". . . 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

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Historical Fiction - *The Dead Are Real* The New Yorker

The title brings up vividly an experience with the Tumba Francesa in Santiago de Cuba. After performing a variety of dance-drum-rhythm dances, the Director, an ancient woman, asked us how we liked it. El V, impressed even more than usual, said something on the order of how alive-O, how much vitality, how not dead and museum quality it was. Her response was, "And the dead, they too were dancing."

The dead are not dead: they are the ancestors. History never goes away.

"The Dead Are Real: Hilary Mantel’s Imagination," by Larissa MacFarquhar, Oct. 15, 2012  (The New Yorker) is an essay about historical fiction.

What is it? Who writes it?

There are so many pithy paragraphs in this essay that any of us who have an interest in historical fiction would be sorry not to have read it.

Here follows a comment which describes my personal vexations with so much that is marketed as historical fiction but is not;:

The reputation of historical fiction is unstable. In the thirties, the Marxist literary critic György Lukács argued that early historical novels like those by Scott, Balzac, and Tolstoy showed that man’s nature was not fixed but transformed over time; thus, they showed that revolution was possible and, in doing so, made it more likely. But these days the historical novel is not quite respectable. It has difficulty distinguishing itself from its easy sister the historical romance. It is thought to involve irritating ways of talking, or excessive descriptions of clothes. 
To often history is employed in fiction  by the sort of people who regard history as "a bathtub in which we all can splash around as we like" -- you can imagine how people for whom history is both profession and passion feel about that!

The past, in fiction, has more prestige than the future, but, as with the future, its prestige declines with its distance from the present. Novels about the past hundred years or so are all right, but once you go beyond the First World War, once you leave indoor plumbing and move into crinolines and wigs, your genre status deteriorates very quickly. A book jacket depicting Henry VIII, or a queen wearing pearls, is off-putting to a certain sort of reader. Why would a writer write about the distant past, that reader might wonder, if not to escape the realist discipline imposed by familiarity? If not to flee to a world blurry enough so that men can behave like Vikings and not seem ridiculous, and ladies can be ladies without being pathetic? And if a writer writes about historically significant people then she is forced into a respectful posture that depreciates her status still further, since it has become one of the hallmarks of literary fiction that its authors regard their characters with something between affectionate condescension and total contempt. 

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