100+ essays on literary topics
John Sutherland of The Times is quoted under the heading ‘Praise for The Lie’ in the paperback edition of the book as saying, ‘Helen Dunmore’s two resources are imagination and research.’ The former is something a novelist can hardly do without, but the latter has only recently come into fashion. How much research did Tolstoy do before he wrote War and Peace or Dickens before he wrote A Tale of Two Cities or E.M.Forster before he wrote A Passage to India? I don’t know, but I think the answer would be not much because it was what they knew already that made them want to write the book. A historical event, for a novelist, is a metaphor, the historical truth less important than the universal truth it embodies. Why would you consult someone whose principal skill is in making things up if what you want to know is what really happened?
What Helen Dunmore and other so-called historical novelists do, of course, is not the kind of research that historians do, but the kind that is needed to give their works of fiction a veneer of historical accuracy. What we get in The Lie and other books of that ilk is not so much history as period detail. On the first page, the smell of a First World War trench is described as ‘full of shit and rotten flesh, cordite and chloride of lime’. Who but a novelist who has done her research would know about chloride of lime? Does it help the reader to imagine the smell? No, but that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to present the writer’s credentials as someone who knows what she is talking about.
Lists are a common feature of these novels and serve the same purpose. On page 3, a list of the vegetables growing in a vegetable patch: ‘early potatoes, turnips, carrots, beetroot, spring cabbages’. On page 22, a list of coins: ‘florins, some sixpences, a few joeys and a heap of copper.’ On page 23, a list of food for foraging: ‘Mussels on the rocks, samphire growing around the estuary in season, spider crabs and wild strawberries, blackberries, elderberries, bread and cheese from the hawthorn, new dandelion leaves for salad, chervil, nettles for soup in spring.’ The point is (and I can hear the creative writing class tutor saying this) to be convincing. Your characters must never smoke a cigarette, they must smoke a particular brand of cigarette. In The Lie it’s Woodbines or Players. It’s not enough for the hero to dry his hands on a towel. What kind of towel did people dry their hands on in those days? ‘I work up a lather, then swill my face and arms and dry myself carefully on the roller towel.’ (p213) Goodness! Is that really how people used to get washed? This writer really knows her stuff, doesn’t she?
The historical novelist’s obsession with period detail is one thing, but when the novel is written in the first person, in this case a survivor of the First World War, the effect can be incongruous. The narrative voice seems to belong less to a young man suffering from shell-shock than to a National Trust guide.
Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld is a very different kind of historical novel. His imagined town, in which the experience of German Jews in 1939 is given a story-book treatment which makes the reality all the more vivid and horrifying, owes everything to imagination and nothing to research. The opening paragraph sets the scene.
‘Spring returned to Badenheim. In the country church next to the town the bells rang. The shadows of the forest retreated to the trees. The sun scattered the remnants of the darkness and its light filled the main street from square to square. It was a moment of transition. The town was about to be invaded by the vacationers. Two inspectors passed through an alley, examining the flow of the sewage in the pipes. The town, which had changed its inhabitants many times in the course of the years, had kept its modest beauty.’
Badenheim has its idiosyncracies, which the inhabitants, the vacationers and, following their example, the reader, come to accept.
‘Spring rose in a dark green haze from the gardens. The two local prostitutes, Sally and Gertie, put on summer dresses and strolled down the avenue. In the beginning the inhabitants of the town had tried to get them thrown out, but the campaign, which began many years ago, had come to nothing in the end. The town had grown used to them, as it had grown used to Dr Pappenheim’s eccentricities and to the foreigners who had insinuated themselves like diseased roots.’
The vacationers who come to stay in the town’s hotel and enjoy the entertainment organised by Dr Pappenheim find themselves, as the season advances and the inspectors go on with their work, less able to move freely outside the hotel. Rumours grow that they are to be taken back to Poland, where they once lived. They convince themselves and each other that they will enjoy that. On the last page, a train arrives.
‘An engine, an engine coupled to four filthy freight cars, emerged from the hills and stopped at the station. Its appearance was as sudden as if it had risen from a pit in the ground. “Get in!” yelled invisible voices. And the people were sucked in. Even those who were standing with a bottle of lemonade in their hands, a bar of chocolate, the headwaiter with his dog – they were all sucked in as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel. Nevertheless Dr Pappenheim found time to make the following remark: “If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have not far to go.”’
Toytown Badenheim is a fictional creation, not a re-creation of Europe during the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, but an imagined town whose reality contains within itself the unimaginable reality of the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews. The Jews themselves, trapped inside the hotel, are the holocaust deniers.
Trapped inside The Lie is a good novel, perhaps even a great novel, a work of imagination in which a First World War survivor hides from the real world in a world he makes for himself in an old woman’s cottage, burying her when she dies, hiding the truth of her death from the real world outside, living with the ghost of a friend who died in the trenches, suffering in the end the inevitable consequence of the lies and the deaths. Alas, too much research, too little imagination!
My next post will appear on 12 November and will be about Tennyson’s poem, The Lotos Eaters.
My next Reader’s Diary will appear on 19 November.