Monday, 10 March 2014

Voice in Historical Fiction: The Limits of Realism

Some months ago, my novel, An Accidental King, was nominated for the Folio Prize. It was not included on the final shortlist of eight books, from which the winner will be announced later today: a list that includes no works of historical fiction, and only one novel by a British author (Jane Gardam's Last Friends). I did, however, get to attend the festival organised in association with the prize this past weekend, to hear the judges, members of the Folio Prize Academy and shortlisted authors talking about the art of writing, and how great writing is achieved.

The opening session was on "Voice," and the panellists included Lavinia Greenlaw, George Saunders, Erica Wagner and Ali Smith. There can be no story without voice, Smith insisted, and we discussed the "voice" of the book as well as those of individual characters.

George Saunders identified realism as a "default option" for our times, and several of the speakers at the festival cited George Eliot's realist masterpiece, Middlemarch, as an inspiration for their own work. Saunders, however, frequently finds himself "pushing against" realism, discovering, as he writes, that "realism isn't real." He, and other speakers, also talked about "constraint" as a valuable discipline in writing. At one end of the scale, this "constraint" may simply involve seeing the world exclusively through the eyes of one character; whilst at the other end it can involve a variety of "Oulipian" experiments.

Within historical fiction, few writers have attempted to push at the limits of realism quite so forcefully as Marguerite Yourcenar, whose work I discussed in an earlier blog-post. Her pursuit of realism involved a real constraining discipline, as outlined in her essay, "Tone and Language in the Historical Novel," reproduced in the volume, That Mighty Sculptor, Time.

This discipline led her, in her novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, to avoid dialogue altogether (since we cannot know what the speech patterns at Hadrian's court would have sounded like) and, in The Abyss (set in 16th Century Brussels), to model the dialogue closely on that provided by the historical sources.

When I came to write An Accidental King, I made the conscious decision to allow myself liberties that Yourcenar denied herself. Judging that the Latin spoken at Cogidubnus's British court is unlikely to have been as formal as that of the Roman court, that it was probably influenced by the Roman military presence in Britain, and by the speech of the mariners who sailed in and out of Chichester Harbour, I took my models for dialogue from sources that Yourcenar explicitly rejected: Petronius's novel, The Satyricon, for example, and the comedies of Plautus and Terence. It is realism of a sort, at least in its aspirations, but, as Saunders says, it must always be remembered that "realism is not real."

Some authors respond to this epiphany by abandoning the pursuit of realism altogether. Bernardine Evaristo, for example, in The Emperor's Babe, freely makes use of modern idiom in imagining life in London in the 3rd Century AD, but she also works Latin terms into her poetic text:

"To form an attachment is to risk its loss,
Is it not? I have been looking for a nice,
Simplex, quiet, fidelis girl, a girl
Who will not betray me with affairs,
Who will not wear me out with horrid fights,
Unlike my pater's subsequent three wives,
Who made my life hell, and his,
Who were of the hedonistic breed
Of aristocratic matronae, determined to compete
With the husband in all spheres,
Ever boastful of their sexual shenanigans,
Humiliating the dear, gentle man in public ..."

As a poet, writing a novel in verse, Evaristo works under her own constraints, which are different from Yourcenar's or mine. The result is a very different novel, echoing very different voices (both Evaristo's own, and that of her protagonist, Zuleika).

Several of the writers at the festival also spoke about the "contract" that exists between each individual writer and his or her readers, and one of the challenges for any writer is to develop a voice that is open to new ideas and influences, at the same time as remaining true to its essence, which lies at the heart of that relationship.

Italo Calvino, in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, goes even further:

"Think what it would be like to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own, but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic ... Was this not, perhaps, what Ovid was aiming at, when he wrote about the continuity of forms?"

Margaret Atwood, similarly, leaves the last words of her book on writing, Negotiating with the Dead, to Ovid:

"... who has the Sibyl of Cumae speak not only for herself, but also, we suspect, for him, and for the hopes of all writers - 'But still the fates will leave me my voice, and by my voice I shall be known' (Metamorphoses 307.40)."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK and Amazon USA


  1. Fascinating subject, Mark. The author's voice has to be a compromise in any historical work, naturally, to aid narrative flow and reader comprehension. A novel is not a treatise, it's a series of emotional and physical events going on in the reader's head, and the reader is a modern entity, not a student of ancient writing. Realism can't be achieved in fiction, only an approximation, hopefully in a magical sense; that is, we get lost in the created fictional historical world.

  2. I echo Nik's comments above. I think an author can strive to create something constrained by the demands of the current society and reader preferences, yet it may not come naturally and may, therefore, not seem at all realistic or enjoyable. Author voice is so critical for me as a reader- some I love and others I find I dislike when I feel they are trying too hard to achieve something without the natural cadences that are in many ways easier to appreciate..

  3. Thanks, Nik & Nancy. I rarely think explicitly about reader preferences, or the demands of the current society, but, as a reader, I'm as much immersed in that society as anyone else, which I'm sure comes through in my writing. Author voice is a very personal thing. I guess we all have our list of long-standing favourites (my own would include Yourcenar, Graves and Golding), but there is something special about discovering a new voice and getting lost in the created worlds that they conjure into being. For me (though evidently not for the Folio Prize judges), the one outstanding voice from last year that still echoes in my mind is Jim Crace's "Harvest," a work that really did make me stop and think about how I write fiction. I hope I discover another like that this year!

  4. Congratulations to George Saunders, who has just been announced as the winner of the Folio Prize for his short story collection, Tenth of December. I look forward to reading it.