Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What does history mean to you?

While I take a history break, here's an old post about history and fiction.  (The history break consists, so far, of reading Marc Bloch and Jules Michelet. So, who knows? I may return with posts about France, revolution, and grand style.)
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The Charlie Stella interview to which I linked on Thursday is full of references to history.

"I prefer reading history-based novels (crime or otherwise), which is why Craig McDonald’s Lassister series strikes such a terrific chord with me," for example, or this:
" I’ll read pretty much anything that presents a past I see slipping away, but the new stuff that seems to top the bestseller lists I find mostly boring horseshit.

"That’s not to say the writing is bad. I’m sure some of it is wonderful, but if there is no or little basis in reality or some sense of history (i.e., the first three George V. Higgins novels – The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Digger’s Game and Cogan’s Trade – and James Ellroy’s American Tabloid)."
The comments hit home, not least because the books he names are not generally considered historical fiction, and because Higgins set his books, at least The Friends of Eddie Coyle, in his own time. So, what does history mean? A sense of time and a sense of place and a wide streak of romance as an optional extra.

Stella's comments neatly take in the attractions of one crime novel that I've read recently, one I'm reading now, and another I expect to read soon. Adrian McKinty's The Cold Cold Ground plunked me right into the middle of Belfast and environs at the time of the hunger strikes. Ronan Bennett's Zugzwang is doing something similar for St. Petersburg in 1914, and I have every hope that Donald Westlake's The Comedy is Finished will do the same for the late 1970s in the U.S.

What do those books have in common, other than gifted authors? Turbulent historical periods. Narration that enhances the personal aspects of the story (first-person in the McKinty and the Bennett, free indirect speech that's as personal as first-person in the Westlake.) An eye for what's particular to the period that never degenerates into mere sightseeing or detail mongering.

What does history mean to you when it comes to fiction? Stella talks about "history-based novels;" What do you think he means by that? Are "history-based novels" different from historical fiction? 

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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25 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I don't know. That phrase "history-based" alarms me. It sounds a bit like "memoir", not quite an autobiography, but fact mixed with lies.

History, for me, takes on reality when the facts are used to breathe life into characters who lived with them. But the facts must always be honored and not made subservient to the story.

December 24, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

I suspect "history-based novels" and "historical fiction" are defined in the eye of the beholder, quite possibly a semantic distinction without an easily agreed upon difference.

That being said, I fully agree with your earlier point. Books like Stella's and Ellroy's (I've not yet read COLD COLD GROUND) and Dennis Lehane's THE GIVEN DAY use history to provide context and motivation for their characters while at the same time using their characters and story to provide insights into the history.

December 24, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

I think Dana is right, the important thing is insight. "History-based" gives the work the chance to have some perspective and that may affect the insight.

I saw the musical Hair last night and I suspect anyone writing that story today as a historical would tell it a lot differently.

I also agree with IJ that the facts need to be honoured but must serve the story. The thing is, the facts we choose to use, or emphasize, from a historical setting will usually
say more about the time of the writing.

December 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That phrase "history-based" alarms me. It sounds a bit like "memoir", not quite an autobiography, but fact mixed with lies.

I.J.. Stella could have used “semi-autobiographical” for that, though. As far as I know, though, none of the books he names in the interview meets the definition. All or most are about periods not that long before the author’s own, though. That would make for relative ease in mentally projecting one’s self back to the period in question. I imagine this might be a task a bit different from setting a story in the distant past, as you do.

I’d have guessed he chose the ungainly term “history-based” to indicate that the books are no costume dramas or that, while they may be set in the past, they need not invoke great moments or momentous eras in history.

December 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, "eye of the beholder" is likely correct. But it's interesting that Stella's own novels tend not to be set at some specific moment in the past, with the exception of Johnny Porno. He calls himself a dinosaur because he writes about traditional organized crime, which he notes is in decline.

He says he'll read "pretty much anything that presents a past I see slipping away." Maybe that general sense, rather than evooking a specific historical epriod, is his main interest as a writer. In any case, it's a pretty fluid distinction at best.

December 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I can across a novelist's declaration the demands of the story must come first. I take not to mean that an author should alter the outcome of wars if it suits him or her, but rather to remember that the task at hand is to tell a story.

I suspect that if someone rewrote "Hair" today, the Cowsills might not have a song in it.

December 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thought "Wear it down to there / Shoulder length or longer" is one of my favorite couplets.

December 24, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter, John

Do you think there's a problem with too much irony? The smoking and sexism in Mad Men was cute for a couple of episodes but eventually it became wearisome as if the programme makers were constantly winking at us.

1981 wasnt so long ago: the big events of the year were a royal wedding, trouble in Egypt, world recession, the launch of a new series of computer games, riots in Britains cities...

December 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I watch TV the way you use Twitter, so I've never seen Mad Men, but perhaps the show's makers have slipped into what I called mere sightseeing and detail-mongering. Once they achieved their fleeting place in teh cultural zeigeist, perhaps, time exposed the poverty of their imagination.

December 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I wonder how far back authors must travel in history before they reach times utterly foreign to readers.

December 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Here's the beginning to Ronan Bennett's acknowledgements following Zugzwang:

"I have said before that when conflicts arise between historical fact and the demands of the novel, the novelist settles them in favour of the latter. There was a great chess tournament held in St. Petersburg in April-May 1914 (the games were annotated by Siegbert Tarrasch in the tournament book (reprinted by Caissa in 1993)), but there was no participant called Avrom Chilowicz Rozental; chess enthusiasts will have their opinion on the identity of the man on whom they think he is based. I owe the interpretation of "master of the fly" to an article by Grandmaster Nigel Davies in the Jerusalem Post."

December 24, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Zugswang sounds good. I've only read two Bennetts. Havoc in the Third Year and the one about the Congo whose title escapes me. Both were excellent.

December 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Congo novel would be The Catastrophist, I think.

Zugzwang is quite good, and especially difficult to discuss without giving away matters best left ungiven. You'll understand if you read the book.

December 24, 2011  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

It's hard for me to explain --or even really put my finger on --but I don't enjoy mysteries where the historical setting is the gimmick. A lot of series mysteries are that type of book, though not all. (J. Robert Jane's St. Cyr and Kohler mysteries with their Surete/Gestapp partnering are a nice exception.) That said, I quite enjoy older mysteries where I get a strong sense of the time, even though it was modern when written --Cornell Woolrich, Chester Himes.

December 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That sounds much like why I have had trouble with historical crime fiction in the past. The history gets in the way of the story, and vice versa.

I suspect Charlie Stella might endorse some of your reading preferences. And have you read David Goodis? He'll sometimes have characters hang around in front of a candy store. Who hangs around in front of candy stores these days? And are there any candy stores left to hang around in front of if anyone wanted to?

December 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, I haven't read Jaynes. I find his disclaimers at the beginning of each novel icy and off-putting.

So, talk me into reading him.

And Merry Christmas.

December 25, 2011  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

Hmmm, I don't know if I CAN talk you into reading them. I didn't recall a disclaimer, and a Google search led me back to a post of yours where you quote from it. Sounds like Janes is simply letting people know there may not have been an actual Gestapo/Surete pairing in real life, so don't get your knickers in a twist. There's plenty that is dead realistic. I think Janes is a fine example of not letting the history get too much in the way of the story, though it's certainly true that the time and place are part of the story --the occupation of France absolutely impresses on the characters.

The writing style is unusual, and I can't think of anyone to compare it to. Maybe Bill James --one of my favorites-- with lashings of Robert Wilson?

I don't think they're for everyone. I work in a used bookstore, and on very rare occasions, someone trades in a pile of books that includes authors I like, and I accost them for recommendations. A little old lady had a mish-mash of things I like (Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, some Barbara Vine...) and I gave her the third degree.

Janes was one of the names she wrote down for me.

You should maybe read at least one, if only because I'll bet you could articulate what he's like better than I can.

December 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I mean his disclaimer that “I do not condone what happened during these times. Indeed, I abhor it. But during the Occupation of France the everyday crimes of murder and arson continued to be committed, and I merely ask, by whom and how were they solved?"

Condone, merely and everyday don’t seem quite the right words to use in connection with the Gestapo. But any comparison with Bill James gets my attention, so maybe I’ll take another look.

December 26, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Peter, I haven't read Jaynes, but I think that disclaimer is trying to say there were non-political crimes which continued to occur during that period, and their stories have perhaps been neglected.

December 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're right. But the detachment of his disclaimer does not sit will with me. If he'd written something like "Even a mid the horror, `everyday' crime happened," I likely would not have complained. It's his tone rather than his substance that I object to.

December 26, 2011  
Blogger Charlieopera said...

The hell does Stella know? He's a London Bills fan ... actually, John's book, Black Rock, for me was a wonderful version of historical fiction. I learned a lot about Canada from that read. I just read an MFA graduate's read about the Marias Massacre back in the day (my favorite part of the book was the historical aspect) ... same goes for a recently flurry of non-fiction reading I've done ... I'm not sure what my kids will consider history down the road, but they're clueless about what we lived through ... the recent CNN documentary about the 60's my wife and I found ourselves shaking our heads over what we'd gone through as young kids (oblivious to as well) ... I also recently read a couple of English women's fictional novels during WWII and I loved them both. Maybe I'm just an getting old ...

August 12, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Charlie, I expect you'll also like the follow-up to Black Rock. I put up another post about Black Rock and Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy novels (which I recommend) that noted the features they share of authors going back to write novels with adult protagonists living in times when the authors themselves were adolescents and teenagers. That makes the books an interesting sort of mix of history and memory. I am exactly John's age, and it was fascinating to read that take on things I was only dimly aware of or had no inkling of at all as a kid. At the same time, much of the book was familiar to. It's a pretty intoxicating, and would be even if it did not include a police photographer named Rozovsky.

I wonder if kids today will lose any sense of history beyond the personal.

August 12, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And since your original post mentioned American Tabloid, I'm looking forward to Ellroy's new book and to hearing him read from it next month.

I like his "Underworld Trilogy" best of his novels, but it will be interesting to see what he does with this new book, which goes back to the early 1940s, I think--at any rate, a period before the time of the first L.A. Quarter.

August 12, 2014  
Blogger Charlieopera said...

"I wonder if kids today will lose any sense of history beyond the personal."

Well, the smart ones will pay attention ... and the rest will play video games.

I tell this Elroy story often. I could NOT read the Cold 6,000 and gave up after multiple tries. Then I met a guy in a CA bookstore who said he's heard Elroy read it and it all clicked for him. I've yet to hear him red it, but I haven't tried again. Tabloid remains one of my all time favorites precisely because of the historical context ... and I wasn't born until 1956 ... I will take your recommendations, sir.

August 12, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Charlie, I tried The Cold Six Thousand and put it aside until after I'd read American Tabloid. Once I was in the milieu, I was then able to read and enjoy The Cold Six Thousand.

Marc Bloch's introduction to The Historian's Craft contemplated the question "What is the use of history"--prompted by a question from a child. I shall know more soon about what Bloch answered.

If you like McFetridge, no reason for you not to like McKinty.

August 12, 2014  

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