Updated: Dec 26, 2020
On history and fiction...
Henri found himself looking at the sky again—a clear, black crystal dome overhead. It was difficult for the mind to conceive of hundreds of planes shattering that black, crystalline silence! And suddenly, words began tumbling through his head with a joyous sound—the offensive was halted… the German collapse had begun… at last he would be able to leave. He turned the corner of the quay. The streets would smell again of oil and orange-blossoms, in the evening there would be light, people would sit and chat in outdoor cafes, and he would drink real coffee to the sound of guitars. His eyes, his hands, his skin were hungry. It had been a long fast!
That is the opening of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins—a fictionalised account of the life of her and her friends after World War Two. It’s a passage so ripe with time its heady. Contained within are two, opposing pasts, the prewar and war pasts, and then a present verging on the expectations of a postwar future. It sets the tone of the book, giddy with expectation, but overshadowed by a momentous tragedy.
Contrast that with the weight of history embodied in buildings with which a very different type of novel commences, Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. Here, we are introduced without delay not to a person’s point of view, but to the inhuman solid, gothic, impenetrable bulk of the fantasy series’ titular setting:
Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half-way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold of the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed over them.
This place is imponderably heavy with the ages, ‘ancient’ to use Peake’s word. It conveys a mountainous sense of scale and time, not so much historic as prehistoric. But as with The Mandarins the passage sets out what we can expect from the book’s overall handling of history. Neither de Beauvoir nor Peake are especially interested in spelling out the histories important to their fictions; those histories are rather ubiquitous in their works, they shape every character and event.
When it comes to world building a history for your fiction, there are no steadfast rules. There is no one formula for writing per se. Good and bad writing cannot be judged by a work’s the individual constituents, but by grasping the relationships of the parts within the totality of the piece. The best stories cooperate with themselves; tensions and depths subtly, openly reinforce the experience of the whole. The worst stories pull against their own logics; the parts fruitlessly disagree, despite being tortured into attempted agreement.
A story about the experience of being fragmented, of one’s consciousness breaking under anxiety, might be aided by a staccato prose in a way that a sweeping account of an archetypal heroic journey might not. A family saga emphasising a multiplicity of perspectives could be served by a nuanced third person limited, while the story of a solitary women exploring her loneliness benefit from a straightforward first person.
Or not, depending on other considerations. Maybe the family is hopelessly atomised, so a single vantage could most powerfully convey being closed off from those who are ostensibly the closest intimates. Maybe the lonely woman lacks—or imagines she lacks—an internal monologue, and a highly detached third person more powerfully captures her sense of living without a rich inner life.
Having written that caveat, when it comes to any part of fiction writing, certain problems and dilemmas do recur. And through promptings we can sometimes reconsider our angle on a story. When it comes to your story’s history—how you engage with history—there is no singular right course for all stories, but there is a shared set of concerns.
The history of your fiction is important irrespective of genre. Few would dismiss the importance of history to my favourite genre, utopia, as generally there is a lot up in the air (entire castles, arguably) that need contextualising. Likewise, for a lot of world-heavy speculative fiction, fantasies and space operas, alternate realities and reimagined pasts, the history of a world is immediately thrown up as a dilemma and opportunity.
But even the most parred back, contemporaneously set novel— zeroed in on a simple character sketch—is entangled in history, and the fictionalisation of history. Putting to one side memoirs and all those books blurring lines between fiction and nonfiction (in some sense, that’s true of all storied writing), the characters will have histories. And the places will have histories too (real or otherwise) that enmesh with those characters’ lives.
History is itself daunting. The study of the past, the way the past is represented and communicated, the interactions between memory and the present, the traces of former lives, the means by which the dead talk to the living, the weight of influence wielded by the powerful, how what is irrecoverably lost can still shape future events, all presents a rich array of aporias in which a story can take root or be buried.
Having written that there is no inherently bad way of writing history, there is one way generally reviled and for good cause. The famed infodump, the glut of purely explicatory prose that you might find lingering at the start of a badly written science fiction, which feels—and likely is—the unreconstructed notes of the author. But this is bad precisely because, as flagged earlier, it necessarily does not reinforce the totality of the narrative. It exists outside. It is a synopsis snuck into the body of the text, and it stands out, at a remove.
The art of integrating a history without unsightly expository interludes or preambles, however, is by no means a narrow one. History can take on many forms within fiction. What I include below is not an attempt at an inexhaustive set of options, then, but a range of possible prompts illustrated with examples taken from various novels. Ways to orientate your readers to the histories of your imagined worlds and the imagined people who reside within them.
In Ágota Kristóf’s Hungarian based The Notebook and Yi Munyol’s South Korean based Our Twisted Hero, history is handled with a flair for deft allegory. In the latter, a schoolground drama that plays out around a bully’s clique serves as a microcosm for the country’s history; in the former a macabre fairytale account of abandoned twins serves as a uncompromising perspective on the horrors experienced there through the mid twentieth century, unadorned by adult pretensions and sentimentality. In this way, novels can dramatise critical, searching engagements with shared histories.
While discussing the dystopic film adaptation of P. D. James’s The Children of Men, Slovenian philosophy Slavoj Žižek describes what he calls morphasis, whereby ‘if you look at the thing too directly[…] you don’t see it. You can see it in an oblique way only if it remains in the background.’ In works such as Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood showed a remarkable talent for capturing history in the background.
The story focuses on a semi-fictionalised account of the authors time in Germany as the forces of reaction gained ascendancy, but while that is focal and drives the narrative tension, it is only rarely highlighted. As Žižek anticipates, that backgrounding only makes the past more present. It means the reader has to critically engage, it allows the world (and the world’s timeline) to rear up larger than the lives of those inhabiting it.
However, the pronounced presence of the past is not always the desired end. To take a contrary approach, one of my favourite handlings of history qua memory is found in Tan Twan Eng’s meditative, slowly unfolding The Garden of Evening Mists. The story, which is full of pathos, centres on the retired judge Teoh Yun Ling, a survivor of Japanese war atrocities, and her complicated friendship with a Gardener and tattoo artist Nakamura Aritomo.
This book is as subtle as it is richly complex; it deals with trauma but also with the protagonist’s aphasia and consequent memory loss. This means history, far from backgrounded, is desperately sought, recovered, clung-to. As with many of these other books, its story occurs in the shadow of the Second World War, but whereas de Beauvoir’s characters (for example) are dealing with recently lost time, this book is about losing—and clinging to—the past wholesale.
One of the ways in which we can write history is by focussing on how it can be lost. Eng’s is just one version of history defined by its erosion, by its gradual forfeiture. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant a longer-lost history threatens the characters throughout the novel precisely in its being hidden, underground. Purposefully repressed histories mark out much of Bernhard Schlink’s haunting and haunted fiction, which shares Eng’s interest in novelising the legacies of atrocity.
In Search of Lost Time is a book I mention often, but its handling of the past and history deserve a word here. Befitting the scope of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, his novel brings together much of the above. The allegorical use of persons to convey a shared history (see Michael Sprinker’s seminal History and Ideology in Proust); the past found precisely in its disturbing absence (as hinted in the title); the unfolding of history that comes to the fore of the reader’s focus in being backgrounded (which Sprinker also touches on). But Proust is also acutely concerned with recurrence, which links directly to his treatment of narrativising the past.
We can see this in two respects. First, his use of narrative repetitions. The section ‘Swann in Love’, often published as a stand-alone novel and once adapted into a film, works so masterfully by anticipating the broader events of the multi-volumed novel. Second, Proust’s handling of memory as a redemptive experience that helps unify our lives, but not an experience under our control. Rather, Proust sees remembrance as dependent on a coincidence of sensation, the linking of experience that allows us to see life in its completeness. The size of In Search of Lost Time powerfully permits such repetitions.
The sin of a lazy expository dump, or of merely jettisoning interest in the historical details of your fictions (whether the personal histories of characters or the broader histories of your worlds), is ultimately the same sin: it is in not taking advantage of what history can do for your story. Engagements between your story and history as it exists beyond the text can enhance stories, and encompassing fictional histories can more generally embellish and enrich other novelistic goals.
There are many different ways to write history, but they all deserve a careful consideration.
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