in the ads for the mini-series), and in this sense, too, Coppel has opted for high drama. Particularly effective are the Civil War sequences, which convincingly capture the confusion and horror of hand-to-hand combat -- the infantryman's perspective. Later, when Aaron has moved to Mexico, he makes the acquaintance of General Jose' de la Cruz Porfirio Di'az, later to become the president of that country. This gives the author a chance to offer us an inside glimpse of Mexican politics in the 1880s, a tumultuous period, to say the least. By the time we enter the lives of the third generation of Marburgs and Santanas, the action has shifted to San Francisco at the turn of the century, and the reader is convinced: "The Marburg Chronicles" does not suffer for lack of scope.
What it does suffer from -- and in this it is joined by most popular fiction these days -- is a lack of taste and style in its obligatory sex scenes. This is a quibble, since there are only a few such scenes in "Marburg," and they are certainly not the most offensive I've read lately. In fact, my quibble is not that they are so offensive, it's just that they are, well, so damned obligatory. One wonders why authors still include them. Once upon a time they may have had some shock value. Once upon a time they may have titillated an innocent reader. Once upon a time they may have even helped to sell a historical novel or two, but no more. If readers want shock and titillation they'll find it in publications where it is expressly purveyed. Besides, according to Coppel, they did it the same way in 1860 as they do now, so what's the point?
Excuse me. I'm back now. And lest the reader be confused, I'll state again that, on balance, "The Marburg Chronicles" is an excellent book, a fine, rich stew of a book, in which historical fact, educated conjecture and fictional human drama are intriguingly blended. Read it soon, before the networks get their hands on it.