Something Gained in the Translation: Reading and Writing Historical Fiction

copyright Brian Kiteley

Oscar Wilde said, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”  Contemporary writers of historical fiction seem to say “the one duty we owe to history is to reread it.”  The main character Omar Khayyam Shakil in Shame makes a small disquisition on his own namesake Omar Khayyam.  Salman Rushdie’s character says the other Omar Khayyam

was never very popular in his native Persia; and he exists in the West in a translation that is really a complete reworking of his verses, in many cases very different from the spirit (to say nothing of the content) of the original.  I, too, am a translated man.  I have been borne across.  It is generally believed that something is always lost in the translation; I cling to the notion—and use, in evidence, the success of Fitzgerald’s Khayyam—that something can also be gained.

Poetry, so the thinking goes, is impossible to translate—an idiolect, a personal language, rather than the King’s English or a master code (fiction, alas, is supposed to be all too easy to translate).  I want to discuss how a once undistinguished genre, historical fiction, fails the translatability test, as most poetry does.  Yet something is also gained: texture, prose styles erupting out of close readings of secondary and primary texts, new details, and a healthy rethinking of the relationship between the past and the present.  The key is reading, or rereading, the past.  Much contemporary historical fiction takes a simple idea—of reading the past—and elaborates on the process in surprising and imaginative ways.  Contemporary fiction writers often yearn for a kind of flimsy 19th century omniscience.  I propose that a new kind of historical omniscience has developed in the past thirty years.  These works read and reread the past—through research often exposed quite casually to its readers—fixing on the page a self-conscious method of understanding the past by inserting imaginative dreamscapes between the words and sentences of primary and secondary sources.  Rushdie’s tongue-in-cheek theory that something can also be gained in translation is a useful metaphor for this new fictional historiographic thinking.

Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western civilization.  He said, “I think it would be a good idea.”  So, too, historical fiction—it’s a great idea, if it were possible.  This is a poor way to open a defense of a genre whose best known works in the first two-thirds of the 20th century were bodice-ripping romance novels.  In the 19th century, War and Peace, The Scarlet Letter, Salammbo, and The Tale of Two Cities established historical material as a perfectly acceptable subject matter for that still new idea, the novel.  During the period of high modernism, historical fiction fell out of fashion for various good and bad reasons.  Roland Barthes, in Writing Degree Zero, saw a parallel between the writing of the great spherical novels of the 19th century and the great histories of the same period, when some form of historiography in the modern sense was born.  The early 20th century saw an inward spiral toward ahistorical—or certainly unhistorical— subjects, although the tentacles of references crossed centuries of other literary works.  Samuel Beckett took a long walk from Paris to south central France, during the Second World War, after he found the Gestapo in his apartment (he said to them, turning on his heels, “Sorry, wrong flat”).  He and his girlfriend, both working for the underground, and in grave danger, walked for many days, starved, frightened, but by all accounts philosophical about their chances for survival—they retold the story of this journey many times to friends.  None of the actual history of this momentous walk made it—in biographical or even biological details—into the artistic form Beckett chose for it: Waiting For Godot.  But Godot is nevertheless a record of that long walk, ripped from time and history, but still very politically acute.  In the last third of the 20th century, large numbers of fiction writers began exploring history again, with new methods and styles—Rushdie, Doctorow, DeLillo, Coover, Yourcenar, Galeano.  I’m not sure I care why this is so.  Perhaps the tumultuous century’s end has brought about a reconsideration of historical subject matter, in the face of such cruelty and cataclysm.  Maybe the century’s outrageous realities have made fiction writers shy away from contemporary material—it is common to hear journalists say such and such an event was so strange no novelist would get away with presenting it as fiction.

Linda Hutcheon, in A Poetics of Postmodernism, comments on the recent desire to intermingle history and fiction:

In the [19th] century … historical writing and historical novel writing influenced each other mutually: Macauley’s debt to Scott was an overt one, as was Dickens’s to Carlyle, in A Tale of Two Cities.  Today, the new skepticism or suspicion about the writing of history found in the work of Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra is mirrored in the internalized challenges to historiography in novels like Shame, A Public Burning, and A Maggot: they share the same questioning stance towards their common use of conventions of narrative, of reference, of the inscribing of subjectivity, of their identity as textuality, and even their implication in ideology.

Henry James dismissed the historical novel, saying it was “condemned… to a fatal cheapness.”  But James also famously used the example of Anne Thackeray, in his essay “The Art of Fiction,” to explain how a good writer finds the right details of a subject he or she is not intimately familiar with:  “…once, in Paris, [Thackeray] ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a [Protestant minister], some of the young Protestants were seated at table round a finished meal.  The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but that moment was experience.”  James makes the simple point that genius finds a way to understand human nature, no matter how far afield from the home world of the genius, no matter how little information is available, which would seem to go against his distrust of historical fiction.  Further back, Flaubert devoted a good deal of his writing career to historical subjects, and he chose to treat even his contemporary subjects the way an irritably objective historian might.

Flaubert, in despair over the details in his historical novel Salammbô, wrote to a friend:

I am now full of doubts about the whole, about the general plan; I think there are too many soldiers.  That is History, I know quite well.  But if a novel is as tedious as a scientific potboiler, then Good Night, there’s an end to Art….  I am beginning the siege of Carthage now.  I am lost among the machines of war, the balista and the scorpions, and I understand nothing of it, neither I nor anyone else.

Flaubert also said, “Few will be able to guess how sad one had to be in order to resuscitate Carthage.”  But Flaubert reveled in his depressions.  He preferred his study, his books, and his upside down life (sleeping away the daylight and writing and reading all night)—he preferred to read about life.

I started a book of historical fictions, The River Gods, in 1995.  I was sidetracked for a year trying to write another set of more intimate histories, about my brother Geoffrey, who died of AIDS in 1993.  I found that book difficult to write for all the obvious reasons—it was sad; I had little real evidence about my brother’s life; and, aside from an almost inexpressible understanding of him, I discovered I did not know him—or large parts of his life—all that well.  My brother Geoffrey offered me very few written clues about his life.  When I wrote Still Life With Insects I started with a bare-bones outline, in the laconic field notebooks my grandfather kept of his beetle-collecting—I used a handful of these locality notes as a springboard for the novel when I rediscovered them in my own journals a few months after I wrote them down.  It’s too easy to say I turned from my brother as subject to my home town because there was so little evidence to work with (the subject just kept slipping away).  But there is an organic relationship to this theme of reading the past in my fiction.  Still Life was a historical novel that advanced up to the present time in which I was writing it.  The last scene took place a few years after I started the book, when I was aware I was writing a life and observing it—my grandfather visited me on Cape Cod for a long weekend.  He also understood the parallax and did not seem to mind the intrusions.  But most of the rest of the novel was true historical recreation, using his notes, but mostly taking oral family stories and fleshing them out.  This a telling confession, I realize.  Like Flaubert, I prefer to read life.

In The River Gods, I’ve based an encounter between Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams in Northampton in 1944 on a sentence from the Paul Mariani biography of Williams: only Williams was in Northampton, overnight, for a visit to his publishers in Cummington.  I read other biographies and letters.  I devoured the poetry, finding myself siding with one, then the other poet, for long periods.  Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams stand for something quite personal.  In Still Life With Insects, I read biographies of both men as tangential research for my character, my grandfather, who was a chemist at a grain milling company all his working life but in his spare time—passionately so—a beetle collector.  These two poets, who had full-time jobs (a small-town doctor and an insurance executive) but did their poetry passionately in their free hours, were two important analogues for my grandfather’s story.  I stepped into William Carlos Williams’ voice as easily as I stepped into my grandfather’s voice—they had, I noted, in the earlier research, the same kinds of sense of humor, the same wry sweet outlook, the same darkness at the edge of their sunny dispositions.  Writers educate themselves to a large degree and the rest is often bullshit—imagination, extrapolation, hypothesis.  Aristotle made the distinction between history and fiction (without using that word): an account of what happened vs. an account of what might have happened.  My brother once said, when I caught him red-handed in an untruth (and I’d asked rhetorically how he could have sounded so sure of himself when it turned out he was wrong), “Brian, you must first of all act like you’re telling the truth.  Usually, truth follows confidence in the truth.”

Lennard Davis, in Factual Fictions: Origins of the English Novel, talks of how the two “cosmopolitan entities, the ‘public’ and the ‘novel,’ made their joint appearance in Anglo-Europe during the eighteenth century, and throughout the nineteenth century, these two flâneurs strolled arm in arm down the pollarded boulevards of the social imagination….  Novels, in particular, require a public, and the public in turn seems to require novels.”   Contemporary forms of historical fiction have followed the path of other forms of modern and postmodern fiction, which is inward, toward more private methods of expression.  Listen to the opening of Christa Wolf’s lovely novel, No Place on Earth, which is an exploration of a possible (but not probable) relationship between Kleist and a much less well-known female poet who died at sixteen, Karoline von Günderrode:

   The wicked spoor left in time’s wake as it flees us.
   You precursors, feet bleeding.  Gazes without eyes, words that stem from no mouth.  Shapes without bodies.  Descended heavenward, separated in remote graves, resurrected again from the dead, still forgiving those who trespass against us, the sorrowful patience of angels or of Job.
   And we, still greedy for the ashen taste of words.

The intimacy of these lines and of this book is startling.  Wolf did some research into the two subjects, and she appears in the telling of the story from time to time, but she also gives herself license to invade the minds and souls of these two writers, inventing where there is no other evidence to counter the inventions— and the big invention is in placing von Günderrode and Kleist in a romantic relationship.

William Vollmann notes at the end of his recent historical novel The Rifles that what he’s written is “often untrue based on the literal facts as we know them, but whose untruths further a deeper sense of truth.  Here one walks the proverbial tightrope, on one side of which lies slavish literalism; on the other, self-indulgence.”  Vollmann’s method is scrupulously honest, despite this coy disclaimer, which introduces a long list of sources.  His book reconstructs the last, fatal expedition John Franklin made in the mid-1800s to find the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and Vollmann interlaces the historical fiction with descriptions of his research—the reading, the trips to some of the places Franklin visited.  He claims that the narrator (whose name starts out as William or Bill, but settles into Captain Subzero) is a reincarnation of John Franklin.  This sleight of hand allows Vollmann to erase the boundaries between this past and the present of the novel.  It also makes his essentially research-oriented novel into a romantic quest for a past life, rather than merely a dry intellectual pursuit.  Vollmann’s method is similar to Doctorow’s in Ragtime and The Book of Daniel, except that those novels play with characters in the books who are researching and writing the books, whereas Vollmann simply presents someone whose name coincides with his own as the character writing the book.  The squishy moral aspect of The Rifles comes early on, when Captain Subzero seduces an Inuit woman, impregnates her, and later finds she has killed herself.  This woman is also a reincarnation of an Inuit woman Vollmann proposes Franklin loved passionately.

A few years ago there was a distressing argument about fiction in biographies.  The recent biographer of Reagan grew depressed with his subject and was unable to proceed with the process for almost a year.   Edmund Morris overcame this block against telling the life of a man he found, in the end, essentially dull and unpleasant, by inventing a fictional version of himself who knew Reagan in his youth when Reagan might have been a more likeable fellow.  The reaction to this fictionalizing, particularly in the political press, was amazing: he was just plain wrong to do this, and because he chose to fictionalize a small part of his biography, everything else in the book was tainted.  There has also been a general distrust of contemporary memoirs, on somewhat the same grounds.  As a fiction writer, I’m amused at the very notion that anything a biographer or a memoirist writes is not, essentially, fiction.  So, in the end, the writer who tackles historical subjects who may have lived their lives the way the writer says they lived—this writer is doing exactly what a novelist who appears to make it all up is doing.

Let me end with another dissenter, a straw man admittedly, David Gates, who is a good novelist of contemporary manners.  In an issue of Bookforum from around 2001, Gates says,

I pretty much stopped reading historical fiction when I outgrew those old Landmark books, whose generic plucky boys somehow find themselves with Washington at Valley Forge, or on the Kentucky frontier with Daniel Boone….  As for writing historical fiction myself, the thought of all that research depresses and intimidates me.  How ratty did the grounds of Mount Vernon look to old George in those days before the invention of the reel-type lawnmower?  What did Daniel Boone think about all day without mass culture to fill his head with corrupt factoids and echoing sensibilities—without runaway irony to give them reverse backspin?

The research is what has made all fiction interesting and enjoyable for me.  Even when I don’t have a subject that demands reading, I use reading other sources as a means of inspiring and conjuring the fictional world I’m trying to create.  David Gates, in the same essay, notes that writers of contemporary life who take their time writing of this contemporary life end up writing a kind of historical fiction, unless they update the key details, as he does, sometimes in the galleys of the book.  He quotes A. S. Byatt, from her collection On Histories and Stories, that the historical fiction writers she knows want “to write in a more elaborate, more complex way, in longer sentences, and with more figurative language.”  Gates says he’ll stick to his own “debased language,” and if he wants longer sentences he’ll “throw in a semicolon.”  Byatt’s desire sheds light on the process of resuscitating Carthage (or any historical place and period): one translates the past, one fills in the many details that must be filled in between the great gaps, one finds appropriate language to bridge these gaps.  There is great pleasure in finding and reading this kind of  language.

The following is a short piece from The River Gods, which is an Oulipean bridge exercise (taking two pieces of prose or poetry and creating a bridge of prose between them—the pieces are the opening of Eliot’s Dry Salvages from The Four Quartets, and the last two lines of Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”):


I don’t know much about gods; but I think that the river is a brown god—sullen, untamed, and intractable, patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier; useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce; then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.  I was a builder of bridges in the simplest sense, hammering the hot rivets into the support beams, following the orders of men who were also following orders.  We took our lunches on the I-beams, even when there was no platform under us.  The Connecticut River in May is a brown syrup, sluggish and hypnotizing.  My mate Sabin, the one man who died during the making of the bridge, often fell asleep at lunch, dangling fifty feet above water (not a fatal plunge), jerking awake with bad dreams about his sister and her boyfriend.  He died on solid earth, when someone dropped a pail of hammers on his head. I did not know I could get used to such dying.  When we trained for our bombing runs in New Jersey and then in Hampshire, we lost four planes and all but three men of the crews.  It was a relief to be in combat, in some ways.  You knew you were going to die.  Training missions wasted our anxiety muscles.  There was a moment, before the shrapnel ripped me apart, when I thought I was on the nearly completed Coolidge Bridge.  Currents of river air.  Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.  When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

(For a brilliant argument slightly slant to this one of mine, see Don DeLillo’s description of some of the methods that went into making his book Underworld.)

Return to Brian Kiteley’s home page