". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Friday, September 2, 2011

Perry Anderson on the Historic Novel -- London Review of Books

Thanks to Dan Hartland, via e-mail I got hipped to this article, "From Progress to Catastrophe, Perry Anderson on the Historic Novel," in the London Review of Books.

This essay would be of interest to writers and readers of historical fiction. As  sf/f in its various forms, particularly lately with alternate histories, cultural and genre mashups and steampunk that model on the Napoleonic era, the English Regency and the Victorian era and Empire, it could be of interest in that quarter as well. The Napoleonic years and Romantic Era are the womb in which the the novel of manners and the historical novel, the progenitors of these sf/f forms, largely were born -- Walter Scott; Jane Austen.

It follows from Lukács’s conception that the historical novel is not a specific or delimited genre or subgenre of the novel tout court. Rather, it is simply a path-breaker or precursor of the great realistic novel of the 19th century.
Because along with non-regional tropical birds and quarter inch mosquitos, Hurricane Irene also brought me a cold or at least bronchitis because of what else she swept up during her huge, long, slow progress. Feeling wretched I watched what I probably would never otherwise, Lost in Austen, a fantasy adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (2008). In this made for television miniseries, a fictional character (movie character), Amanda Price, goes through a door in the wall above the bathtub in her London apartment and moves into the fictional life of the fictional character Elizabeth Bennet, as herself, the fictional Miss Price, in her tights, tunic, belt, make-up, hennaed, blown out straight hair. Got that? People in Miss Bennet's world make remarkably little of any of these, particularly Mr. Bennet. It is rather charming to see the younger Bennets' fascination with Amanda's lip gloss tube and so politely requesting a chance to try it -- that's us as little girls, crazy for our moms' lipsticks. But charm is seldom found by (fictional) Amanda Price in (fictional) Elizabeth Bennet's (fictional) world. Amanda even gets drunk in public, at the Netherfield Ball -- she is shocked that people, including Mr. Darcy, find this shocking -- Amanda, who adores Pride and Prejudice so much, she knows it by heart? is shocked at this? Elizabeth, the fictional character herself, didn't find much charm in her fictional world either, since she refuses to come back from Amanda's contemporary London apartment. This production is a mess. It could have made some discussion-worthy points as to our relationships from up here in the future to our romanticized, imagined, views of the  past back there -- that are fictional to begin with, but it doesn't. So, then, why do it all?

I go back to War and Peace every year or so. As my own knowledge of that era of history deepens so comes through more clearly the emergence of that era’s influence on the formation of the secessionist thought and philosophy that created the American Civil War. So much that grew out of the Napoleonic era that created the progressive – revolutionary 1840’s was what the secessionists and the power elites of South America and the Caribbean – and in Europe, Spain in particular -- reacted against, in horror and fear.
The question, of course, is whether Tolstoy’s fictional portrait of Kutuzov qualifies as such a handsome offspring – that is, a persuasive work of art. The evidence that it fails to do so is written out in extenso in the novel itself, whose incoherent philosophical tirades on the nature of history – deplored by virtually all its readers – function as a compulsive make-weight for the flimsiness of the oleograph at one centre of the narrative, the political stage on which the fate of Russia is played out. The personal destinies of its fictional characters are another matter. But to grasp the sense in which War and Peace is a historical novel, classically interconnecting public events and private lives, it needs to be reinserted in the series of which it is a member. This is something Lukács’s account of the form touches on, but then skirts. The historical novel – if we except its one great precursor, Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas – is a product of romantic nationalism. This is as true of Tolstoy as it is of Scott, Cooper, Manzoni, Galdós, Jókai, Sienkiewicz or so many others.
Sienkiewicz is among my primary instructors when it comes to the principles of historical fiction, along with, of course, as Anderson includes in his list, Scott and Cooper. I have a terrific essay to write about Sienkiewicz and the exiled Poles in Oxford on Tolkien. And you can really see it in Jackson’s visuals in his LOTR out of the Polish epic films made from the Sienkiewicz trilogy. Recall Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Anderson essay is even more interesting to genre writers, perhaps, when read along with this essay, "
The Moral Aesthetics of Steampunk -- Keep in Mind that Steampunk Is Really Cool."

When it comes to these mashups, alternate histories, fantasy history, etc., are there any novels that tell it from the other side: the 'New' World discovering / invading the 'Old' World, instead of the inevitable other direction? There are quite a few novels in the genre published in the last three years or so in which the 'New' World experience of the Old coming in is re-configured -- i.e. they don't destroy the civilizations there, and war, disease and slavery don't happen. But I don't recall any novels in which the 'New' arrives and takes over the 'Old.' That would be different, as they would say back where I come from. :)

1 comment:

Foxessa said...

I admit to irritated botheration that not a single woman is named in this essay examining the historical progress of the historical novel, other than Margaret Mitchell -- and she's not even named, only the title of her novel, described as the "biggest selling historical novel of all time."

Love, C.