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Infinite Imaginative Space

07 Apr Infinite Imaginative Space

I have been meaning to write a new post about historical fiction for quite some time. I have to admit to having read and rather enjoyed Ben Elton’s time travelling  page turner Time and Time Again. The main character in the novel is sent to 1914 as a would be assassin with the aim of killing Franz Ferdinand and thereby preventing the outbreak of World War One. It is a fast paced thriller, completely ridiculous but thoroughly enjoyable!  CJ Sansom’s, Dominion is one of my favourite ‘alternative history’ novels. Mark Lawson, writing in the Guardian back in 2012 summed up the novel perfectly. ‘Sansom directly confronts the frequent, smug view in the UK that nazism and the Jewish Holocaust were inherently German perversions. The English, in this version, often prove just as susceptible to strong but psychotic leadership and the prospect of racist genocide. The song from Cabaret that poses the question “What Would You Do?” might be the theme tune to a tremendous novel that shakes historical preconceptions while also sending shivers down the spine.’

Linda Proud, historical novelist, makes some interesting points in her article, Truth is No Stranger to Fiction which was published in History Today in 2004.

It seems a simple enough distinction: historians deal in fact and novelists deal in fiction, one in truth, the other in lies. One poet in her late eighties told me that she was too old to read fiction: ˜At this age I have to be concerned about my soul. History, of course, dealing in facts, deals with the truth. But does it?

Both story and history derive from histor an ancient bard or storyteller. The histor was a learned or wise man, someone who could tell stories for the education of the tribe, stories of past heroes and dramatic events. When it came to the classical period, the historians still knew how to tell a good tale, often with a cautionary or moral point; and the best of them tried to be accurate in their detail. This blending of narrative skill with factual reporting has, for several decades, been somewhat out of fashion but things are changing today and there is a return to the narrative among some historians. On TV, Simon Schama and Michael Wood can tell a riveting tale, and history books aimed at the popular market are increasingly well written.

Any historical novelist seeking authenticity does not make the facts up but works with them, often at a different level of understanding to that of the historian, for the facts have to add up to a coherent whole. Which brings us to the thorny question: ˜What is truth? From my experience of novel-writing, I would say it is a wholeness, a unity, to which all elements must conform. It is not the facts themselves but what bonds them together. This bonding, or organising principle, is the Law of Story. Stories demand a beginning, middle and end  and a point. A human life conforms to the same law.

This method, of exercising the imagination sometimes brings to the author things which could be called items of probability things not recorded in the documents but clearly seen in the minds eye.

In my research into the Florentine Renaissance, I read a thesis on a bookseller that was marvellously detailed. The site of his shop was identified, the rooms measured, the stock described. When, however, I walked through that shop in my imagination, I smacked into a wall. I told the author that she had forgotten to mention what must have been an archway in the wall separating the two parts of the shop. When I explained she said, somewhat enviously, ˜Oh, novelists can use that kind of intuition. I can only record what is in the documents. Is that true? There was nothing stopping her writing,˜There was probably an opening in the wall joining the two shops.But the head bent low over documents will not see with the eye of the imagination.

Laura Ashe is Associate Professor and Tutorial Fellow in English at Worcester College, Oxford. Her book, Early Fiction in England: From Geoffrey of  Monmouth to Chaucer, will be published by Penguin in July 2015. She has traced the beginning of fiction in England to the 12th century. She comments, ‘Fiction is a mode of writing in which both author and reader are aware  and know that the other is aware that the events described cannot be known to have happened. That is not to say that they or something very like them might not have happened: fiction may be set in the author’s own world and obey all the rules of that world. But fiction gives an account of something unverifiable and which does not ask to be believed, only to be thought about; it is a contract between author and reader.’

It is perhaps fitting to end with Ashe’s comment, ‘fiction provides the infinite imaginative space in which reality can be thought of differently’.

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