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"From Progress to Catastrophe"—Perry Anderson on the historical novel

Josh Oldham25 August 2011

In an essay for the London Review of Books, Perry Anderson discusses the changing forms of the historical novel, charting its development throughout the 19th and 20th century. Using the "best-known of all works of Marxist literary theory", Lukács's The Historical Novel, as a starting point, Anderson reflects on the "strange career" of the form in an essay traversing War and Peace, Alexandre Dumas, and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

Examining the classical forms of the genre, Anderson writes:

For Lukács, the historical novel was essentially epic in form. It was an extensive representation, in Hegelian terms, of the ‘totality of objects', as opposed to the more concentrated ‘totality of movement' proper to drama. But if this is a plausible description of the origins of the form, it cannot account for its diffusion. There, it was not an aspiration to epic totality that would ensure the enormous popularity of fictions about the past, but rather the pre-constituted repertoire of scenes or stories of that history, still overwhelmingly written from the standpoint of battles, conspiracies, intrigues, treacheries, seductions, infamies, heroic deeds and deathless sacrifices - everything that was not prosaic daily life in the 19th century. Here was the road, so to speak, from Jeanie Deans to Milady. The historical novel that conquered European reading publics in the second half of the 19th century would not offend patriotic sentiment, but no longer had a nation-building vocation. The Three Musketeers and its innumerable imitations were entertainment literature.

Side by side with it, persisted ‘high' forms of the genre. Now, however, the typical development was for leading authors to try their hand at the historical novel, composing one or two such works in a corpus otherwise devoted to realistic representations of contemporary life. Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities, Henry Esmond, Romola and Salammbô illustrate this pattern. Lower down, but still above the stratum of Dumas or Ainsworth, figured writers like Stevenson and Bulwer-Lytton. The central fact to grasp, however (the evidence for this is graphically laid out in Franco Moretti's Atlas of the European Novel), is that the historical novel as a genre predominated massively over all other forms of narrative down to the Edwardian era. It combined enormous market success with continuing aesthetic prestige. In the last season of the Belle Epoque, Anatole France was publishing Les Dieux ont soif, Ford Madox Ford his Fifth Queen; even Conrad would end his career with a couple of historical fictions, set once more in Napoleonic times.

Anderson also examines the impact of the First World War on the writing of the genre, elucidating how styles from the pre-war period were abandoned in line with the rise of modernism.

Twenty years later, the scene was utterly changed. By the interwar period, the historical novel had become déclassé, falling precipitously out of the ranks of serious fiction. There were two body blows to its position in the hierarchy of genres. One was the massacres of the First World War, which stripped the glamour from battles and high politics, discrediting malignant foes and sacrificial heroes alike. Staged by both sides in 1914 as a gigantic historical contest between good and evil, the war left the survivors with a terrible hangover from melodrama. The swashbuckling fare of Weyman or Sabatini looked risible from the trenches. But there was also the critical effect of the rise of modernism, broadly construed, to which Jameson has rightly drawn our attention. He points to its primacy of perception as incompatible with totalising retrospect, rendering impossible a modernist version of the kind of historical novel theorised by Lukács. To this could be added its hostility to the corrupting effects of aesthetic facility – to all that was too readily or immediately available – which struck down the popular and middlebrow versions of the historical novel still more stringently.

Thus if we look at the interwar scene, the historical novel becomes a recessive form, at virtually all levels, in Europe. In the United States, on the other hand, shielded from the shock of the war, Faulkner produced a Gothic variant, flinching before no melodramatic licence, in Absalom, Absalom, while at a less ambitious level its middle range flourished as never before – Thornton Wilder, for example, enjoying a reputation that would have seemed odd in Europe. More spectacularly, Gone with the Wind, a tale of Civil War and Reconstruction with a lightweight resemblance to the romantic nation-building fiction of the previous century, became the most successful historical novel of all time. Significantly, what Europe produced in this middle market mode was principally Robert Graves’s I Claudius, the mental escape of a First World War veteran into antiquity, later fodder for a slack television serial. At a higher level, similar reflexes generated a cluster of historical novels by German exiles – the elder Mann, Döblin, Broch, Brecht – in which Fascism was allegorised into the past, as the rise of Julius Caesar, mobs howling for Augustus, or the killers of the Catholic League, in a deliberately modernising spirit completely at variance with the classical conception of the historical novel.

In the past thirty years, the historical novel has undergone "one of the most astonishing transformations in literary history" - the romaticised portrayal of past heroic figures and proud nation-building struggles being abandoned as post-modernism took hold on the genre. 

Military tyranny; race murder; omnipresent surveillance; technological war; and programmed genocide. The persistent backdrops to the historical fiction of the postmodern period are at the antipodes of its classical forms. Not the emergence of the nation, but the ravages of empire; not progress as emancipation, but impending or consummated catastrophe. In Joycean terms, history as a nightmare from which we still cannot wake up. But if we look, not at the sources or themes of this literature, but at its forms, Jameson suggests we should reverse the judgment. The postmodern revival, by throwing verisimilitude to the winds, fabricating periods and outraging probabilities, ought rather to be seen as a desperate attempt to waken us to history, in a time when any real sense of it has gone dead.

Still, he concludes, in just these conditions does not the Lukácsian connection between great social events and the existential fate of individuals remain typically out of reach? Benjamin, who detested the idea of progress nurtured by 19th-century historicism, would not have been surprised, or perhaps felt much regret. He used yet another image of awakening. The angel of history is moving away from something he stares at. ‘Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed.' Part of the impulse behind the contemporary historical novel may also lie here.

Vist the London Review of Books to read the full article.

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