We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.
– W.G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn
Right, so this term I have been taking a module called Novel History, and let me tell you it is fantastic. The reading is incredible: Wolf Hall; Waterlands; Rings of Saturn; HHhH.
And what I am learning is that yes! It is OK to play! It is OK to enquire. I had been scared that the only way to write the past was as straight-up historical fiction, which is fine, I’m sure, but not quite what I am interested in. Or rather, my interests extend further than that: I have more questions.
I had not really known until now that a lot of history writing is aware of itself, and addresses the problems of its own creation. Finally I have found all these people who explain how important that sort of practice is. Sebald and Swift, so far, and also theorists like Linda Hutcheon and Hayden White. Even in the 1960s Barthes pointed out that traditional history requires first of all the selection of particular facts, which are presented in a particular way and placed within a particular structure to create a self-sufficient, unchanging narrative. I’ve been on board with that since undergrad. However, he said – and this is the bit I hadn’t got to yet – this is the exact same process required for writing a novel. And these forms – the realist novel and narrative history – were developed more or less alongside one another, in the nineteenth century.
Oh, I did breathe such a sigh of relief. To understand that these are only structures, only ideas, and I am allowed to disassemble them if I want to. I wouldn’t be the only one. Honestly, I think what is really appealing about history is not the things we know but the things we don’t. We see an old census (name, age, occupation) and we imagine a life. We see an artefact (a teapot, a letter, a weapon) and we imagine its owner. Everybody does it. Every time you’re in a charity shop, I bet you do it even if you don’t notice. And writers are the worst, surely, haunted by the ‘vacant space’ in the archives. You can research and research but sometimes there will be no more evidence of what the ‘real’ story was, and it is at this ‘borderline’ that Sebald the academic confesses to thinking, ‘if I could go a little bit further it might get very interesting, that is, if I were allowed to make things up’.
I’m very happy now to accept that we cannot reach the past. It is over. And since it is no longer happening, and there is no way ever to visit it, it might as well have never happened at all. Perhaps it even exists on a plane with fiction, in that it is well beyond judgements of ‘true’ or ‘false’: when nothing is concrete those things can’t possibly mean anything.
I love history and think it is extremely important. To say that it might as well not exist doesn’t discount its power or our responsibility (maybe) to handle it properly. It’s unreachable and yet it touches us all the time: we are shaped by it and yet, and yet, we built it in the first place. Nowadays we are willing to allow many new elements into the historical narrative: the voices of women, for example; and also of slaves. We seek out the experiences of people from ethnic and sexual minorities, and from the working classes, the underclasses, the demi-monde. We feel that these stories are as much part of History as the writings of dead straight white men, and this is absolutely commendable, but all we are doing is revising what we will allow into our structure: we will never know whether we have reached a more authentic picture. Reality vanishes even as it happens, so there can be no authenticity. There is only ever a picture.
So I am beginning to see that historical fiction is speculative. We can know any number of facts, but since we were never there we can never prove it, and this is not necessarily depressing. As a writer, it is liberating. We can make history work for us. Sebald (I love him) also pointed out that’the most shocking, the most hair-raising, the most coincidentally absurd moments are precisely how things did happen’. Isn’t that good? Until now I’d shied away from including too many crazy things in my writing – even things I knew really had happened in real life – because I wanted it to be ‘credible’. Now, I do feel a bit braver. Because:
a) it really happened!
b) nobody knows what really happened
c) it all exists in an alternate space where there is no such thing as ‘really happened’.
Well, I am freer to think about all the questions I mentioned at the beginning. For example, how can I address the elements of the past that disturb me, like classism/racism? What can I, a 26-year-old English woman in 2014, specifically bring to the table? What can I conceive of that (say) Dickens couldn’t? And always, always: what am I really trying to do here? Why tell this story, and why tell it this way?
There are still plenty of things to be faithful to, it’s just that history and its inherent truth isn’t one of them.
(Perhaps all this seems very glib. I know that the ramifications of what we accept as historically true can be huge. I don’t mean to discount that, but perhaps it can wait for another day? I’m all Sebalded out.)