Monday, 7 April 2014

Form and Structure in Historical Fiction: Playing with the Unities

The final session that I attended at the Folio Prize Fiction Festival, held in London last month, was on "structure" in fiction, and the panellists were A.S. Byatt, Sergio de la Pava, Sarah Hall and Sam Leith. De la Pava talked about the "early decisions" faced by a writer in formulating the concept for a book: should it be narrated in the first or the third person; in the past or the present tense; from one viewpoint, or from several? A.S. Byatt had previously spoken about the ways in which she had been influenced by George Eliot (and, specifically, by Middlemarch), but De la Pava prefers to "block out" his influences, fearing that "a certain inertia" might result from "following consciously in someone's footsteps."

When I started work on my first novel, Undreamed Shores, I hadn't given much thought to structure at all. I knew that, like Homer's Odyssey, the story would be based around a journey, and I assumed that the best place to start was at the beginning. The first draft, therefore, introduced the protagonist in his home environment, thinking about and preparing for the journey ahead of him. My first beta-reader, however, found the opening of this draft much too slow. "Re-read The Odyssey," he suggested. It doesn't, of course, begin at the beginning: in fact, it begins very near the end (with Odysseus's son, Telemachus, setting out to discover what has become of his father). It was my first serious lesson in narrative structure, and one that has stayed with me.

Although neither of my published novels begins at the beginning, both tell a single story: they embody what Aristotle, in his Poetics, called "Unity of Action" (the only "unity" that Aristotle considered to be really important - the concerns with "Unity of Place" and "Unity of Time" derive largely from Renaissance re-workings of the Poetics). Arguably they also embody a fourth "unity," of which Aristotle says nothing, that of "consciousness" or "viewpoint." This "unity" is, perhaps, specific to the novel as a genre (Aristotle was concerned with narrative poetry and drama), and some of the great historical novels, from Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, tell a single story from a single viewpoint.

Aristotle, author of the World's first (and still one of the best) "how to write" books. Photo: Jastrow (image is in the public domain).

Not all historical fiction, however, follows this pattern. One could hardly imagine War and Peace told from a single viewpoint and, although it is concerned with the upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars, it does not really embody "Unity of Action" either, since the very different stories of the various characters and families are interwoven.

A.S. Byatt talked about her novel, Possession, which interweaves a contemporary story with a historical one: modern scholars, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, uncover hitherto unknown dimensions to the lives of (fictional) Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Much of the story is told through the letters, diaries and poetry of Ash and LaMotte, "discovered" by Michell and Bailey in the novel but, in reality, imaginative creations by Byatt.

The creation, by a writer of one period, of texts "in the style of" an earlier period is often characterised as "pastiche," and the term is frequently used in a negative sense (its first use recorded by the OED is in an American review of Charles Kingsley's novel, Hereward the Wake - "This book is not, in our opinion, what historical novels are so apt to become - a pastiche" [Nation, NY, 25/1/1866]). John Mullan, in an article on Byatt's Possession, defines "pastiche" as "mimicry that we enjoy without being fooled," and goes on to suggest that such devices "work best while they remain merely amusing copies ... flattering the attentive reader. It is only when [Byatt's] imitations get serious that we should worry." Nobody should be "fooled" by anything in a historical novel, since it is written and promoted as fiction, but it seems to me that devices such as Byatt's (one might also mention "The Pacific Diaries of Adam Ewing" and "Letters from Zedelghem" in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas) are an important dimension of "voice," and have the potential to be something far more interesting than "merely amusing copies." As Aristotle well understood, all art is, in a sense, a form of "imitation."

Some of the most interesting recent works are those which, in structural terms, selectively abandon the Aristotelean and post-Aristotelean "unities" which dominated the novel for much of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, for example, explores the different trajectories that one person's life could have taken, based on chance occurrences (Unity of Viewpoint is maintained, all other unities dispensed with). Kristina Carlson's Mr Darwin's Gardener, on the other hand, starts with "Unity of Place" (everything happens in the small village of Downe), but skips playfully between viewpoints, including even those of the jackdaws and sparrows that observe the human dramas going on beneath them.

Some of these works (Katie Ward's Girl Reading, Sebastian Faulks's A Possible Life) have multiple narratives ("Unity of Action" rejected), and some (Possession and Cloud Atlas prominent among them) chip away at the boundaries of "historical fiction" as a genre. What they have in common, however, is that they are fictional attempts to make sense of the human past, and its relationship to the human present.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications. The e-book editions can be purchased from the Crooked Cat Bookstore, and the paperback versions from Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

No comments:

Post a Comment