The past is a foreign country
I’m in the midst of reading Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Booker-winning Wolf Hall. The novel offers an imaginative view into the court of Henry VIII, focusing its attention on Thomas Cromwell, the son of an abusive blacksmith who rose to become the king’s councilor and one of the driving forces behind his break with Rome. I don’t think the work is a masterpiece: while I admire Mantel’s careful psychological portraits of Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, and Cardinal Wolsey, the novel is oddly paced and its relentlessly driving narration–the whole thing is written in the present-tense, with short, staccato sentences dominating–can get overwhelming, as if we’re being assaulted by the past rather than absorbed into it. Still, it has been a great summer read, with lots of illicit passion and high-level brinkmanship. (I wish that Cromwell were at President Obama’s side during the debt ceiling negotiations—the wily councilor certainly wouldn’t have allowed the President to retreat so meekly.)
Reading Wolf Hall and thinking about Paul Lakeland’s post on Ron Hansen’s latest novel has got me wondering: why does it seem as if every “literary” novelist—I hate to use that term, but it will have to suffice—is writing historical fiction these days? Hansen, Tom McCarthy, Peter Carey, David Mitchell—these are some of the most original, inventive writers of contemporary fiction, and each has found recourse to that well-worn genre, historical fiction, within the last year or so. (You can read Commonweal reviews of historical novels by these authors here, here, here, and here.)
I have a few ideas about why these writers are finding bygone eras to be of such fertile fictional ground. First, they may be reacting against the legacy of high modernism, the great works of which (Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway) deemphasized plot and content, finding interest instead in subjectivity and pure form. Writing a historical novel almost necessarily means that you’re going to be interested in things like setting and objective narration—it’s hard to imagine a stream-of-consciousness novel set in the Tudor court—and so, in reclaiming the joys of setting and plot, perhaps writers like Mitchell are trying to distance themselves from a particular formalist tradition.
But this explanation doesn’t quite work. For one thing, modernists weren’t so slavishly ahistorical and anti-plot as we sometimes think. (Ulysses, for instance, contains a wealth of historical detail about Dublin, and Mrs. Dalloway, despite its interest in subjective impression, is also a carefully plotted, suspenseful work.) For another, the writers mentioned above seem to admire much of the modernist achievement: Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is clearly indebted to Ulysses, and McCarthy’s C, which takes place during World War I, has been described as modernist in tone and form.
The stronger explanation, I think, is an interest in storytelling as such. Carey and Mitchell in particular love to spin yarns; if they weren’t writing novels, you get the sense that they would be sitting at the local pub, telling stories to anyone willing to listen. They are novelists who love sprawling plots and eccentric characters, indebted as much to Fielding and Dickens as to Joyce and Woolf. Writing historical fiction is a great test of a storyteller’s skill: when we already know the cast of characters, when we already know how things are going to turn out, how does the novelist maintain our interest in the story? The tricks are various—Mantel chooses an unlikely hero in Thomas Cromwell, for instance, while Carey employs two characters, divided by class, nation, and language, to narrate the story of Toqueville’s journey through America—but the challenge is the same: take a well-known story and make it new through the retelling. I’m sure there are other, better explanations. I’m just happy to see that so many contemporary novelists are willing to engage with, and in the process reinvigorate, this often marginalized genre.