Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The "Prehistories" of Jean Rouaud. 2. The Cave of Ghosts

The Guardian recently published a list of the “top ten historical novels” (http://bit.lyL1v7QU). One of the most encouraging things about it was the number of readers’ comments received, almost all of them complaining about omissions (Tolstoy is included, along with Robert Graves, Hilary Mantel and Andrew Miller, but not William Golding, Gore Vidal or Rosemary Sutcliff…): this hardly suggests a genre untouched by greatness. A common criticism, however, was its Anglophone bias (War and Peace and The Leopard were the only non-English choices).

Jean Rouaud’s PrĂ©histoires is not a novel as such (indeed many of his works defy conventional classification), but it is a vision of the remote past conceived by one of Europe’s leading writers of fiction. It has never been translated into English in its entirety (I might turn my hand to this at some stage). In the second of his three vignettes, “La Caverne Fantome,” he explores the possible motivations of the people who created the world’s first paintings, in the caves of southern France and northern Spain, between 30,000 and 12,000 years ago.

“Even we can read signs in the sky. When rain is threatening, we smell it; we take in our laundry; if we are on a walk, we turn around. When the leaves change colour, we do not need a calendar to tell us that winter is on its way…So for people who spent all their time outdoors, it must have been second nature. They would have learned to read these signs that were before their eyes, to notice any change; a scent on the air; a hoarse cry in a thicket; a white disc around the moon; a haze on the horizon…This learning process cannot have been without its setbacks, nor can it have been without fear. How could such people fail to shudder beneath the onslaught of a storm in which a golden arrow, loosed from the heart of a black cloud, was able to split a tree and set a scrubland ablaze?

Unseen powers lurked behind each of these phenomena. Powers that had to be interpreted, placed in the context of a narrative, a coherent story that would make sense of these strange powers of nature. It was necessary to give a name to these creatures of the shadows, to give them a history, to understand their behaviour…

…They could expect few favours from the sky: snow, rain, hail, storms, it always sent something to fall on their heads. It made sense to protect themselves. Often they found refuge beneath the ground, within the earth that must have seemed to them like a mother…

…To placate the forces of the Earth, which was pregnant with all the things on which they depended: vegetables; fruits; animals; they sought a passage into its very womb, crawling through narrow passages until they reached a larger chamber. In this imagined womb, this cave of the treasures of life, they placed their hands against the wall…The imprints they left on those walls signify their rights of access; they are signs of a transmission of energy; a form of devotion…

…As they explored the veins and arteries of the great body of the Earth, orange flames flickering from the juniper wicks of the stone lamps they held in their hands, stone lamps in their hands, they saw shadows come to life on the walls…In a bulge of stone, like a baby’s foot pressing on the inside of a woman’s belly, they recognised the hoof of a bison; in a groove in the rock, they saw the neck of a horse; in a pebble of flint, protruding from the chalk, someone imagined the eyelid of an old mammoth; and then, in a depression in the rock, they created the image of a cow…And so it was done, and beautifully done: and one might have wondered who had contributed most to this process of reproduction: the Earth herself, or the masters of the caves. Because it really was a matter of reproduction, and they reproduced everything that, to their eyes, represented excellence: power, fertility, vivacity, endurance; whether in the bison, the bull, the horse or the mammoth…The human mastery of the world was beginning…

Image: Peter80.

…These silent acts, which populated the realm of shadows with a fabulous menagerie of spirit-beings; this trembling expression in the face of the mysteries of birth and death, was to continue on the hidden walls of caves for more than twenty thousand years.”[1]

[1] The translations here are my own.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Historical fiction - "a genre not jammed with greatness"?

Such is the nature of our electronic age that an article which carries tomorrow’s publication date may not only be freely available today, but one may then find, also, that it was already hotly contested yesterday and the day before. This is certainly the case with James Wood’s article (www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/05/07/120507crbo_books_wood), “Invitation to a Beheading,” a review of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and its forthcoming sequel, Bring Up The Bones. This has already drawn responses from, among others, Stuart Kelly (www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/may/02/what-makes-historical-novel?) and Richard Lee of the Historical Novels Society (http://historicalnovelsociety.org/walter-scott-prize-what-is-literary-historical-fiction). What is at issue in these debates is not Wood’s assessment of Mantel’s writing (which he considers to be very fine indeed, and in which judgement Kelly, Lee and I enthusiastically concur), but his view of historical fiction more generally, which he describes as “…a somewhat gimcrack genre, not exactly jammed with greatness.”

It would be a mistake for writers (and readers) of historical fiction to be overly defensive in relation to this banderilla. It is part of the function of publications such as The New Yorker (and, closer to home, The Guardian Review, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement etc.) to be provocative. I, for one, would not be so inclined to read them if they were less so, and it is surely no bad thing to start a debate.

From a UK point of view, we must also recognise it for what it is, which is a perspective from the other side of the pond. It is interesting that the Modern Library list of 100 best novels of the 20th Century (www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-novels) includes, in the panel’s list (they publish separate lists from an expert panel and from readers), only two works of historical fiction (I, Claudius, and A Passage to India), whilst the readers’ list, which also includes the works of L. Ron Hubbard and Ayn Rand, includes three (Gone with the Wind, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and I, Claudius).

If we look, however, at the awards of the Man Booker Prize from 1980 to the present, we find six works of historical fiction out of a total thirty-three (18%) whilst, for the Whitbread/Costa Novel Award from 2000 to the present, we have three works of historical fiction out of a total of eleven (27%). This suggests, in the British context, a “genre” (if we wish to call it that) liberally salted, if not necessarily “jammed,” with greatness.

Wood refers to Mantel’s “cunning universalism” and to her “novelistic intelligence” and, on both counts, I would agree, but he does her a disservice, I think, when he suggests that she has simply “written a very good modern novel” and then changed the fictional names to historical ones. There is more to writing historical fiction than this, and it starts with assiduous research.

“If you want to know what novelistic intelligence is,” Wood suggests, “you might compare a page or two of Hilary Mantel’s work with worthy historical fiction by…Peter Ackroyd or Susan Sontag.”

Well, yes, you might, but this begins to look to me like a “straw man” type of argument. Whilst both have published historical novels, Ackroyd is better known as a biographer, Sontag as an essayist. Try comparing Mantel’s historical fiction with that of Golding, or Graves, or Yourcenar, or even that of Tolstoy, and I think that you will find that same “novelistic intelligence,” rare, but not unique, in historical, as in other forms of fiction. True greatness is rare, but isn’t that the point?