THE DEAD ARE REAL
Hilary Mantel’s imagination.
BY LARISSA MACFARQUHARThe New yORKER, OCTOBER 15, 2012
What sort of person writes fiction about the past? It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent. It is necessary to know that the people who live there are not the same as people now. It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts.
The writer’s relationship with a historical character is in some ways less intimate than with a fictional one: the historical character is elusive and far away, so there is more distance between them. But there is also more equality between them, and more longing; when he dies, real mourning is possible.
Historical fiction is a hybrid form, halfway between fiction and nonfiction. It is pioneer country, without fixed laws. To some, if it is fiction, anything is permitted. To others, wanton invention when facts are to be found, or, worse, contradiction of well-known facts, is a horror: a violation of an implicit contract with the reader, and a betrayal of the people written about. Ironically, it is when those stricter standards of truth are applied that historical fiction looks most like lying.
It is, in some ways, a humble form. There are limits to the writer’s authority. She cannot know her character completely. She has no power to alter his world or postpone his death. But in other ways it is not humble at all: she presumes to know the secrets of the dead and the mechanics of history.
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.
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.
The first novel that Hilary Mantel wrote was about the French Revolution. It did not start out as a novel, exactly, nor did she start out as a novelist. It was 1975, and she was twenty-three, living in Manchester and selling dresses in a department store. She had realized that she didn’t have the money to finish her legal training, and, after a year working in a geriatric hospital, that she didn’t want to be a social worker. She was bored with selling dresses; she had started taking books about the French Revolution out of the library, one after another. Then she began taking notes. After she had been doing this for some time, she asked herself, What am I doing? And the answer came: I am writing a book.These, then, are some of the obstacles that the serious novelist must consider in deciding to leave the safe precincts of the present and venture into the past.
She had had no notion of writing fiction. She had considered reading history at university, but she saw that girls who did arts subjects ended up as teachers, and although she knew the world needed teachers, there was a depressing circularity to the business, clever girls becoming teachers to produce more clever girls to become teachers. People said, Oh, teaching, it’s something to fall back on, which meant, When your husband leaves you you can support yourself. It wasn’t enticing. Because she wasn’t professionally trained as a historian, she thought that if she were to write a historical book it would have to be fiction. But she didn’t know how to make things up, she didn’t know when to make things up, and it seemed to her extremely unfortunate that she had to make things up at all.
She found that quite a bit was known about the revolutionaries. They had died young, but their wives and sisters had lived, and saved letters and kept diaries. So it was only here and there, at first, that she was compelled to invent things, filling in gaps. She might read about a conversation and deduce what other conversations must have preceded it. She might read about a separation and infer the quarrel. Whenever she could, she quoted directly from the record.
Public confusion deepened. Paris, a street-corner orator: “Only last week the aristocrats were given these Suspensive Vetoes, and already they’re using them to buy up all the corn and send it out of the country.”
But while with facts she was cautious, with form she was experimental. She tried everything. She read a lot of plays, and she loved Brecht, so she thought maybe she could write a Brechtian novel. She liked writing dialogue, it turned out, and much of the novel came out in that form.
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