Does historical fiction make better history?

images

Recently I finished reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, a book I’d been meaning to read for ages and finally got around to. I’d expected it to be good, but it was even better than I’d heard. I loved the writing, really clear and straightforward but which drew you into the story completely. But more than that, I finished it thinking that this was the one of the best books I’d read about twentieth century European history, despite never claiming to be a history book. Free from the imperative to appear detached and analytical, the book drew me completely into the worlds it was describing, from belle époque Paris to inter-war Vienna and finally post-war Japan. Since the author is an artist, his concentration on the material is crucial; the Japanese netsuke from which the ceramic figure of the hare is drawn are central to the narrative, but it extends beyond these. His focus on how the places and spaces and objects he describes are lived in and experienced gives the cities and homes he describes a materiality they might otherwise lack. Vienna in particular, was a place and a history I didn’t know in too much detail, but de Waal’s attention to the way that the streets outside the Ephrussi family’s palatial residence sounded and looked like – from the rowdy crowds of students singing bellicose songs after the outbreak of war in 1914 to the pomp of the emperor Franz Joseph I’s funeral cortege passing by in 1916 – gave a sense of what it was actually like to live through these times. I felt I understood the history of twentieth century Vienna and of European Jewish culture much better than I had before. read more

Advertisements

Carlo Ginzburg and the ‘euphoria of ignorance’: Thinking about how to do history

cover

‘What do you imagine God to be?… God is    nothing but a breath’. The sixteenth century Italian miller Menocchio’s words seem astonishing to the twenty-first century reader in their strength, coherence and imagination in conceptualising an idea of the world radically different to that of the strict Counter-Reformation Catholicism of his small Italian village. Menocchio came before the Inquisition because someone had finally reported him after long years of preaching his dangerous ideas to anyone in the village who would listen. He believed that God was in nature and the world rather than a sentient celestial being, rejected the immortality of the soul and thought the Church was deeply corrupt. It is his description of the creation of the universe using a metaphor drawn from everyday life – cheese-making and maggots – that gives the book its title and illustrates the deep thought and peasant-like earthiness that his words combined: ‘I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels’.

The long transcript of his initial interrogations and trial as a heretic means that the workings of his astonishing mind have been preserved thanks – ironically – to the meticulous record-keeping of the Inquisition. However it is of course Carlo Ginzburg who uncovered his story, recognised its power and painstakingly reconstructed Menocchio’s mental and social universe, revealing the currents of thought and writing he encountered in his life in an effort to understand might have prompted him to form such radical opinions.

Books like Carlo Ginzburg’s ‘The Cheese and the Worms’ make me wish I was an early modern historian. Sometimes contemporary history feels just that bit too familiar and I am envious of the potential in a story like Menocchio’s to illuminate the social, cultural and intellectual workings of a world as distant as that of sixteenth-century rural Italy. It is of course to Ginzburg’s credit that he managed to do this with such skill and imagination, creating a new type of history writing – the micro-history – in the process. When Carlo Ginzburg spoke in conversation with Filippo De Vivo at the Italian Cultural Institute, London last week, he spoke at length about his long career as a historian from his research on witchcraft in the 1960s to his more recent time at UCLA. Hearing him talk about his own approach to research as well as the future potential of micro-history, I also began to think about the ways that I approach research and history writing in my own work. read more

Love and Courtship in the time of Franco: Growing up in Catholic Spain

Unknown   Continuing my exploration of the themes of love        courtship and growing up in post-war Europe, on my reading list in the British Library this week was Carmen Martín Gaite’s book, Courtship customs in postwar Spain. Best known for her novels about post-war and contemporary Spain, through which she manages to explore both the experiences of living in and remembering life in Franco’s Spain, this is a different, even an odd sort of book. It is both a non fiction account of coming of age in 1940s and 1950s Spain, and an attempt to write a history of the collective experiences of one’s own generation. First published in Spanish in 1987, it’s unusual too in that Gaite focuses her attentions completely on the private sphere, on love, courtship and especially on the lives of girls and young women, in her portrait of the first generation to grow up and come of age under Francoism. It’s only more recently that, as far as I have found anyway, historians have begun to pay serious attention to themes like this when looking at the history of twentieth century Europe, and life in fascist societies. Even though themes of gender and women’s lives have been a concern for much longer, the spheres of private life, intimacy and expectations about love are only recently getting the attention they deserve. read more

Coming of age in Catholic Ireland: Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl

43Edna_OBrien_294633kI finished reading Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl on the plane back to Milan last week. Considering      how much      the memoir is bound up with place, spiralling out from rural Clare to Dublin, London and further afield and coming back again (sort of) to Ireland, it seemed fitting to be reading it while on my own travels. Having read a couple of the original Country Girls novels a few years ago, I was really curious to read the book for the insights it might offer into living in 1950s Ireland. Edna O’Brien was also born in 1930, her life spanning the same years as my ‘post-war generation’ of Italians coming of age in the 1950s, although Ireland was quite a different place to Italy, with its experience of economic boom and rapid social change in the late 1950s and 1960s. read more