Gavin McCrea: Five Books That Help Us Rethink History
The classification ‘historical fiction’ ignores the fact that all novels, whatever their temporal setting—be it the recent past, the distant past or indeed an imagined future—are necessarily, inescapably historical. There is no novel that is more historical than another. Fiction cannot escape the past; indeed it is the past—as we remember, understand and tell it. Here are five novels that offer profound insights into the relationship between individual lives and history. Only one is usually classified as ‘historical fiction’.
"Memoirs of Hadrian" by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951)
In Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian, often published as a coda to her novel, Yourcenar writes that, having spent so much time researching and imagining Emperor Hadrian’s life, his memories are no more and no less than her own—and reading Memoirs we feel as if his memories become ours also. Yourcenar’s Hadrian speaks with piercing clarity and tremendous force, yet the illusion created is not that he is orating across a large stretch of time (as he might in a document intended for posterity) but rather that he is speaking privately and frankly, as to an intimate, and that no time has passed at all. The illusion, it turns out, is time itself.
“The Golden Notebook” by Doris Lessing (1962)
In The Golden Notebook, Lessing explodes the life of its protagonist, Anna Wulf, into its component elements—politics, emotion, memory, action—and then stitches it back together again, each element separated into different notebooks. The final golden notebook, the synthesis, brings these separated elements back together, finally giving Anna the possibility of self-understanding and healing. Through the character of Anna—a disillusioned communist and a feminist—the novel shows that nothing is personal, in the sense that it is uniquely one’s own; here writing about oneself is shown to be a political act. As Lessing writes: ‘Growing up is after all only the understanding that one’s unique and incredible experience is what everyone shares.’
“The Land of the Green Plums” by Herta Müller (1993)
The 20th-century writer Jean Genet writes that the moment you publish a piece of writing in a society you have entered historical and political life; if you do not want to be political do not write or publish anything. The question for the writer, then, is what to say. How can we say something that will not be misunderstood or misused; that will not ossify and cease to give meaning; that will not be proved false by future ideas and events? Müller’s novel, set among a group of students at the height of Ceauşescu’s brutal dictatorship in Romania, begins and ends with the same sentence: ‘When we don’t speak, said Edgar, we become unbearable, and when we do, we make fools of ourselves.’ The characters in this stark and disturbing work are desperate to speak out, yet they are afraid that the dominant political ideology has infected even their words of protest. Will their criticisms end up sounding like endorsements for an equally corrupt alternative?
“The Glass Bead Game” by Hermann Hesse (1943)
All fiction is about the past—especially that which is set in an imagined future. Hesse’s novel is set in the 23rd century in the remote kingdom of Castalia, where a community of scholars devote their lives to playing and perfecting the Glass Bead Game. The genius of the novel is that it never precisely describes what the Game involves. We learn that the Game requires knowledge of mathematics, music and philosophy, and that it is therefore extremely difficult to master, yet to understand it, we ourselves would have to be a member of the intellectual elite of Castalia. Which of course we cannot be. For we belong to a different time in history, what the novel calls the ‘Age of the Feuilleton’, a period of cultural exhaustion and decadence. Never mentioned is the Nazis' use of ‘culture’ and ‘reason’ to further its barbaric ends, but every line of the novel reads as a response to it. Where can culture go after Nazism? What can it achieve? What wisdom can ever it hope to give us?
“The Fall” by Albert Camus (1956)
Camus was born into a working-class French community in Algeria. He wrote The Fall in 1956, two years into the Algerian War, yet it is the only one of his novels not set in Algeria. Apart from a brief episode in a prison camp in Tripoli, the novel’s flavour is distinctly—mistily—Northern European. Clamence, a onetime successful Parisian lawyer, tells a silent interlocutor the story of how he gradually became disillusioned with his profession, lost all self-esteem, and went into exile in Amsterdam. Clamence is an observer of the past, removed from the character of himself that he describes. He seems removed, also, from his own immediate history: the vicious French repression of the independence movement in Algeria. Yet, listening to Clamence’s account of his own fall and subsequent exile, we wonder whether this, of all Camus’s works, might be the one in which Algeria is the most painfully present.
About Gavin McCrea
Gavin McCrea was born in Dublin in 1978 and holds an MA and a PhD from the University of East Anglia. He currently lives in London, England and northern Spain. Mrs. Engels is his first novel.
Photo credit: Eugene Langan