Essays Fiction Issue

Notes on the History of Fiction

Who would give up the Iliad for the “real” historical record?
1

Historically, there was something like a Trojan war, maybe even several Trojan wars in fact, but the one Homer wrote about in the eighth century B.C. is the one that fascinates us, because it is fiction. Archaeologists doubt that any Trojan war began because someone named Paris kidnapped someone named Helen from under the nose of her Greek husband, or that it was a big wooden horse filled with soldiers that finally won the day. And those particularized gods running the war for their own purposes, deflecting arrows, inciting human rages, turning hearts, and controlling history, might have kept the Greeks and Trojans at it for years and years, but they have no authority in our monotheistic world, and you can find no trace of them in the diggings in northwest Turkey where the archaeologists turn up the shards and bones and sling bullets of what might have been the real Troy.

But Homer (or the stable of poets incorporated under the name Homer) was either given to polytheistic fantasy or was the genius adapter of a system of cosmological metaphors that no one—not Dante, not Shakespeare, not Cervantes—has ever matched for sheer imaginative insanity. Read Homer’s hexameters and you find gods made in the image of man—jealous, mendacious, erotically charged, vengefully disposed, gender-specific know-it-alls, with empowering aptitudes that they wield as weapons in heaven as they do on earth.

But who would give up the Iliad for the historical record? Evidence suggests the Homeric epic was transcribed after generations of oral transmission. The historical facts came down through the ages fused into blinding bardic revelation.

2

A Richard III Society in England (with a branch in the United States) would recover the reputation of their man from the damage done to it by the calumnies of Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare derived his portrayal of a misshapen serial-murdering king from Raphael Holinshed, whose chronicle was strongly influenced by the account of Sir Thomas More, a Tudor propagandist, among other things, the Tudors having brought an end to the Plantagenet dynasty, and to Richard himself, at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

The Ricardians argue that their king was not the deformed creature portrayed by Shakespeare. They say that the murders attributed to Richard—specifically those of his two nephews imprisoned in the Tower—are not proven. They find evidence that this was a good king who ruled wisely. Yet whoever Richard was, and how unfairly mythologized, he is now, and has been for centuries, the dust to which we all return, and there is a greater truth for the self-reflection of all mankind in the Shakespearean vision of his life than any simple set of facts can summon. The enormous popularity of this Grand Guignol of a play, from its very first performance to the present day, comes of the reality it performs: that all men would claim for themselves a pre-emptive existence. We gain the knowledge, only half admitted in our strange fascination for this immensely vital, vengeful, murderer of men, women, and children, that his is the archetypal tormented soul that can never find shelter from the winters of its discontent.

What men will do for power, the monumental death and devastation they wreak in service of their malign monarchal spirits, is borne out by the events of this past century. So if Shakespeare’s Richard III may not be heeded for the instruction it gives, his prophetic identification of this kind of human possibility is recorded by his inimitable language.

3

Napoleon, as a character in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, is more than once described as having “plump little hands.” Nor does he “sit well or firmly in the saddle.” He is said to be “undersized,” with “fat thighs … short legs” and a “rotund stomach.” And he holds court smelling of “Eau-de-Cologne.” The issue here is not the accuracy of Tolstoy’s description—it seems not that far off from nonfictive accounts—but its selectivity: other things that could be said of the man are not said. We are meant to understand the incongruity of a warring imperator in the body of a fat little Frenchman. Tolstoy’s Napoleon could be a powdered boulevardier putting a pinch of snuff up his nose—and that is the point. The consequences of such a disparity of form and content can be counted in dead soldiers strewn across the European continent.

It is a stratagem of the novelist no less than of the playwright to symbolize physically the moral nature of a character. And it turns out that, as Tolstoy has it, Napoleon is a preening pompous megalomaniac. In a scene in Book Three of War and Peace, the Russo-French wars having reached the crucial year of 1812, Napoleon receives an emissary from Tsar Alexander, a General Balashev, who has come with peace terms. Napoleon is enraged: doesn’t he have the numerically superior army? He, not the tsar, is the one to dictate terms. Having been dragged unwillingly into war, he will destroy all of Europe if his will is thwarted. “That is what you will have gained by alienating me!” he shouts. And then, Tolstoy writes, Napoleon “walked silently several times up and down the room, his fat shoulders twitching.”

Still later, after consoling himself by parading before adoring crowds, Napoleon invites the shaken General Balashev to dinner: “He raised his hand to the Russian’s … face,” Tolstoy writes,

and taking him by the ear pulled it gently … To have one’s ear pulled by the Emperor was considered the greatest honor and mark of favor at the French court. “Well adorer and courtier of the Tsar Alexander, why don’t you say anything?” said he, as if it was ridiculous in his presence to be the adorer and courtier of any one but himself, Napoleon.

Tolstoy did his research, but the composition is his own.

4

Homer was Homer, a bard of the late Bronze Age. In the Bronze Age stories were the primary means of storing and transmitting knowledge: they were the public memory; they preserved the past, instructed the young, and created communal identity. So we’re prepared to make allowances. We do that also with those other writers of the era, the writers and redactors of the Hebrew Bible. For them as for Homer, there was nothing like a purely factual discourse; there was no learned observation of the natural world that was not religious belief, no history that was not legend, no practical information that did not resound as heightened language. The world was perceived as enchanted.

In the Iliad there are many gods; in the Bible, the one God to whom the biblical writers cede authorship. But under many gods or one God, the stories told during this time were presumed to be true by the fact of being told. The very act of telling a story carried a presumption of truth.

We make allowances for Shakespeare, too, but for the reason that he is Shakespeare. By the time of the Elizabethan Age religious inspiration was becoming distinct from scientific fact, truth was something to be proven by observation and experiment, and the aesthetic event was a self-conscious production. Reality was one thing, fantasy another. God was institutionalized, and in a world deprived of enchantment by rationalism and empirical knowledge, stories were no longer the primary means of knowing. Storytellers were recognized as mortal, however immortal some of them would come to be, and a story might be believed, but not simply because it was being told.

Today it is only children who believe that stories, by the fact of their being told, are true. Children and fundamentalists. And that is the measure of the 2,000-year decline in the story’s authority.

5

The nineteenth century indicates more clearly than the Elizabethan Age the mortal writer’s longing to have the story retain its status as godlike revelation. Tolstoy’s Napoleon marches inside a volume of some 1,300 pages. He is not the only historically verifiable character. There is also General Kutuzov, the commander-in-chief of the Russian forces, Tsar Alexander, Count Rostopchin, the military governor of Moscow, and so on. They are presented as if of no different protoplasm than Tolstoy’s families of fictional characters. This fusion of fact and fiction exists in a panoramic world, as in Stendahl’s Charterhouse of Parma or Alexandre Dumas’s swashbuckling tale, The Three Musketeers, in which the historical Cardinal Richelieu figures, and none too favorably.

In nineteenth-century America, the historical audacity of novelists tends to be a step behind. Hawthorne in The Blithedale Romance, his novel of the actual Transcendentalist experiment of Brook Farm, draws an exacting portrait of the proto-feminist Margaret Fuller but gives her a different name. So you have the circumspection, or sly smile, of the roman à clef. But audacity in a different form, audacity as a working principle, is to be found in Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, a remarkable you-are-there tale by a writer who was never there. And the most outlandish project of all is, of course, Melville’s Moby Dick, wherein the ruling god-beast of an indifferent universe is composed from the grubby materials of the commercial whaling trade.

Common to all the great nineteenth-century practitioners of narrative art is a belief in the staying power of fiction as a legitimate system of knowledge. While the writer of fiction, of whatever form, may be seen as an arrogant transgressor, a genre-blurring immoralist given to border raids and territorial occupations, he is no more than a conservator of the ancient system of organizing and storing knowledge we call the story. A Bronze-Ager at heart, he lives by the total discourse that antedates the special vocabularies of modern intelligence.

A proper question here is whether his faith in his craft is justified. Whereas the biblical storytellers attributed their inspiration to God, the writers since seem to find in the fictive way of thinking a personal power—a fluency of mind that does not always warn the writer of the news it brings. Mark Twain said that he never wrote a book that didn’t write itself. And no less an enobler of the discipline than Henry James, in his essay “The Art of Fiction,” describes this empowerment as “an immense sensibility … that takes to itself the faintest hints of life … and converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.” What the novelist is finally able to do, James says, is “to guess the unseen from the seen.”

This gift of the practice seems to come of its inherently solitary nature. A writer has no credential except as it is self-awarded. Despite our university graduate programs in writing there is nothing that licenses a writer to write, no equivalent of a medical degree, or a law degree or a Ph.D. in molecular biology or divinity. Writers are on their own. They are specialists in nothing. They are liberated. They can use the discoveries of science, the poetics of theology. They can ventriloquize as anthropologists, report as journalists; they can confess, philosophize, they can leer as pornographers, or become as wide-eyed as children. They are free to use legends, myths, dreams, hallucinations, and the mutterings of poor mad people in the street. All of it counts, every vocabulary, every kind of data is grist for the mill. Nothing is excluded, certainly not history.

6

For the last thirty years or so novelists and playwrights have been crossing into the historical realm in great numbers. (Just why we must leave to the literary scholars. But the decades previous had seen a kind of roping off of fiction while the media, the social sciences, and journalism had moved in on its territory.) Lincoln look-alikes have appeared in several recent novels; such diverse figures as Sigmund Freud, J. Edgar Hoover, and Roy M. Cohn have turned up with speaking roles; and novels have even been written about writers—Virginia Woolf, and James himself, for example—which, I suppose, is poetic justice.

Of course the writer has a responsibility, whether as solemn interpreter or satirist, to make a composition that serves a revealed truth. But we demand that of all creative artists, of whatever medium. Besides which a reader of fiction who finds, in a novel, a familiar public figure saying and doing things not reported elsewhere knows he is reading fiction. He knows the novelist hopes to lie his way to a greater truth than is possible with factual reportage. The novel is an aesthetic rendering that would portray a public figure interpretively no less than the portrait on an easel. The novel is not read as a newspaper is read; it is read as it is written, in the spirit of freedom.

That the public figure of historical consequence makes a fiction of himself long before the novelist gets to him is almost beside the point. Once the novel is written, the rendering made, the historical presence is doubled. There is the person and there is the portrait. They are not the same, nor can they be. When and if the Richard III Society makes its case, there will be two Richards III, neither one interfering with the other. If there is not one Lincoln novel but dozens, the multiplicity of renderings will find the image not flat on the canvas but closer to a three-dimensional hologram.

Historic personages may be gossiped about in bars or seriously portrayed in prose compositions, but in any case they are, inevitably, sacrifices to the imaginative life of nations.

7

Where do the bona fide historians stand in all of this? Though the scholars of the American Historical Association probably think of the novelist who uses historical materials as a kind of undocumented worker slinking over the border at night, writers of narrative have a natural affiliation, whatever their calling.

The late French structuralist critic Roland Barthes, in an essay entitled “Historical Discourse,” concludes that the important stylistic trope of narrative history, namely the objective voice, “turns out to be a particular form of fiction.” Insofar as any piece of writing has a voice, the impersonal, objective voice of the narrative historian is his stock-in-trade. The presumption of factuality underlies the amassed documentation historians live by, and so we accept that voice. It is the voice of authority.

But to be conclusively objective is to have no cultural identity, to exist in such existential solitude as to have, in fact, no place in the world.

Historians research as many sources as they can, but they decide what is relevant to their enterprise and what isn’t. We should recognize the degree of creativity in this profession that goes beyond intelligent, assiduous scholarship. “There are no facts in themselves,” Nietzche says. “For a fact to exist we must first introduce meaning.” Historiography, like fiction, organizes its data in demonstration of meaning. The cultural matrix in which the historian works will condition his thinking; he will speak for his time and place by the facts he brings to light and the facts he leaves in darkness, the facts he brings into being and the facts that remain unformed, unborn. Recorded history undergoes a constant process of revision, and the process is not just a matter of discovering additional evidence to correct the record. “However remote in time events may seem to be, every historical judgment refers to present needs and situations,” the philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce says in his book History as the Story of Liberty. This is why history has to be written and rewritten from one generation to another.

Nevertheless, we recognize the difference between good history and bad history, just as we can tell a good novel from a bad one.

The scholarly historian and the undocumented novelist make common cause as operatives of the Enlightenment. They are confronted with faux history as it is construed by power, as it is perverted for political purposes, as it is hammered into serviceable myth by those who take advantage of its plasticity. For “History,” of course, is not only an academic study. It is, at all times, in all places, hot. “Who controls the past controls the future,” Orwell says in 1984. So there is history as written by elected or nonelected political leaders, super-patriots, dirty tricksters, xenophobes, and all other exemplars of shrewdly reductive thinking; history as written by ideologically driven social theorists, textbook writers conforming their work to communal pressures, retired statesmen putting the best face on their lamentable accomplishments, and fervent acolytes of one religious cult or another.

The novelist is not alone in understanding that reality is amenable to any construction placed upon it.

The historian and the novelist both work to deconstruct the aggregate fictions of their societies. The scholarship of the historian does this incrementally, the novelist more abruptly, from his unforgivable (but exciting) transgressions, as he writes his way in and around and under the historian’s work, animating it with the words that turn into the flesh and blood of living, feeling people.

The consanguinity of historians and novelists may be indicated by recent efforts of distinguished historians who, feeling themselves constrained by their discipline, have taken to writing novels. One presidential biographer has discovered no other way to accomplish his task than by yielding to unattributable flights of fancy. We should not be surprised by these border crossings. Who among writers of any genre would not want to see into the unseen?

E. L. Doctorow’s most recent book is The March, winner of the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. His forthcoming collection, Creationists, will be published in September.
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