Tag Archives: Henry James

Is historical fiction intrinsically cheap?

Henry James wrote in a letter to Sarah Orne Jewett, “the ‘historic’ novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labor as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness…” (I am indebted to Samir Chopra’s excellent blog for this thought-provoking quote.) A modern writer, James continues, can include historical details but cannot invent or represent “the old consciousness, the soul, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent.” Jewett wanted to write about the New England Puritans, but to James’ point, how could she without being one?

HHhHLaurent Binet, the French author of HHhH, apparently agrees. Winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, HHhH is a gripping, self-conscious historical novel about the daring attempt by the Czechoslovakian Resistance to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler’s right-hand man and mastermind of the Final Solution, in Prague in 1942. Through a careful orchestration of the story’s  facts, presented with the ironies that only a historical perspective can provide, he avoids the “old consciousness” entirely, except in supposition, and yet he creates a suspenseful and nuanced tale.

I was drawn to Binet’s book not only by its subject but also by his treatment of the “historic” problem. For, although I enjoy the history in historical fiction, I share James’ concern: the fictional aspect, meaning the experiential truth of it, is usually disappointing. The lack of the “old consciousness” was the problem I had with The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, as I struggled to articulate here, and it is frequently the problem I have with books about Elizabethans or Victorians written by modern authors: they fail to capture the consciousness of the time, making the story and, consequentially, the history false.

Laurent Binet (Photo credit: Booktrust.org.uk)

Laurent Binet (Photo credit: Booktrust.org.uk)

Binet gets the problem. Born in 1972, he knows he would be faking any dialogue between Heydrich and Himmler or between the two brave resistance fighters who parachuted into Czechoslovakia to kill Heydrich. So, to get around the “consciousness” problem, he inserts himself as a first-person narrator into the novel, critiquing his own story-telling and advising the reader not to believe what he wrote: it is made up and a disservice to the important truth of the real story. This metafictional device is clever and coy at the same time, and toward the climax of the novel it delays without adding value, becoming somewhat annoying. Yet it highlights the dilemma fiction writers face with any historical drama; it also adds another, more postmodern dimension to the story (as John Fowles’ techniques did in The French Lieutenant’s Woman).

Binet forces the reader to ask not only how much of what he writes is true, but how much of the past is truly capturable. Is all history fiction? Is all fiction false? What is the point of history if our imagination and empathy are not involved? And what better way to tap our imagination and empathy than with fiction? Binet doesn’t really resolve James’ issue, but he does a fine job raising these ancillary questions.

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Interview with a semicolon

Gething:  Thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Semicolon:  The pleasure’s all mine; thank you for having me.

Gething:  My interest is in the controversy you have stirred in the literary world.

Semicolon:  I’ve done no such thing; those who don’t use me seem to be causing all the fuss.

Gething:  That’s my point. Many modern writers, in particular Cormac McCarthy in his interview with Oprah, have called for your extinction. What did you do to create such a virulent reaction?

Semicolon:  Ask Mr. McCarthy; to my knowledge I did nothing.

Gething:  But you must have done something. He’s not calling for the elimination of the period or the question mark, or even the colon in certain instances.

Semicolon:  No, he seems to have targeted me in particular…and the exclamation mark; I don’t know what we did to deserve such enmity. My purpose seems quite clear—to connect two or more independent clauses more closely than ones separated by a period. I believe there’s still a place for that in the world.

Gething:  You do have some supporters, only—let’s be honest—not too many users today.

Semicolon:  Not true! A very lucid writer recently defended me in the New York Times.

Gething:  But he also quoted Vonnegut who said that semicolons are “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.”

Semicolon:  That’s a gross exaggeration. Henry James adored me; incidentally, many consider him the paradigm of subtlety; he was certainly more subtle than that Vonnegut fellow.

Gething:  Yes, but there is a modern sentiment that long sentences connected by semicolons obscure rather than make thoughts clearer. I sometimes feel that way about Henry James. Modern writers—journalists, novelists, poets—they tend to shun you.

Semicolon:  Well, what do you expect from poets?

Gething:  What do you mean?

Semicolon:  They are barbarians; they hardly use any punctuation at all.

Gething:  Doesn’t that suggest that meaning can be received without punctuation? Its absence might even create interesting double meanings.

Semicolon:  You mean vagueness and ambiguity. Perhaps that’s modern, too.

Gething:  McCarthy says, if you write clearly you don’t need more than a few punctuation marks.

Semicolon:  Then why use any at all? Why not write so clearly that periods and commas can be avoided as well? Isn’t punctuation simply a convention to help the reader comprehend the writer’s meaning? What if you presented these words without punctuation?

Gething:  I don’t know. Let’s see:

Then why use any at all Why not write so clearly that periods and commas can be avoided as well Isnt punctuation simply a convention to help the reader comprehend the writers meaning What if you presented these words without punctuation

A few awkward spots but I might get used to it with practice.

Semicolon:  I suppose you’ll be calling for the elimination of capital letters next.

Gething:  You sound bitter.

Semicolon:  I am bitter. I feel angry; I feel hurt; I feel betrayed. In speech we use pauses and intonation to convey meaning. Why can’t we rely on perfectly acceptable conventions of punctuation, including the semicolon, for the printed word?

Gething:  You make a good case, but it seems convention is dictated by usage not by argument. I fear for your longevity.

Semicolon:  Hmm!

Gething:  You know, my sister quit dating a guy who used semicolons; she said he never knew when to stop.

Semicolon:  Ha-ha.

Gething:  Just trying to make you feel better.

Semicolon:  Then start by using me more; only please, don’t abuse me!

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