17 November 2013

A Ninny's Notion

Any novel set in the present will shortly become historical.  We need only wait.  It is not the subject so much that matters as it is the author's attitudes and resources, for the principal difference between the historical novel and any other kind lies in the former's reliance upon texts, rather than upon the author's direct experience of events.  Joyce knew the shops that lined the Dublin streets; he had looked in their windows and entered them, chatted, bought; but Ford knows Greenwich or the London of Henry VIII's time only through documents, paintings and prints.  Historical novels are thus almost purely linguistic, because they are derived from the author's knowledge of books, although these books may be understood entirely in terms of contemporary life... 
The belief that an author ought to write from experience--from experience, indeed, of a deeply personal, challenging, even agonizing kind--rather than contrive its effects at second hand: from books about the bullfight, for instance, whorehouse, Great War, Great Wall, social scene, or local wine, because otherwise the work will smell of the lamp, seem forced, lack life--is a ninny's notion; but it is firmly established and as hard to discourage as fungus.
William Gass, "The Neglect of Ford Madox Ford's Fifth Queen," in Habitations of the Word, p 42.


In Morse Peckham's Beyond the Tragic Vision he opens with "The Problem of the Historian."  Here is a bit out of it--this comes after Peckham has shared the opening of Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers as a kind of proof text.
"Very deep is the well of the past."  It is a tricky metaphor, for in Mann's hands the well changes into the abyss of the sea, and the line with which he plumbs changes into a ship, feeling its way along an unknown coast.  Even in Mann's hands the metaphor becomes slippery and deceiving.  The reason is that the past is not a well, nor any of these other things.  The past does not exist at all.  We cannot start at some arbitrary point in the past--neither at the birth of Joseph nor at the Versailles of Benjamin Franklin--and work forward and backward as we choose.  We can only start at this moment, when I write and you read, and as we read and write the moment slips inexorably away, neither backward nor forward, nor up nor down, nor sideways; the present does not slide back into the past; it simply disappears.   
I write this page; it is late at night; I go to bed, confidently predicting that when I return to my study tomorrow morning the page will still be here in the typewriter, waiting for me.  But the analogies built into my memory, into the circuits of my brain, cells, I know now that tomorrow I can, if I wish, resume; for the study and the paper and the typewriter will be here.  I know this about the future.  What do I know about the past?  Nothing--only I know that tomorrow morning I must assume, on the evidence of the typewritten document before me, that there was a past. (14-15)
The past is documents.  That's all.  What else can there be?

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