Books: Onlookers At A Revolution PERSIAN NIGHTS

by Diane Johnson; Knopf; 352 pages; $17.95

At least as far back as Sir Walter Scott's Waverley, novelists have been interested in setting imaginary characters loose against a background of authentic, tumultuous events. Small wonder. History is, after all, drama readymade, an endless pageant playing at all hours in the public domain. Writers who elect to fuse their private inventions with the collective memory of an actual past can create electrifying effects. Witness the towering achievements of War and Peace or the enduring popular appeal of Gone With the Wind. The formula has its pitfalls, of course, in the hands of the inept: cardboard people posing stiffly in...

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