"History as the New Novel" - article from The Weekend Australian
- Hello all
Although this article is primarily directed at Australian readers with its references to Anzac Day, etc, I thought it might still be of interest to others (it includes another reference to Richard Evans and his end-of-communism theory about history which was discussed on this list some time ago). Is history the new novel, or the novel the new history?
"The Weekend Australian"
August 31, 2002
HISTORY as the new NOVEL
Luke Slattery examines the surge of history up the bestsellers lists
THE modern reader, in a world of bright diversions, is typically restive, nomadic. And writers everywhere face the same dilemma: how to first gain, then sustain, that wandering interest.
The answer turns out to be somewhat counter-intuitive: by turning from the present and invoking the past. A passage conjuring a scene from war-torn Berlin is inherently sexier than one bearing today's date. Ditto for Constantinople, 1204; Paris, 1840; Manhattan, 1955; Sydney, 1788.
The now has lost its authority. It has been usurped by then. In the process, history - once the curse of schooldays and the first refuge of the bore - has been deconsecrated, popularised and made a hell of a lot more interesting.
British historian Antony Beevor opens his epic tale Berlin, the Downfall: 1945 with no pause for throat-clearing. In his first paragraph Beevor parachutes his readers into a mass tragedy in the making, then skewers the soul with a gibe: "Berliners, gaunt from short rations and stress, had little to celebrate at Christmas in 1944. Much of the capital of the Reich had been reduced to rubble by bombing blasts. The Berlin talent for black jokes had turned to gallows humour. The quip for that unfestive season was: 'Be practical: give a coffin.'"
Such narrative elan explains why Berlin, close to 500 pages of humanised military history, has leapt to the bestseller lists in England and Australia - but only partly. For anyone scratching their heads at history's hard-won (the profession is not exactly in its infancy) though seemingly sudden rise in popularity, Beevor's opening paragraph offers another clue. History is not just writing about the past. It's the result of many prior decisions about which bits of the past are memorable enough to preserve. It's a marker in time: meaning lies here.
Popular history takes many routes into the collective bloodstream. Television has given us Simon Schama's History of Britain, followed by The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Publishing has delivered Les Carlyon's Gallipoli; Norman Davies's Europe; Orlando Figes's history of the Russian revolution, A People's Tragedy; Beevor's Stalingrad and Berlin. These blockbuster popular histories are just one face of a many-faceted trend another shows in novels such as Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang and Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish.
As always, Hollywood is in on the act: a portal to the past opened by Gladiator seems to be responsible for a film about Alexander the Great in production and directed by Baz Luhrmann. Alexander, once Luhrmannised, will doubtless shimmy to a disco soundtrack. But such is the way we live now: nothing is so chic as the antique.
According to Richard J. Evans, Cambridge professor of modern history and author of the 1997 jeremiad In Defence of History and, more recently, Telling Lies About Hitler, this "curious general interest" about the past is related in "quite complex ways to the fall of communism".
Evans was in the country recently to promote his Hitler book, an analysis with a prosecutorial ring of the David Irving trial. In the bipolar world of the Cold War, he told me, the Stalinist East helped to anchor Western identity "Communism was the negative around which we could forge our positive attributes." With its collapse, and the so-called end of ideology that followed, group identity became freshly problematic. History in various forms came to the rescue with an outstretched hand and a sense of continuity. Said Evans: "I also think the tremendous interest in Nazism and Hitler suggests that this has taken over as the negative - a historical negative - from communism."
But the appetite for popular history seems to exist independently of attempts by professional historians to feed it. The swelling ranks of our Anzac Day celebrations, as the sun sets on the Anzac generation, is eloquent testimony to this recherche or retro mood. The ceremony is not only growing in popularity; it's getting younger.
Twice in the past few years I've attended the dawn service in Sydney's Martin Place Cenotaph (it's misleading advertising; the event kicks off at 4.30am, not 6.30am). I found myself the first time in a forest of teenagers - a mere stump by comparison - and quite unprepared for the sentiments released by the service and the crackle of emotionally electricity in the pre-dawn air. I recall a girl in her late teens weeping as if matt-black coffins were being lowered to the ground before her eyes. She was clearly too young to have lost a father to war and too far from the memory of a grandparent for this sort of wrenching emotion. The story of the ill-fated landing at Anzac Cove seemed to grip and to hold her.
At each of these Anzac Day celebrations I've quizzed people afterwards for their thoughts. Why did they come? Were their relatives among the fallen? A boiled-down composite answer follows: Australians, young and old, feel a strong and deepening attachment to the generation whose blood was spilled at that distant cove. Strains of ancestor worship mingle with nostalgia and a feeling that the men of that time were deeply Australian in ways that we simply are not. It is an entirely spontaneous act of cultural memory and one that has little to do with the fall of the Berlin Wall or the end of superpower rivalry.
On the other hand, the ritual of remembrance is not exactly self-sustaining; it has been coaxed along by a brilliant piece of storytelling in Chris Masters's ABC documentary on the Gallipoli tragedy, of which every Turkish guesthouse en route to Anzac Cove seems to have a worn video copy. As the young people at the dawn service explain, the flame has been kept alive by reinforcement and retelling at school.
The Anzac factor also directs us to a strong martial theme running through popular history. Sebastian Faulks, author of Birdsong and Charlotte Gray (love stories set, respectively in World Wars I and II), has recently observed that we are the right distance from World War II to be able to re-create it without propaganda or myth. But perhaps it also represents the lustre of a heroic age in a post-heroic society.
Beevor has recently written of his work, pondering the reasons for its success. "History in the past was written in collective terms - that of a country or an army, a division or a regiment," he argues. "But in the 1990s, a generation [that] had shrugged off the ideals of collective loyalty suddenly wanted to know about the experience and suffering of the individual ... Those brought up in this new civilian age, it emerged. were fascinated by deeply personal questions: How would I have survived such suffering? Would I have had the courage to refuse to shoot civilians if I was ordered?"
The author of Stalingrad and Berlin goes on to explain how his vast wartime canvases are focused on eternal moral questions and individual lives.
If the late-modern imagination is bewitched by the past, it's also because historians, professional and amateur, have willed it so. Without advances in computer technology and the rise of a generation of professional historians who clearly love the camera - such as Schama - popular TV history would probably not have managed to fix the attention of entire families week after week.
The profession, once rather fustian, has had a makeover: Schama has lost his beard and gained a funky wardrobe, while a younger generation of small-screen historians have been compared in the UK with celebrity chefs. And as history aligns itself to popular culture it inevitably becomes big business: Schama has recently signed a record £3 million ($8.5 million) book and TV deal: the first book-cum-TV series will examine Anglo-American relations.
No discussion of history's popularity can avoid that other P-word: postmodernism. Evans is keen to stress the benefits of the postmodern challenge. An opponent of pomo scepticism about commonsense claims to historical truth (in the postmodern scheme, where all is discourse, there is no way of determining fact from fiction), Evans is nevertheless keen to celebrate the more imaginative approaches to the writing of history encouraged by postmodernist liberties.
"One thing which the postmodernist treatment of history as a form of literature has done is to reinstate good writing as a legitimate historical practice," he writes. He singles out Schama's Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution and Figes's A People's Tragedy. "Both these books tackle big, traditional subjects, but both of them interweave small incidents and personal histories, of the famous and the obscure, into the broader narrative, with a constantly shifting focus which is a world away from the smooth factual recounting of more old-fashioned treatments of these themes."
Of course the next stop is historical fiction. In this subgenre the best practioners - such as Faulks, Hilary Mantel and Rose Tremain - nudge novelistic licence across the bridge of actuality into the realm of fantasy. History feels, as some suggest, like the new novel; the novel seems like the new history. Boundaries are being blurred - as boundaries often are.
If L. P. Hartley was right and the past is a foreign country, then a large slice of the literary and academic professions and a great many readers, TV viewers and filmgoers are seeking asylum there today.
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]