Why Are We Living in a Golden Age of Historical Fiction?

IN A 2013 interview, the author Jonathan Franzen, whose novels have been hailed as a “picture window” on contemporary middle-class American life, articulated the feelings of many readers when he admitted his resistance to historical fiction, explaining that he was drawn to writers who were “engaged in trying to make sense of their lives and of the world in which they find themselves, writers who palpably have skin in the game.” It’s a sentiment that’s hard not to agree with — is it not cheating to use the past as a ready allegory, making of it a handy mirror in which to see ourselves and our futures?

But as we near the third decade of the 21st century, the urge to look back feels different: Making sense of our lives and of the unfathomable world in which we find ourselves has necessitated an understanding of what has come before — a clarification of the game and its stakes but also its rules and positions. A new kind of historical fiction has evolved to show us that the past is no longer merely prologue but story itself, shaping our increasingly fractured fairy tales about who we are as a society. The unmooring of time can be found everywhere, in battles for social progress we thought we’d already fought and won. In the media age, history is not simply a chain of facts recorded by scholars but a complex narrative harnessed by political parties and Facebook disinformation campaigns to speak to our sense of identity and belonging. The past we inherit speaks to us individually and collectively, but a common thread, much less a consensus view of reality, feels increasingly hard to come by.

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In times of uncertainty, we expect the shadowy mirror of literature to cast ahead to a dystopian future, predicated on the idea that these visions won’t actually come to pass. But when we begin to recognize ourselves in visions of the future past, it summons a form of déjà vu surely deserving of its own French term, one that conveys the special dread of watching our own cautionary tales become real. It comes as little surprise that Margaret Atwood, the great seer of our decline, is working on a sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Written during the rise of the religious right in 1984, when “family values” became a euphemism for intolerance, the original novel conjures a misogynist patriarchy that today has been normalized and legislated to a degree that few felt possible then. To read it now feels a lot like putting one’s hand in a drawer and slamming it over and over again.

As visions of the future increasingly fail in the face of our present moment, literary authors are increasingly looking back, not to comfort us with a sense of known past, or even an easy allegory of the present, but instead — motivated by a kind of clue-gathering — to seek reasons for why we are the way we are and how we got here, and at what point the train began to derail. Writers, including Colson Whitehead and George Saunders, Anna Burns and Marlon James, Gina Apostol and Yaa Gyasi, to name just a few, have been making clarity of chaos, not to hand us answers but to capture the way history shapes, wounds and implicates us. When the German Romantic Novalis wrote that “novels rise out of the shortcomings of history,” he could not have foreseen the ways in which, centuries later, those shortcomings would come to seem more like outright failings. Too many for too long were left out, the true architectures of power concealed. Theirs are novels that reveal the emptiness of the old stories, destabilizing our ideas of history rather than affirming them — which is, after all, one purpose of literary fiction. In our days of sloganeering and apocryphal tweets, it’s also a form of resistance.

HISTORICAL FICTION ARISES out of a desire to see the human project in a continuum, out of the belief that it is possible to tell stories about a vanishing past that bear on the immediate present, forged at the place at which the archives end and the author’s imagination begins. The desire to hit the pause button — to “awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed,” as Walter Benjamin put it in his last completed manuscript, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940) — underwrites Julie Orringer’s new novel, “The Flight Portfolio.” The novel tells the story of Varian Fry, a little-known American journalist who helped smuggle thousands of artists out of Nazi Europe. Among the artists Fry rescued were Marc Chagall and Max Ernst — but also, in a meta-twist, writers who would shape our understanding of the 20th century, including Hannah Arendt and the German novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger. Set in Vichy France, the novel seeks a kind of redress: restoring, to history’s vast panorama, a granular sense of how life on the borderlines of fascism feels. We’re treated to a glimpse of André Breton at a party, fashioning an impromptu brooch from a dead bumblebee, though the novel’s emphasis is not on charming details but the banality of a certain kind of evil made up of bureaucrats, bribery and lines of desperate people waiting for a lifeboat in the form of a visa that will never come, faced with exclusionary American immigration policies not so different than those in place today. As a semi-closeted gay man, Fry finds a nihilistic kind of freedom during his time in Marseille, but his task — based on the notion that some lives are worth more than others — resists heroic gloss. Orringer’s true subject, the moral peril of being alive, is a grandly timeless — and timely — one.

If history belongs to the victors, it’s generally fallen to everyone else — the women, the colonized or enslaved, those on the other side of wars and walls — to subvert conventional understanding of it, to make up for the burned or redacted documents, the missing transcripts and the experiences that were never recorded in the first place. In the 20th century, historical fiction acquired its dreaded “genre fiction” status, with its connotations of corsets, unfurling Nazi flags, the fetid smell of Victorian London — the dinner theater of literature, essentially. Notably, novels by women authors often transcended such categorization, including Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” (1987), Shirley Hazzard’s “The Great Fire” (2003), Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy (1991-95), Mary Renault’s novels set in ancient Greece, Octavia E. Butler’s fiction built on slave accounts and, of course, Penelope Fitzgerald’s strange and wonderful take on Novalis, “The Blue Flower” (1995).

While national identity and the historical novel have long been bound up with one another — Sir Walter Scott’s swashbuckling Scottish romances, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s tales of Polish glory written during the country’s long partition, Tolstoy’s Napoleonic Wars-set “War and Peace” — they have also existed alongside a parallel speculative tradition. Even before Scott’s “Waverley,” published in 1814 and credited by the Marxist critic Gyorgy Lukacs as the first and most quintessential modern historical novel, authors — mostly women — were using historic settings, creating a kind of alternative history in which female characters have all the fun. The most remarkable is Sophia Lee’s 1783 novel “The Recess,” told from the perspective of the imagined twin daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots. Predictably, such novels were originally perceived as slight entertainments. Even the best-known work of this subgenre of feminist historical literature, Virginia Woolf’s modernist masterpiece “Orlando” (1928), with its gender-fluid heroine who doesn’t age from the 16th century to the 1920s, was critically dismissed as a lark. Woolf herself described the novel as “fun” and “fantasy,” but its bladed politics gleam all the more brilliantly today: It is a study of gender roles, of power and powerlessness, grounded in a character constrained neither by sex nor mortality — the dream of a life outside history.

The publication of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” in 2009, followed by its sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” in 2012 (Mantel is working on the third and final installment, “The Mirror and the Light”), was hailed as a genre-shattering moment: Here was a thoroughly contemporary and literary novel, with non-archaic dialogue, that happened to be cast with Tudors. Mantel’s genius for a history deeply known and lightly worn made the Tudors unaccountably gripping and proximate. But even before Mantel, cracks were already forming in the delineation between historical and literary novels. By the mid-1990s, authors like A.S. Byatt and Peter Carey, and later Sarah Waters and Ian McEwan, fascinated with the ways we access and reinvent the past, were elevating the genre’s status and making the novel’s trick of empathy all the more magical: How many book-club matrons have found themselves transfixed by Waters’s Victorian-era tales of lesbian love?

Surely the most radical thing Mantel did was give a voice to Anne Boleyn, the mother of the Reformation, Elizabeth I and the centuries of English history that followed. In Mantel’s view, Boleyn is clever, lusty, maternal, stylish, prone to moments of temper and highhandedness and — fatally — overconfident in the stability of her position. In an afterword to “Bring Up the Bodies,” Mantel explains just how thin the record is on her. No transcript of her trial survives: Like so much of the female half of history, hers is a story of embarrassed erasure.

IF WE’VE LEARNED nothing else from history, it’s that there’s no escaping it, and that moving on from it requires some honesty and truth telling. Suggesting a way forward is one of the more underread books of 2018, Apostol’s “Insurrecto,” a historical novel about the effort to do just that. It begins in the present, when a Filipina writer and translator, Magsalin, agrees to help a stylish, young Sofia Coppola-esque American director, Chiara, who is making a film about a forgotten 1901 atrocity in which American occupiers retaliated against a Filipino uprising. After Magsalin reads Chiara’s script, she writes one of her own, and soon we’re reading two competing versions of historical events — one from the perspective of a white American socialite photographer, the other from the point of view of a Filipina schoolteacher. In the end, both Magsalin and Chiara believe they have failed in telling a true account of the event — but Apostol has not. The United States may have “manufactured how to see the world,” as she puts it, but that’s changing now, as a new generation of writers and filmmakers and artists rewrite the old stories with skin very much in the game: a rebellion against history and memory. The process of remembering is, by definition, an act of imagination and invention, and the hardest stories to tell have become the stories we need most, those in which there is no tweetable takeaway — only the invisible dead, the ghosts who lie in wait.

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