War and Peace Is not a Historical Novel–or Is It?
10/26/14 — WAR AND PEACE IS NOT A HISTORICAL NOVE — OR IS IT?
I have been thinking about what a historical novel is, because the novel I am working on is set in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If we follow the dictum that a novel is ‘historical’ if set before the author’s birth, then mine clearly is, since I was born in 1955, almost twenty years after the very end of the action in the novel. And yet I feel a resistance to considering it a historical novel. No doubt this is partly owing to the stigma that pertains even now to historical fiction–I say even now since the genre is ever more popular–but also, I think, because I often reject the appellation altogether. Often, but not always. I, Claudius and Claudius the God, for example, by Robert Graves, seem to me to be very obviously historical novels. So do Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, one of my favourite novels of all time. And yet I cannot bring myself to call War and Peace a historical novel, although Tolstoy was born in 1828, after all the action in the novel takes place, apart from the epilogue. Neither does anyone call One Hundred Years of Solitude a historical novel, nor Love in the Time of Cholera, although both are set before Garcia Marquez’s birth in 1928. For that matter, Peter Carey’s masterpiece, Oscar and Lucinda, also somehow resists the label, even though it is set a full century before the author’s birth. So I wonder if there are additional criteria we might consider to the simple one of when the action is set–and I want to explore why I am so reluctant for my own novel to be considered historical.
At bottom, is it a matter of simple quality? Do we simply refuse to categorize the canonical works of literature as historical novels, even though many of them are, because we resist the idea that they could be ‘genre fiction’? At first sight, if we consider Tolstoy and Garcia Marquez, that might appear to be the case, and yet we have to admit that there are novels of very high literary quality, like Graves’ works on the Antonine emperors, and Fowles’ startlingly original take on the Victorian novel, which are indisputably historical novels. (And I would not object to my forthcoming novel sharing a shelf with them!) Could it be a matter of whether the book is based on historical characters or not? Graves’ aforementioned novels, and Mantel’s, both are; on the other hand Fowles’ is not. And while the Garcia Marquez novels I mentioned are not based on anyone famous (though many of the characters seem to have been based on real people or legends of real people), War and Peace boasts a whole host of historical characters: Napoleon, Alexander I, Marshal Kutuzov, and many other generals and public figures, and was evidently thoroughly researched. A few months ago I had a conversation with Fernando Galindo Gordillo, the Colombian fiction writer and critic, who told me that in his view historical fiction was pointless so long as it was mainly based on research and its aim was largely to bring the past to life. I am not sure I completely agree–Graves’ novels do no more, and yet they seem to me admirable, not merely as history books in disguise but also as pure fiction, in that they present us with a view of humanity that is illuminating and relevant, and a whole web of themes engages us. All the same, it was a useful insight, and I have sought to explore it further. What if it does not matter whether the characters really lived or not, or whether historical events are accurately portrayed or not; what if the crux of the matter is whether the author can imagine or re-imagine a person, a place, and a time, so that it seems to us to be not only true, in the sense of believable, but also true in the larger, philosophical sense–that is, timeless and universal?
Isn’t this why War and Peace and One Hundred Years of Solitude are not historical novels? Let’s add a few more ‘timeless’ and apparently ahistorical historical novels: Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage; Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong; Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin; John Berger’s G (and for that matter, Tom McCarthy’s C, which I suspect was inspired by it); Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea; and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. And although it strikes me that some of these novels feature either real historical figures, or, like Rhys’ Mrs. Rochester, ‘real’ fictional characters from the canon, crucially, the important characters are either made up or radically re-imagined. Is this the case with my own novel, whose main character is Gabriele D’ Annunzio, the once very real and very celebrated Italian poet, playwright, playboy, war hero, pirate, proto-fascist statesman and prince? I can only hope so. I have read the biographies, and hope I have not invented too much, although certainly my D’ Annunzio, charismatic, overbearing, narcissistic, sadistic and repellent as he often is, bears a disturbing resemblance to his author, at times, I cannot help noticing. Which is not to say that I am D’ Annunzio–I might commit suicide if I were. But I feel I know every nook of that teeming, fecund, somewhat sick brain…
And I hope, as every author worth his salt hopes (pace John Gardiner), that my novel might be deemed worthy to stand beside the timeless masterpieces; and if not, I will have tried, and maybe I will settle for sharing shelf space with Graves and Fowles and Mantel. Who wouldn’t?
Garry Craig Powell
Garry Craig Powell, until 2017 professor of Creative Writing at the University of Central Arkansas, was educated at the universities of Cambridge, Durham, and Arizona. Living in the Persian Gulf and teaching on the women’s campus of the National University of the United Arab Emirates inspired him to write his story collection, Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012), which was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2009, McSweeney’s, Nimrod, New Orleans Review, and other literary magazines. Powell lives in northern Portugal and writes full-time. His novel, Our Parent Who Art in Heaven, was published by Flame Books in 2022, and is available from their website, Amazon, and all good bookshops.
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