Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Historical Fiction, Fictional History

Savage Reprisals: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks by Peter Gay. W.W. Norton. 192 pages. $24.95.

In William Faulkner's great novel Absalom, Absalom! Quentin Compson and his college roommate Shreve McCannon spend a long winter evening trying to make sense of a pivotal event in QuentinÕs family history: a murder that occurred fifty years ago, when one Henry Sutpen gunned down Charles Bon. Was it over learning that Bon, who had black blood, was his half-brother? Was it because Bon was in love with Henry's, and therefore his own, sister Judith? Was it because Henry loved Judith and saw Bon as an interloper? Was it even murder -- or suicide? Many motives, but all Quentin and Shreve have to go on are a few scraps of paper and a lot of hearsay. To find the truth of the past, or something like it, requires a leap of imagination. It means assembling a chronology of events between the real and the plausible. Quentin and Shreve, in other words, have to make themselves novelists.

As Peter Gay points out in this new study, novelists and historians work a lot of the same ground: both take events and try to weave them into a narrative. The problem for Gay is that they're becoming indistinguishable. Are historians merely novelists? And do novels have anything to offer the student of history? Gay answers the former by tackling the latter, by administering a polygraph tests of sorts to three classics of literary realism. What he discovers is that they are less reflections of their times than acts of revenge.

Charles Dickens' Bleak House has the most evocative symbol of government bureaucracy in literature: the Court of Chancery, where the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce has been toiling so long that heirs have born and died without ever seeing it reach an end. According to Gay, Dickens, who had a bone to pick with the court system over copyright laws, used the novel not only to get back at the judicial system but everything he couldnÕt stand about English society: snobs, lawyers, evangelicals, social reformers and the government itself. Dickens was an anarchist who "set out to offend as many constituencies as he could manage," Gay writes. The novel is a "lovingly cultivated display of hatred."

Gustave Flaubert, similarly, in Madame Bovary launched an artful assault on bourgeois French society under the reign of Louis Philipe, "a weapon in his arsenal for a lifelong campaign against stupidity, greed, philistinism."

The Weimar-era middle class of Thomas Mann's youth was pilloried in his first novel, Buddenbrooks, but this attack was more personal. Mann's novel of a decaying family (which I have not read) was the revenge of an author with tormented homosexual leanings both on his father and a "reputable, upright society that expected him to be more infallibly masculine than he turned out to be."

A novel is "a mirror held up to its world," Gay writes, that "provides a very imperfect reflection." Writers are true to their feelings, not the facts.

This is no revelation, and Gay's approach comes off as a tad literal-minded. It's neither interesting nor surprising to learn that Dickens steadfastly ignored the court reforms made within his lifetime, or that Flaubert's provincials weren't complete idiots, or that Mann's fatalistic account of the Buddenbrooks family doesn't jibe with others living in the same era. We don't turn to Shakespeare for a rigorous history of the House of Bolingbroke, either. Fact-checking has never ranked all that high among the novelist's arts.

So what's Gay's point? Gay spends most of the book shooting at one target in hopes of hitting another: the postmodernist influence on history, which has been to deny "the claims of both historians and novelists to veracity on the simple ground that there is no such thing as truth to begin with." Because every historian is biased in at least some regard, this view holds, "writing history is just another form of writing fiction." Bunk, says Gay, the existence of bias does not rule out the existence of truth; biases are "handicaps to be overcome rather than laws of nature to be humbly obeyed." Novelists and historians shouldn't be trusted to do the other's job. "To put it bluntly: there may be history in fiction, but there should be no fiction in history."

If neither point evolves very smoothly from the other, Gay does seem, at least to me, to be on the track of common sense. The book, based on a series of Norton lectures, could have stood some more space to make its case. It's a lively little read as it stands, but neither as feisty nor effective as it could have been.

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