Monday, April 13, 2009

On Literature and History

In today's Independent, novelist Amanda Craig complains that too much contemporary fiction seems "stuck in the past."
Underlying the thirst for historical novels is perhaps a collective feeling that literary fiction and imagination are not enough in themselves to make a novel worth reading - there must be an element of self-education, too. So you're not losing yourself in an imagined world, you're learning about Holbein or Vermeer. If you write a novel about Mrs Dickens or Cromwell or other real historical figures, that becomes its justification for publication - and publicity.
Craig might be right when it comes to the kind of popular and highly filmeable novel whose view of history (or our ability to access it) can only be called naively historicist - such as Tracy Chevalier's The Girl With the Pearl Earring or Deborah Moggach's Tulip Fever (both of which put me to sleep). I doubt, however, that these slim exercises in mistaken Burckhardtian historical empathy can be compared to the overt revisionism of such rich novels as Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Sarah Water's Tipping the Velvet or John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman.

The same goes for Ian McEwan's Atonement, which the article's editors (not the author herself) use to illustrate the contemporary trend in historical fiction bemoaned by Craig (even adding, lo and behold, a picture of Keira Knightley as Briony Tallis in the film version of the novel).

Now, this kind of conflation of film adaptation and original text is of course a complete and utter no-no, and people who tamper with arts sections of major national newspapers for a bloody living simply should know better: adaptations are interpretations and not the same thing as the literary original! So there.

Moreover, Atonement is simply no historical novel at all, but - like Black Dogs, the novel by McEwan that in many ways can be seen as an earlier sketch for Atonement - a reflection of our relationship with history, including our falsifying appropriation of past events to suit our own purposes. If anything, Atonement supports Craig's point by confronting us with the uses to which we put history.

Want to know more? Check out our homepage for my/our publications on McEwan dealing with related points.

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