In the new historical novel, the past is part of the fiction
Richard A. Kaye
or The Distinction
I am reminded of this anecdote when I think of the ferociously tricky genre, the historical novel, with its intense pressure on the novelist to infuse his work with incident from the historical record: battle scenes, domestic arguments between famous historic player and lover, political details of the period, and even observations about the weather. The research is itself a throwback to nineteenth-century literary values, when Dickens could be found tagging along with urban police detectives and George Eliot gamely ducked into synagogues as a way of working up the Jewish parts of Daniel Deronda.
Virginia Woolf or Joyce or Henry James would have whooped at the idea of diligently approaching the imaginative experiment of the novel as if it were a research paper. The historical<0x201A> novel is, for me, condemned to a fatal cheapness, wrote James in a 1901 letter to Sarah Orne Jewett, adding that however much an author managed to develop historical background, the whole enterprise was humbug. But fictional work with a historic setting and historical characters is currently making a terrific comeback, and the list of subjects is potentially infiniteNapoleon, Shackleton, Elizabeth I, Hitlers doctor, Mussolinis dog, Wittgensteins imaginary mistressfor the historical novel theoretically functions as an enhancement of a central realist proposition: nothing that exists or has ever existed or could have existed is outside the novelists purview.
Still, as the anecdote about Wouk suggests, one should make some distinctions between novelists absorbed in historical subjects and those who are interested in history. Theres the Woukian novelinevitably called sweeping in jacket blurbs, stuffed with panoramic and montage techniques mastered by novelists such as Thackeray, popularized in Hollywood moviesin which the narrator struggles mightily to render historical dramas of war, intrigue, and romance with page-turning suspense. In contrast, tonier writers such as Mary Renault or Gore Vidal turn to history-conscious narrative as a means of correcting the generally misperceived impressions in the publics understanding of the historical record. With these ace storytellers, conventional history is overturned but the many of the creaky conventions of the genre endure, sometimes bordering on camp. In Renaults case, Ancient Greece emerges as an exalted homoerotic Arcadia, whereas Vidal invariably gives us, in his best novels on American history, a United States shorn of its self-preening myths.
Then there is that relatively new development, the postmodern historical novel, which seeks to deconstruct the all-too-comforting notion of history as a coherent narrative that one energetically unearths from archival sources and then commits to paper. Beyond depicting once-neglected figures from the past, the postmodernist drawn to historical themes accentuates historys perspectival anarchy. The archive that historians take for granted is, in postmodern works as varied as E.L. Doctorows The Book of Daniel and Julian Barness Flauberts Parrot, a treasure house of competing versions of the truth. Postmodern historical novelists, unlike their Balzacian predecessors, play a highwire act, balancing the aims of realism (to convince the reader that something happened) and a countervailing distrust of unmediated facts.
Two newly published novels belong to this last category and explore in different ways that tension between detail-delivering realist narrative and a suspicion at the factiousness of the factual: Paul LaFarges Haussmann, or the Distinction and (my colleague) Susan Daitchs L.C., first published in 1986 and now reissued by Dalkey Archive Press. Both novels are set in revolutionary midnineteenth-century Paris, and each concentrates on maverick artists-colossi: the urban designer Georges-Eugène Haussmann (Lafarge) and the painter Eugène Delacroix (Daitch). Further, both novels focus on these artists influence upon invented female figures who, had they actually existed, would undoubtedly have been declared insignificant by conventional historians.
LaFarge and Daitch, then, have chosen actual characters who encapsulate everything we associate with nineteenth-century ambition in a French context: Haussmann who, owing to the fascination of Napoleon III with London after the Great Fire, transformed Paris from a city of medieval slums and cramped streets into a modern metropolis of majestic boulevards and spacious parks, in the process employing armies of workers; and Delacroix who sets the standard for the Romantic artist with his canvases full of superhuman acts of male virility, passive, beautiful women, colorful orgies, and plunging stallions. But by depicting their nineteenth-century giants through the optic of invented protagonistsas sometimes petty creators and diffident loversLaFarge and Daitch give us everyday heroes, not so much diminished as life-sized.
From this central investment in countermythic creators and a shared view of history as an endlessly negotiated series of fictions, these works move in very different directions. LaFarges novel is friskily inventive, often comic, convincingly detailed, an arch enchantmentthe historical novel as adult toy. Daitchs work is brooding, intellectually restless, committed to an examination of the unconsciously political motivations that underpin historical representation, which Daitch sees as a series of translations. Haunting and obsessive, L.C. is as somberly absorbed in the meaning of history as are its deracinated characters.
The coy self-consciousness basic to LaFarges novel begins with a Note to the English Edition by P.L., informing the reader that the novel Haussmann, ou La Distinction was originally published in France by Paul Poissel in 1922. Poissel, we are instructed, is not a well-known writer in France, although Haussmanns grandson demanded that the novel be burned and Poissels work appears in references in Walter Benjamin and the early surrealist Michel Leiris. All of this knowingness ends with a clincher: As historical correctness does not seem to have been the essence of Poissels project (see the Afterword), I have left these references mostly unannotated. The novel begins not with Haussmann, however, but with the story of an orphan, Madeleine, whose mother has tossed her into a river but who is rescued by a lamplighterbecause, our ever-chatty narrator tells us, lamplighters are the catalysts of history. Madeleines childhood echoes reams of Victorian orphan texts and maybe even the popular contemporary childrens books that bear her name. After her rescue she finds herself in the convent of Saint-Grimace, where she awaits the arrival of a mother she has been told is aristocratic. No such mother arrives, but in scenes that evoke the tender friendship between Jane Eyre and poor Helen Burns, Madeleine befriends Nasérie, wellborn but, like Helen Burns, consumptive. When Nasérie dies, Madeleine finds herself bereft, her only friends alley cats, as she dreams of sainthood. Before long, however, she is taken up by de Fonce, a demolition man, who comes to share her with Haussmann. The large part of Haussmann, or the Distinction is given over to the urban designers unknowing participation in a love triangle.
Superficially, LaFarges novel resembles those grand Dickensian and Balzacian novels of sudden social rise or fall, in which everyday gritty detail counts for everything and a single winning encounter or faux pas (sometimes, as in Balzac, a single conversation) catapults one very high or low on the social ladder. But LaFarges narrator always undermines realistic detail with an ironic grandiloquence that tends to mock the panoramic sweep and allusiveness of the genre in which he is working, as in this description of Madeleines youth:
History abandoned Madeleine, but time, against which history is nothing, continued to do its work. Having learned from Saint-Grimace to mistrust her body, she observed its increasing peculiarities with concern: the kink in her neck that came from sleeping pillowless or with her head propped against a beam; the tangle that stopped her fingers an inch from her skull when she tried to make sense of her hair; the incrustations of callus and dirt about her heels, which made her think of Hector, a beggar who had sung in the courtyard below Jacobs window. Would I were sure of being immortal ageless all my days, he sang, and was found morning broken backed where a runaway horse had stepped on him in the night. Grime and snarl were like a motif embellishing the real changes. Like Napoleon in Russia, Madeleine grew breasts; unlike the Emperor she grew taller as well. If only she had something to eat! Madeleine could not walk as far she had at first, when she scavenged the markets for whatever produce had been thrown away during the day; now she made do with what she found nearby, a scrap of bread, a vegetable no longer of any recognizable variety.
There is an inspired hybridity of literary conventions in paragraphs such as this, in which LaFarge, a conflicted realist with a po-mo gamesters skepticism, feels compelled to ironize his own material. Haussmann and his seventeen-year project never quite come to life in LaFarges novel, as if to suggest that the monumentalism of the designers urban schemes might constitute the ambitions of another literary epoch. When Haussmann does take on depth it not as a maverick urbanist with an ingenious design but as an annoyed mover-and-shaker, bored husband, and petulant celebrity. At one point he is distracted for hours over a missing watch, a gift of an admiring Queen Victoria. (The celebrity walk-on part, so redolent of the Hollywood historical epic or the Woukian potboiler, is a reminder that my too-discrete categories for historical fiction comingle.) Perhaps, too, the triangular romance between Haussmann and his demolition man is more banal than one would like. Yet Haussmann, or the Distinction has some of the fascination of watching a wizard-novelist never beholden to a Great-Man view of historyor to any of his own formalist effects. Paul LaFarge is a ventriloquist who manages to turn the historical novel into a self-doubting but ultimately serene performance.
Susan Daitch is determined to depict the intersections between past obsessions and present fixations, and although she writes exquisitely she is no playful LaFargian formalist. Rather, she is obsessed with what gets left out of history, along with the distortions of seemingly transparent translations. Her novel L.C. (its very title hinting at lacunae that readers must fill in) begins, like LaFarges work, with an introduction that puts us on notice. We are instructed that the diary we are about to read is of questionable authenticity. Written in 1968 by Dr. Willa Rehnfield, the introductory pages frame a journal, translated by Rehnfield, of Lucienne Crozier, a married, middle-class Frenchwoman involved in the 1848 revolution in Paris whose adulterous connection with Delacroix helps to insure her exile from France in the revolutions aftermath. (That her husbands name is Charles evokes Flauberts adultery-prone heroine, while Rehnfields name suggests another doctor, Renfield, who goes mad and is institutionalized in Bram Stokers Dracula, another novel of disparate texts, including diaries, that is explicitly mentioned in Daitchs novel.) By suggesting that Croziers diary may be apocryphal, Daitch would seem to be protecting her diary from the charge that the affair between Crozier and Delacroix is far-fetched, that this sexually precocious character is a contemporary writers invention. The reader never questions the diary, however, which is tonally perfect, an exact conception of we what might imagine to be the language of a self-possessed, relatively educated, sexually cognizant middle-class woman writing in the 1840s, as in this scene when she models for Delacroix in Oriental garb:
He led me to a steamer trunk, opened the lid and began to take out dark velvet trousers (Turkish), shirts of raw silk, scarves hung with gold ornaments. These were part of the collection he brought back from Morocco. He began to unbutton my dress and then untie my laces. I stood as mutely and passively as a painting, thinking about the red marks the laces made against my back but, half naked, afraid to turn around. Eug<0x00E8>ne pulled Arabian clothing from the trunk. The objects were little more than very white lengths of cloth with a few seams. Chechia, haik, kufiyeh which is tied around the head: he named them as he tossed them in my direction. E. undressed without looking at me. Over my shoulder I stared at his spine, the line of bones nestling white against each other as he bent over, and at that moment I did not want him to touch me. He put on an Arabian costume. I was going to be a drawing. That was what he wanted. I finished taking off my dress as if the room were empty, put on a green velvet jacket and a small hat with veils tied under my chin. . . . The effect of being drawn and examined so closely was difficult to bear. Its very much like being touched, as if the eye were a hand. The pencil outlines you<0x201A>re being touched on the ear, your cheeks, the top of your forehead, and the sound of curved strokes against paper is the same gesture against skin.
The stately sensuality of this scene is complicated by Croziers awareness that, when she draws Delacroix, she does not imagine my pencil touched him in the same way. In Daitchs outline of history, the supposedly voiceless subsidiary characters of the official record assume intense subjective power, as Delacroixs passive female beauties (drawn from supposedly compliant models) emerge as keen observers, erotically hungry but gimlet-eyed before Delacroix the Man of Genius. Meanwhile, History in the form of revolutionary troubles gets played out in the streets of Paris.
The protofeminist implications of L.C. are themselves played out in a sudden story-within-story subtext that gradually becomes the main text of the novel. Rehnfields careful scholarly footnotes to Croziers diary are increasingly supplanted by footnotes provided by Jane Amme, Rehnfields literary executor and a Berkeley activist on the run from the law because of her 1960s political activism. She decides that Rehnfield, now dead, has distorted the radical implications of Croziers story with an unreliable translation from the French, with which she intensely identifies. These three competing narratives crisscross and complicate one another, ultimately insinuating that history is less a progressively moving narrative of human liberation (hence Ammes identification with Crozier and not her immediate precursor, Rehnfield) than a sequence of conflicting narratives that vie for attention and judgment.
But L.C. refuses to sentimentalize its trio of female protagonists. No lachrymose sisterhood unites them, only ironic parallels. The two women who are most closely aligned are separated by epochs, and they are similar in their dispassionate clarity of vision. Crozier is a brilliant, cold observer, while Jane is more convincing than likeable; her caginess about the nature of her crime (she seems to have participated in a bombing that kills a corporate executive linked to the military-industrial complex) speaks of her own self-serving distortions of the historical record. Daitch is a dextrous chronicler of private self-repressions (the portrait of the lady scholar Dr. Rehnfield is especially good, and surprisingly stirring in a novel that generally eschews easy sentiment.) Daitch is just as adept at describing public revolutionary acts and reprisals (the scenes of Paris besieged by street-fighting and food shortages make for exciting reading.) Only once did I question a detail, and Im not sure it can be called historical or if it is even the result of an authorial lapse: Would a woman taking a planeeven in those countercultural 1960sreally get to see an in-flight screening of Touch of Evil? (Or is this a sign of Janes own falsifying memoryin this case, on behalf of lyric description, as the activist Jane allows herself a poets privileges?)
L.C., a first novel, was originally published in 1986, precisely when new American fiction was witnessing some of its worst non-excesses: the famished prose of the minimalist writers, authors who seemed to have as their only aesthetic aim the evacuation from their fiction of every important imaginative technique bequeathed to the novel by literary modernism. Clearly that is only part of the story of that decade. The experimental historical novel, it turns out, was out there all along, way before it became fashionable. With the reprinting of Susan Daitchs hard, impersonal, unforgettable novel, it should be clear that there is another Literary History, and that like History itself, it is what you make it.<
Originally published in the October/November 2002 issue of Boston Review