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August 20, 2004

the possibility of historical fiction

In the book that I'm writing about Dante, I observe that most forms of serious historical fiction are no longer tenable today. A century ago, dramatists like Stephen Phillips in England and Gabrielle D'Annunzio in Italy could still write critically-acclaimed verse dramas set in the middle ages. Churches and other public buildings (especially on college campuses) were still built to look gothic--even in the New World, where there could have been no genuine medieval structures. And there was still a living tradition of "history painting."

I argue that such fiction is untenable today because it embodies a kind of contradiction that we can no longer stomach. How can a scene from the distant past be depicted with the methods of the present? Victorian painters dressed their characters in medieval clothes, but their paintings were obviously conceived by nineteenth-century artists. If they had been eye-witnesses to the scenes they depicted, then they would have been medieval painters, and their style, as well as their subject, would have looked Gothic. Likewise, D’Annunzio’s Francesca da Rimini is full of historical details, but it is written in avant-garde free verse. It is obviously not a rediscovered medieval passion play, for it obeys the conventions of symbolist poetry and modern drama. D’Annunzio’s audience sat across a proscenium arch from a scene that was supposed to resemble a photograph of Ravenna taken in 1250—as if there could be any such thing. They were obviously in the hands of a modern playwright. As Paolo Valesio writes, “The more the author tries to give the color of historical faithfulness to his designs, the more those designs appear as what they are: dreaming silhouettes.” Nietzsche has earlier remarked: “Winckelmann’s and Goethe’s Greeks, Victor Hugo’s Orientals, Wagners’ Edda characters, Walter Scott’s thirteenth-century Englishmen—some day someone will reveal the whole comedy! It was all beyond measure historically false."

Recognizing the artificiality that's always involved in representing the past as if one were an eye-witness, modernists of the 20th century either abandoned the effort altogether or they made a topic of the artifice, as in Joyce's Oxen of the Sun episode.

And yet ... there are still many excellent and ambitious novels that represent episodes from the past as if from an eye-witness's perspective. Within the past few months, I have read three. Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower depicts a completely unfamiliar world: rural Germany during the Romantic era. The young poet Novalis, home from a sophisticated university, falls in love with a very ordinary 12-year-old neighbor. The values, beliefs, and behavior of the characters are plausible, even though we would never encounter anything similar today. The novel is a window into a different form of life, but its form is strictly modern.

I also read one of Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin novels: essentially genre fiction about the Napoleonic Wars, but very well researched and ably written, so that you feel that you are observing battles and love-affairs from the time of Jane Austen. And last night I finished Barry Unsworth's stunning Morality Play. This work also belongs to a modern genre--detective fiction; and the first-person narrator is obviously a 20th-century creature. He observes and describes the emotions of the other characters with detail and psychological insight that could only be modern (post-Freudian), even though he is a 14th-century protagonist. The plot is unpredictable and suspenseful, yet it relies on many conventions of modern crime fiction.

If anything, I think historical fiction is more likely to "work"--to satisfy readers--than it would have been fifty years ago. Historicism is back; modernism is out. This makes me wonder whether the modernists were right to reject representations of the past as artificial. Actually, their logic compelled them to doubt representation altogether. They believed that any form of representation reflected an arbitrary cultural style, so it could not be objective. If they were wrong and one can represent the present world (as most of our novels presume to do), then one can just as well represent the past. It simply takes a bit more research.

Posted by peterlevine at August 20, 2004 11:37 AM


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