History in fiction – why it matters

Recently, Amy Sackville and I were invited to speak at the Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre on the topic of ‘Fiction and History’ with reference to our novels. Amy presented Painter to the King (Granta), where she brings to life Diego Velazequez and the Court of Philip IV of Spain; I spoke about That Summer in Puglia (Eyewear Publishing), to which layers of history and diverse cultures are integral.

The Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre is ‘the home of new writing, debate about literature and more’, so the questions from writer and lecturer Ardu Vakil, our interviewer, were duly stimulating. My thanks to Prof. Blake Morrison: it was an honour to be invited to Goldsmiths, having been there years ago as a Creative & Life Writing MA student, and a pleasure to see some of my former tutors, including Ardu. This blog post is in response to requests, on the night and subsequently, to make available online my own reflections on history in fiction.

Goldsmiths Writers' Centre flier

Why weave history into fiction? Because it does something which really matters: it raises awareness of the legacy of history in our present day and of the fact that history is narrative. Novels can alert readers to these two issues and their consequences in ways which imprint themselves in our minds more deeply than intellectual notions alone.

The past conditions our present everywhere, but there are places where this is more evident than in others. My native Puglia, the region located in the ‘heel’ of Italy, is one such place. Part of the Ancient Greek world since the Bronze Age, it was eventually conquered by the Romans. The Via Appia soon stretched all the way from Rome to the port city of Brundisium (modern Brindisi), carrying armies and goods to this natural ‘Gateway to the East’ (‘Porta d’Oriente’). A succession of conquerors followed: Byzantines, Berbers, Normans, Swabians, French, Venetians, Spaniards… Over the centuries, they left an abundance of visible traces. First-time visitors to Puglia today are astonished by the sight of Ancient Greek or Roman ruins side by side with Norman churches, Swabian castles, Anjou palaces, Venetian loggias, Baroque jewels, the idiosyncratic ‘trulli’, whitewashed kasbahs… As a child whose bedroom windows opened onto the 11th-century round church of St. John of the Sepulchre, built by the Normans (influenced by the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem) on top of a Roman house, I was conscious of walking daily where other children had walked for at least two-thousand years.

Of course, that is exactly what we’re all doing, physically or metaphorically, everywhere – but most places don’t bring us face to face with that realisation. Puglia has the power to do this also in slightly less obvious ways, and so my novel highlights the ‘living traces’ of diverse people and cultures in the region: the inhabitants’ physical appearance, which surprises foreigners; the mixture of languages which flowed into the local dialect; the cuisine; fairy tales which blend Greek myth with historical fact; proverbs where ancient gods and Christianity meet… I might write a future post about exactly how these traces appear in That Summer in Puglia. In the meantime, these sketchier references are here to help illustrate my answer to the wider question of why history in fiction – including, but not restricting ourselves to, historical fiction – matters.

Some awareness of how dynamically history still impacts the present is salutary for at least two reasons. First, it highlights positive aspects to be grateful for and exposes toxic ones. Second, by reminding us of the transience of life, it has high ‘existential value’: it awakens in us the instinct to make our existence meaningful; and the realisation that we’re tiny drops in the flow of humanity encourages empathy towards others not merely across time but across geographies. At the very least, it’s a spur to seeking to understand our world better and to take responsibility for daily actions. At its best, it pre-empts dangerous Othering. Umberto Eco’s Inventing the Enemy offers a memorable discussion of why intellectual awareness and courage are essential to countering the instinct to invent an enemy in the process of identity formation (individual as much as national).

Equally salutary – particularly when nationalism is experiencing a resurgence at all longitudes – is the recognition that history is narrative. All history is incomplete: the most scrupulous historians, committed to seeking the truth, are not exempt from the imperative to select the dots to connect; they have to sift through the facts and the personalities of the past in order to determine which to include or exclude. Even the most consciously unbiased will do that from a point of view inevitably tinged with the unconscious bias of their time and of other factors. And even the most balanced account can only be partial, a cross-section of reality. Think of the fils rouges running through your own life: they all tell true stories, but each thread can connect only certain aspects of your existence.

Omissions and distortions can have tragic consequences, especially when they’re wilful. That’s true both for societies and individuals and whether the narrative in question is the history of a nation or of a person. The story of Tommaso, the protagonist of That Summer in Puglia, is that of a man who unwittingly misinterprets and distorts past and present at great cost to himself and others, until the complexity of the truth catches up with him and presents him with a choice.

The link between the words ‘history’ and ‘story’ reminds us that both are narratives. The distinction between them in the English language is relatively recent: it first appears only around the late fifteenth century. In some other tongues – for example Italian (storia), French (histoire) and German (Geschichte) – one term still describes both. Layers of history – and different versions of them – shape national as well as personal identities; they give rise to frameworks of beliefs and of normative behaviour. I’m intrigued by how history with a capital ‘h’ affects personal histories as well as our own times. I’ve explored some of these intersections in my first novel and will explore others in my second one, a story set in late sixteenth-century Southern Italy. I hope That Summer In Puglia shows how layers of history and of diverse cultures account for my native region’s deep-rooted contradictions, which give rise to its intense beauty but also to conflicts between and within my protagonists; ultimately, their task is that of ‘connecting the fragments’.

512px-Vaso_di_Talos_particolare
Vase of Talos, Jatta Museum, Ruvo di Puglia

The word ‘history’ comes to us via the ancient Greek but derives from the proto-Indo-European ‘weid’ for ‘to see’, the root for the words ‘wisdom’ and ‘vision’. It strikes me as one of those cases in which etymology transmits a timeless truth: while knowledge and wisdom are different things, seeking ‘to see clearly’ is integral to acquiring some degree of wisdom. To ‘see clearly’ is always a challenge though, not least as it requires viewing things from multiple perspectives. An education which stresses the value of the arts and humanities encourages that, by training us to open-mindedness, empathy and critical thinking. Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has argued the case (full text here) particularly effectively: ‘Never assume that the humanities are an optional extra, a bit of leisure-time fun, alongside the real hard-nosed human business of science, medicine or engineering. Without hard and creative thinking in the humanities, the human society in which you and I find ourselves may well go mad. Look around you at the world in which we live, and try to prove me wrong.’ Fiction and non-fiction are cornerstones of the arts and humanities.

Most novelists – I, for one – don’t write to a theme. Rather, a cluster of them tends to reveal itself only in the course of writing, and sometimes only afterwards. It’s in the nature of creative work that this remains true even when we set out to explore a specific issue. Historical novels can show powerfully how the past still affects the present. They can foreground microhistory, which is arguably as significant for our everyday as who won which battle (with some notable exceptions). They can convey people’s acceptance as givens, in their time, of rules and customs we find abhorrent, prompting us to query widespread present-day attitudes future generations will decry. They pose the question: how would you have behaved in those circumstances? The temporal distance inherent in historical novels (to varying degrees which impact the defamiliarization effect) can make it easier for us as readers to discern and engage with aspects of our own reality.

Researching the lives of ordinary people in sixteenth-century Southern Italy threw up surprises for me, such as the incidence of slavery, and the deep roots – immemorial by then – of a misogyny we’re still struggling against. The greatest challenge for me as I write my second novel is to resist all temptation to project a twenty-first century worldview onto characters from another era. As the great Carlo Ginzburg recently said in a Warburg Institute lecture: ‘history and anthropology are located forms of knowledge’, so we have to strive against unconscious bias, by listening to, and respecting, ‘the voices of the people at the time’.

That doesn’t mean that imagination plays no part in historical fiction – on the contrary. For example, my second novel is inspired by true events, but gaps in the documentary evidence call for a high degree of conjecture. My response to the challenge includes inventing protagonists who interact with real-life historical ones. They are far from being arbitrary inventions, though: rather, they’re fictional human beings who give voice to countless numbers of their contemporaries who actually experienced the situations and dilemmas they face in the story.

Is it worth all the research, all the emotional and imaginative effort to inhabit a consciousness located in a very different world, all the meticulous assembling of pieces of an incomplete puzzle? I think it is: fiction has the power to capture and communicate the narrative truth of fragments of the past – and so to illuminate the present.

Image credits:

Flier for ‘History and Fiction’ event: courtesy of Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre.

Scavi di Egnazia, Via Traiana 01, by Sailko. Reproduced under a CC license. For information about the Egnazia Archaeological Park, see the website http://www.egnazia.eu/en/itinerario-topografico/

Chiesa di Santa Croce, by Laibniz, Reproduced under GNU and CC licences.

San Giovanni al Sepolcro and View of Ostuni, by the author.

Particolare del vaso di Talos, by Forzaruvo94. Reproduced under a CC licence.