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“Once upon a time…” It raises a question, doesn’t it? Once upon when?
As much as the people who populate a piece of fiction, the context of when a story takes place can be a powerful character in the books we read. When drives plot, creates action, and provides drama that makes us think and feel. When also, of course, helps set the scene, orientating us with a framework for making assumptions and even providing us with a vocabulary to use as we go. Yes, the simple and inviting “once upon a time” is indeed a loaded phrase.
Books that lean into the “back when” aspect of a story are collectively known as historical fiction, a loosely defined genre that includes novels whose action takes place (some say) 50 or more years before they were penned. From there, the category is really anybody’s game. Some authors use an era solely as a backdrop for wholly fictional characters, simply submerging make believe in a recognizable timeframe. Others painstakingly research and (re)create historically accurate, “real” characters and events, offering as little fiction as possible and avoiding the nonfiction category only by virtue of contrived dialogue and minor speculation. Most such tales exist somewhere between those two approaches, though all take us to another time and place.
Much like place plays a role in a story, requiring its own form of character development to ring true and get the reader where the author wants him or her to go, historical timeframes beg for their own meticulous construction. It’s not easy for a writer to give a moment of time its full due, presenting the sights, sounds, smells and nuances of a time gone by in a way that comes across as authentic. Done right, however, the result can well serve any category of fiction—mystery, romance, adventure, horror, comedy, you name it—elevating stories to present rich matrices of ideas.
Gore Vidal’s great Creation is an excellent illustration of genre (and a favorite of mine since I was young). The story takes place in the 5th century BC and has a fairly simple premise: An unlikely and largely unaligned Persian diplomat (a fictional decedent of Zoroaster who is handpicked to be the “real” Persian prince Xerxes’ childhood companion) ends up in the role of a traveling diplomat on behalf of the great empire. Here’s the cool part: During this period in history, Socrates, the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu and other heavyweights are alive—and our hero, Cyrus, as he assumes his task of roaming and representing, gets a meet and greet with each of these visionaries.
The book is an arresting read: We get Vidal’s unique storytelling abilities (it’s a page-turner), tons of political and geographic history (note the Persian outlook here, as opposed to our usual view from Greece and the West of this critical time in history), and the opportunity to explore the lives and philosophies of some of the greatest innovators and spiritual giants the world has ever known. Pick your angle and you’re in. Obviously it’s all from Gore’s particular social and political angle, but what’s not to like about that? It’s his fiction, right? (Vidal haters and conservatives, please pile your letters here to my right.)
More on Later
While epics like Creation reach back to a time that (by definition) requires massive amounts of speculation, other successful historical novels tend to their expository, artistic and philosophical work using the more recent—and well-documented—past. While this might seem to be limiting in terms of having to follow the strict rules of “what we know actually happened” and “who did what,” this is not always the case.
E.L. Doctorow’s masterpiece Ragtime, for example, covers a period of time in the early 1900s when our nation was struggling to cope with unprecedented social, political and technological change. Presented through the interwoven lives of three families—one African American, one high-class WASP and the other Jewish immigrants—the novel powerfully examines the many (think melting pot) issues and challenges its post-Civil War/pre-WWI characters experience. Though it uses a backdrop of people and events that are true to history (J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Carl Jung, just to name-drop a few), Doctorow’s story at times has an almost ethereal, magical—even mythological—feel that gives us an emotional sense of the pivotal time that no direct read of nonfictional events possibly could.
Regarding even more recent events in 20th century America (if you’ll allow me to push the 50-year rule; do the 1960s and 70s now qualify as historical fiction?), consider Philip Roth’s (perhaps best) American Pastoral—a monumental look at the effects of the cultural milieu of the pre and actual Vietnam War era on the lives of a New Jersey family. While events remain true to the time, it is the very personal story of a fictional family’s interpersonal trials that illustrate the era rather than the events themselves. The overwhelming feeling one gets from this novel is that we at once comprise and are at the mercy of a great sweeping march of events that are beyond our control. Epic stuff.
As for specific events, it’s true that in many ways, historical fiction can offer as much or more insight into an era or issue than any nonfiction can—and have a cultural impact to go with it. Perhaps the best example of this in our modern landscape is how many Americans (non-African Americans, in particular) have only recently begun to get their arms around the truths of slavery and racism. The cultural influence of novels like Alex Haley’s Roots, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, is immeasurable when it comes to our society’s relationship with this horrifying aspect of our nation’s distant and recent past, as well as, sadly, our current world. These stories have entered the mainstream lives of millions of all types Americans, influencing national consciousness and altering the way countless people view race and gender, as well as political, social, economic and cultural aspects of the country.
Finally, to give you one quick take on the breadth of the role of historical fiction on the literary landscape, consider this: In the last 10 InPRINT columns—none of which were focused on that genre, per se—at least 11 novels discussed would fit into the the category. All are wonderful reads: The Clan of the Cave Bear, Death Comes from the Archbishop, Disaster Was My God, Water Music, The Book Thief, The Last Nude, The Cider House Rules, The Paris Wife, Cain (for those of you who might count the Bible as history), The Buddha in the Attic and True Grit—along with American Pastoral. My take aside, these books are on the must-read lists of many people. Clearly, history is among the most versatile and popular literary tools, capable of doing so much more than just exploring itself through the art form. Historical fiction offers insight into our current selves and how we think and function as humans, regardless of what time it was, or is or will be—be it once upon a time or many years from now.
History, mystery, horror, sex, war—a quick scan of the last 500 years brings to mind the following seven wonderful novels, each guaranteed to enhance your understanding of now by looking back at then…
Wolf Hall, Hillary Mantel (England, 1500-35)
Love a straight-up great story done right? You can believe the hype about Hillary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker award-winning portrayal of Thomas Cromwell’s life and relationship with Henry VIII. Wolf Hall‘s gripping and rich approach to the classic tale reframes the usually unredeemable Cromwell into a more sympathetic character, while the righteous Thomas More suffers particularly ill treatment. (The book’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, was published just this year.)
My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (Turkey, 1591)
Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s celebrated 1998 story of “miniaturist” artists in the Ottoman Empire manages to hold you with its unique storyline while at the same time playing with modern (and clever) literary techniques, adding a layer of freshness to this view of a very old world. Shifting voices and stories only enhance My Name is Red’s intrigues and mysteries, which are all worthy of Sultan’s court. (Also check out Pamuk’s intense The White Castle, another great historical fiction set in Istanbul a number of years later in 17th century.)
Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier (Holland, 1660s)
A behind-the-scene story of the great Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, his masterwork and his model, Girl With a Pearl Earring brings 17th century Delft to life as the backdrop for romance and jealousy in the context of family and class systems. Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel brings us in direct contact with the artist, era, and place in a way that even the successful movie could not. Anyone who has ever stared into the eyes of a great portrait and dreamily wondered, “Who is this person? What was he or she like? Why did the artists choose to paint him/her?” will understand the power of this celebrated novel.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Süskind (France, mid-1700s)
A twisted and glorious fairytale set in prerevolutionary France, Patrick Süskind’s 1985 story tells us of of ill-born Grenouille, a wretched character with no scent of his own, but with an uncanny, savant-like ability to identify and create every aroma know to man. With a protagonist whose character and deeds rivals the greatest gothic anti-heroes, Perfume will bring you up close to and ultimately inside the mind of the madman—and all the beautiful and vile smells of a sad time and place.
True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey (Australia, 1850-80)
Two-time Booker Prize winner (including one for this novel), Australian Peter Carey is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to fiction who seems to effortlessly transition his work back and forth between historical and modern life and culture. His 2000 novel, True History of the Kelley Gang is a fictionalized autobiographical account of the outlaw Ned Kelly, his gang and their struggles against the oppressive British Empire. Presented as a found manuscript and true to the vocabulary and vernacular of the time, this riveting and poignant “Australian Western” will have you deeply engaged in a people’s struggle.
Cézanne’s Quarry, Barbara Corrado Pope (France, 1880s)
How about a murder mystery in which the great artist Paul Cézanne is a suspect? With paintings functioning as clues, Barbara Corrado Pope’s 2008 novel reads like a noir thriller with plot twists and surprises worthy of Dashiell Hammett. Cézanne’s Quarry is a prime example of how placing a simple mystery in the context of a time of tremendous artistic and scientific transition can elevate a story beyond the traditional whodunit.
History of a Pleasure Seeker, Richard Mason (Holland, France, South Africa, late 1800s-early 1900s)
Exploring the grandness and fragility of the Belle Époque in Europe, History of a Pleasure Seeker is the new (2012) and marvelously crafted story of (fictional) Piet Barol’s rise from poverty to potential greatness. Clever and upward-reaching as he is charming and sensual, Richard Mason’s unforgettable lead character’s attention to the details of life light up this golden era (the creation of New York City’s iconic The Plaza Hotel even plays a role). Mason’s particularly adept with his unflinching depictions of Piet’s many sexual encounters, not always an easy task for a writer.
Enchantments, Kathryn Harrison (Russia, 1917)
As if the life of Gregori Rasputin and last days of the Romanovs aren’t mysterious enough by way of historical fact, Kathryn Harrison’s latest novel (2012) brings us deep inside the world of the last “first family” at the conclusion of Tsarist Russia. The story is told from the perspective of the Mad Monk’s eldest daughter, Masha, who was brought into the inner circle of the royal family after her father’s murder only to share the beginning of the storied monarchy’s end. With its rich and poetic language, Enchantments is both chilling and romantic (the book’s centerpiece is Masha’s unique relationship with youngest Romanov and heir to the throne, Alexei Nikolaevich), and teases out the humanity from the violence and upheaval of the revolutionary era.
The Stalin Epigram, Robert Little (Soviet Union, 1940s)
A bit of a sleeper, but a powerful and memorable read, The Stalin Epigram is a fictionalized account of the Russian poet Osip Mandeslstam’s defiance of Joseph Stalin. The story takes place during the height of dictator and murderer’s purges, deadly “collectivization” and silencing of voices across the Soviet Union. Robert Littell’s 2009 novel is narrated by the poet himself, as well by his wife and friends who together deliver the poetry, courage and intellectual expression that was so violently oppressed during such dark days.
The Art Student’s War, Brad Leithauser (Detroit, 1940s)
Set in wartime Detroit as the city made its ascent toward becoming a cultural and industrial giant of the 20th century—and before its epic fall in the last quarter of that same century—Brad Leithauser’s story is of a young woman and artist, whose pursuit of independence and the development of her own aesthetic collides with the realities of war and its cultural influences at home. The Art Student’s War has a calm urgency to it, giving us the feeling that we’re sitting on the precipice of new and more complicated era—indeed the one we inhabit today.
Editor’s note: News & Culture contributor Scott Adelson’s biweekly column, InPRINT, reviews and discusses books new and old, as well as examines issues in publishing.
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Photo: codepinkhq, Alice Walker, Washington DC, International Women’s Day demonstration, 2003