Show Hide image

Why novelists have a duty of care to the past

As a novelist working from facts, you have a problem. History is suspect, as are the motives and methods of those who write it. Nevertheless, the sources are the same as those of a biographer.

Artistic licence: Dan Stevens (Gilbert) and Emily Browning (Florence) star in Summer in February

How true are “true stories”? How accurate are the historical events in a novel? How far can a writer “go” with the facts? And, anyway, don’t great writers make it all up from scratch?

These questions, which have long interested and troubled me, are brought sharply into focus in Christopher Nicholson’s fine recent novel Winter. The story is set in the mid-1920s, in the last years of Thomas Hardy’s life. While the old man is infatuated with Gertrude – a young actress 60 years his junior (and the model for Tess) – his neglected second wife, Florence, a mere 40 years younger than Hardy, lives in his shadow in their cold home.

It is a bitter life for Florence in which one of her duties is to deal with her famous husband’s daily postbag. One reader of The Return of the Native, a literal-minded lepidopterist, writes to ask which particular amber-coloured butterfly on Egdon Heath the novelist was describing, because the reader has often been on such Wessex heaths and has never spotted this species.

It is the kind of question – understandable if tiresome – that I sometimes get asked after giving a talk. Someone holds up a hand. “On page 197 you say so and so. How do you know this? Where did you get that?” Fair enough, I suppose, as I have based a number of my stories on what you might call the footnotes of history – forgotten or unearthed episodes in the lives of such figures as Rodin, Churchill, Robert Louis Stevenson, W E Henley, Reinhard Heydrich and Alfred Munnings. What the questioner really wants to know is if I am playing fast and loose.

In truth, of course, there was no amber-coloured butterfly, as Hardy (or Nicholson) reflects:

Doubtless the letter-writer would be disappointed by such information; well, but it was the truth. Just like the butterflies, Egdon itself, that vast expanse of heath described at the start of the novel, did not exist and probably never had; it was a piece of fiction that stood at a certain remove from reality. He hated these literary detectives, who failed to grasp the nature of art: that it was a shaping of reality, not reality itself.

Like the lepidopterist, but in a much more damaging way, Florence reads every word her husband writes as a realistic account of his inner self. She cannot begin to understand, though he has often tried to explain, that he is not the “I” and that the I is not the “he”: “The relationship between he and I was close; they were blood brothers, but brothers often differ greatly.”

In his own shaping of reality Nicholson has Hardy at his desk fantasising about eloping with the young actress. For the dry and defensive Hardy, his marriage to Florence is dead. Her neuroses bore him. Caring more for his pen than for his wife, he has settled for domestic silence. However, cover his tracks as Hardy might, “he”, Nicholson suggests, is the “I” of the poems. The “I” is “he”. Usurped and disturbed Florence may be, but she senses what is happening. She knows the fires that burn in her distant and offhand husband.

I was immediately absorbed in Winter. And I stayed in it. I was back at Max Gate in the 1920s. There was pain on all sides and it felt true in the most important sense. I cared for all three central characters, not to mention the dog Wessex. Although I admired Thomas Hardy: the Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin – she dealt with the Gertrude Bugler episode in four pages – I was more lost in the world of Nicholson’s short novel than I was in her substantial biography. Fiction had brought things to life for me as only fiction can. Sticking to the facts does not necessarily take you to the heart of the matter, to the truth beyond events. Shakespeare did not stick to the facts when he recast history, nor did T S Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral.

Two of my novels – Wilfred and Eileen (1976) and Summer in February (1995) – were based on real events, and both were “given” to me. They came directly from conversations I had as a teacher, one with a pupil, one with a colleague. Both are set in 1913 and 1914. When I started on the first I felt a little apologetic about writing what could be classed as historical fiction (let alone a true story). I had left university in the early 1960s with the snobbish view that fiction set in the past was insufficiently imaginative. It fed off facts and dead bodies: second-division stuff. All you had to do was mention Sir Walter Scott and roll your eyes. No need to read him, naturally, just look bored.

Because of my friendship with members of the family and the access they had given me, Wilfred and Eileen was delicate terri­tory. Eileen Stenhouse, having married Wilfred Willett in secret, travels to France, alone, to find her dreadfully injured husband and bring him home: a story of almost unbelievable courage on both sides, which had been entrusted to me by their daughter and grandson. In fusing the freedom to invent with a reliance on hard facts, I had to decide where exactly to play it straight, and where I could reasonably embellish. My responsibility to the real Wilfred Willett and the real Eileen Stenhouse at times conflicted with my concern to make the novel as strong as possible.

Twenty years later, when Summer in February came out, I was no longer defensively concerned with categories, and whether the book was historical fiction or a biographical novel or a hybrid genre. I thought then (and still think) that novels should be judged by the quality of their writing, the authenticity of their world, their narrative control and the intensity of the caring you feel for the characters. No one suggests that Colm Tóibín’s The Master and David Lodge’s Author, Author are the poorer for being based on incidents in the life of Henry James. Like Winter, they are creative novels about a creative novelist.

Even so, however urgently the dead call to us, there lingers in the literary world a barely concealed contempt for historical fiction. Hilary Mantel’s first Man Booker Prize win in 2009 prompted grumblings about its literary merit – as if, she wrote, “the past is some feathered sanctuary, a nest muffled from contention and the noise of debate, its events suffused by a pink, romantic glow”. This contempt extends to fiction based on real events. As Hazlitt said, “. . . there is no romance like the romance of real life”, but for many the phrase “a true story” remains as much a turn-off as a turn-on.

As a novelist working from facts, you have a problem straight away. History is suspect, as are the motives and methods of those who write it. Nevertheless, the sources are exactly the same as those of a biographer – that “post-mortem exploiter”, in Henry James’s phrase – would use: diaries, biographies, interviews, letters, looking at old photographs and taking new photographs. If you are going to write about real people as they actually lived, or as your imagination tells you they did, the least you can do is put in the legwork.

The further back in time you go the easier it is. You can write just about anything you like about the Romans and the Elizabethans, and people do. It is much trickier if there is close family still living. A father’s or mother’s real life is more than a “story” to a living son or daughter; it is far more important, more problematic and far more touchy than mere historical material.

When writing Summer in February, I faced the same questions. This novel (released as a film last year) is set in a bohemian artistic community in Cornwall just before the First World War. My challenge was to re-create the tragic love triangle of the painter Alfred Munnings, the soldier Gilbert Evans and Florence Carter-Wood. I read everything I could find but in his three-volume autobiography Munnings did not once mention Florence, let alone their marriage. He had airbrushed her out. Furthermore, there was the problem of how I should interpret some entries in Evans’s diaries, which were kindly shown to me by his son. I was pretty sure where joining the dots would lead: that when she died Florence was pregnant with his child. But proving it was another matter.

There is in most writers something of the secret agent and something of the subversive, too. It is invigorating being on the scent, a stalker of the past, stealing up on something from an oblique angle. Then there are the quiet hours of sitting and waiting, staring and feeling: of being imaginatively with your characters. Both approaches are essential. I try to let things unfold, to leave myself open to surprises. I try not to push.

To return to Hardy: in The Return of the Native he made up the butterflies and he made up Egdon Heath. Similarly, Christopher Nicholson made up the scenes in Winter where Florence and Hardy are reading a letter from a fan asking about the amber-coloured butterflies on Egdon Heath. Hardy and Nicholson, with their historical imagination, have both shaped reality.

The novelist and the dramatist can reach where the historian and the biographer very rarely do. “A work of art,” as Auden said, “is not about this or that kind of life; it has life.”

A new edition of Jonathan Smith’s “Wilfred and Eileen” is published by Persephone Books (£14)

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
Show Hide image

Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.