To the novelist A.S. Byatt, studying history is partly a way of understanding her own time. “In many ways if you write a novel about the past,” she has said, “you find yourself saying more about the habits of mind of the present than if you take the present head on.”
In novels such as “Possession” and “The Children’s Book” Byatt has blown the dust off historical fiction and made it relevant. The historical novel, which has been associated with words like “escapism“ and “nostalgia,” has become a new way of looking at contemporary questions. In Dutch literature, where practitioners like Arthur Japin and Stefan Brijs have helped to revive historical fiction, history itself is the subject of renewed interest, as the Dutch retrieve their national identity from the dustbin.
As one of the best-known and most popular writers of serious historical fiction, Byatt is regularly asked to speak in the Netherlands. She gave the Huizinga Lecture in 2004 and received an honorary doctorate from Leiden in 2010. Last month, she gave a talk on “science and fiction” in a packed Aula of the University of Amsterdam. Saturday, at the Nacht van de Geschiedenis (“Night of History”), she will speak on the art of historical fiction.
What aspect of history is most on your mind right now?
I’m trying to research a novel which will begin at the end of the First World War and go as far as the Second. And it will have psychoanalysts in it, as a group, and Surrealists in it, as a group. It will take place in Germany, France, and England, so it’s already very ambitious. I have some of the characters now but not all of them.
One thing I’m looking at is tight groups of believers who frequently and systematically eject rebels or the inconvenient. Also I’m interested in the discovery of the unconscious. And how the First World War was behind the beginnings of some forms of psychoanalysis, and the wildness of the Surrealists.
So I sort of sit about reading biographies and history and making notes. The thing I’m looking at now is that a lot of both the Surrealists and the psychoanalysts were working with shell-shocked soldiers of the First World War. There’s a wonderful story about André Breton and Louis Aragon when they were working in a mental hospital. The patients were locked up inside, and Aragon and Breton sat down outside, on the landing, and read the poetry of Lautréamont to each other. And the patients came to the door and they said, “For god’s sake, we can’t stand this, it’s mad, stop reading this, go away!” I think the Surrealists really were madder in some ways.
When people write about the rise of the historical novel, I feel like what they’re really asking is, “May I? Am I allowed to like historical fiction?”
When I was a girl, historical fiction was very much romantic fiction. I read “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” Georgette Heyer, all those very stylized Regency romances. You wrote it and read it in order to lose yourself in it.
But I think the kind of historical fiction people are writing now is an attempt to understand. You know: we can find out who we are by finding out where we came from. I’ve now reached the point of researching the period when my parents were alive and I wasn’t. If I write this one I shall have gone from 1859 right through to about 2000, if you add all my books together.
I think there has been a huge change in the seriousness of historical fiction, a sort of sense that there are things that might be better to describe in a fiction than in a history—because in a history you get gaps. You can use fiction to find out the shape of the world a bit, just as much as if you were a historian.
I began “The Children’s Book,” for example, with an interest primarily in children and children’s writers. But one thing led to another. I researched the City of London because of a metaphor I was using about gold and silver, and found a whole new world – including the fact that no one there seems to have anticipated the outbreak of the First World War. I researched the fight for women’s education, and came to feel what it must have been like to be an intelligent, frustrated woman in those days. I found I was understanding the world which made my parents who they were – my mother was a working-class girl on a scholarship at Cambridge. I discovered the unexpected roots of many of my own pleasures and prejudices.
Historical fiction now often deals with the people who used to be left out of history: women, blacks, gays, the formerly colonized. There’s Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” and Arthur Japin’s “The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi,” and “Possession.” Does that play a role in your current work?
As I said, I found great pleasure in researching the early days of women’s university education. But I am mistrustful of writers with a mission. My own inclination is always towards agnosticism – I begin writing with a thought and an image and look to see what I find.
The Dutch don’t really trust history, partly because they connect it to nationalism.
Yes. That’s one of the reasons I love the Dutch, because they’re not nationalistic. I remember talking to a Dutch person who said, you know, we haven’t got a literary history like you’ve got; and I blew up and said, but you’ve got a visual history infinitely more interesting than anything we’ve got.
And then you come across [Dutch] novels that are just about historical, like “The Assault” [by Harry Mulisch, partly set during World War II].
Does it count as historical if you lived through the period [as Mulisch did]?
The thing about Mulisch is that he’s got both the immediate experience and the distance that makes it history. And that makes it very, very interesting. I like that in a book, that kind of double focus.
Last night we went to an absolutely lovely restaurant called the Five Flies. And it’s sort of like Holland really. Someday I’ll write a short story about it. A waiter came and said, you are sitting under a self-portrait by Rembrandt. And here was this tiny, beautiful print of Rembrandt as a youngish man in his hat.
Then opposite us there were rows and rows of archive books. And we said, “What are those?” Because books always interest us. And they fetched them down after we’d finished the meal and showed us. There were press cuttings and letters written by Winston Churchill.
And so we asked, “How far back do they go?” And it turned out that the piece between 1939 and 1946 had been burnt. It’s gone. That piece of history is unacceptable. That’s a very Dutch way of dealing with it.
A Child of the 1950s
Antonia Susan Byatt (1936) published her first novel in 1964, but won fame, and the Booker Prize, with the 1990 novel “Possession.” Its plot of researchers discovering a hidden history has been much copied since—not least in “The Da Vinci Code.”
A child of the serious 1950s, Byatt had trouble with the 1960s, when her students—she was teaching literature to artists—rebelled by refusing to read at all. “In England I think the whole thing was particularly a nonsense,” she comments. “My little country was too comfortable and too small.” Her 2009 novel “The Children’s Book” is set among utopian socialists in the early 20th century, but her critique of the 1960s is not hard to read between the lines.
Her latest book, “Ragnarök,” a retelling of the Norse myths, will be published in translation in November by De Bezige Bij.
Trouw, October 22, 2011.