Novel approach to history
WHEN Miles Franklin awardwinning author Roger McDonald took a job as a shearers’ cook he was intending to take a break from his writing career. Instead the experience planted the seed for his 1992 book on the shearing industry, Shearers’ Motel .
Although he changed the names of many of the people and places that provided his source material for the book, McDonald insists Shearers’ Motel is ‘‘ unarguably a work of nonfiction’’. So he was surprised when he received a phone call from author and journalist David Marr the following year asking whether he was aware Shearers’ Motel had been shortlisted for Australia’s principal prize for fiction.
McDonald wasn’t, and the book was subsequently removed from contention. A couple of weeks later, he observed wryly at this month’s Sydney Writers Festival, Shearers’ Motel won the Banjo award for nonfiction.
McDonald’s anecdote says much about the slippery nature of history and fiction and where the two intersect. It helps explain why, like the history wars, this debate continues to simmer just beneath the surface of our public discourse.
Throughout much of last year Australian historians including Mark McKenna and Inga Clendinnen, authors of historical fiction such as McDonald, Kate Grenville and Alex Miller, and literary critics such as Stella Clarke staked out positions over where to draw the lines between fiction and history. At the heart of the matter was Grenville’s The Secret River , the novel she built around her research into the life of her ancestor Solomon Wiseman, who settled on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, early in the 19th century.
The University of Sydney’s McKenna was among those who saw red when Grenville commented in a radio interview that she viewed her novel as ‘‘ up on a ladder, looking down on the history wars’’.
The historians ‘‘ are doing their thing,’’ she said, ‘‘ but let me, as a novelist, come to it in a different way, which is the way of empathy and imaginative understanding.’’
All involved seemed to take a cold shower at the end of 2006, but a session at the writers festival titled Making a Fiction of History guaranteed a renewal of hostilities. The heat had been turned up even before the festival opened, with Grenville objecting to program notes stating she had ‘‘ upset historians by suggesting The Secret River was a new form of history writing’’.
Grenville, who is working on another historical novel, insists she has never said anything ‘‘ remotely like that’’. Her decision to pull out of the festival, according to the author to attend her daughter’s induction as a school prefect, was seen by some as a protest at the offending sentence. ‘‘ I know the difference between fiction and history,’’ she told me.
Back at the festival, things were warming up in the packed Sydney Theatre as McDonald, Clendinnen and historian Tom Griffiths replayed the argument over familiar, fraught terrain.
Griffiths, author of a new book on the Antarctic, Slicing the Silence , got things off to a contentious start by declaring that ‘‘ history and fiction weave an intriguing and complex dance’’ and labelling Eleanor Dark’s 1941 novel The Timeless Land as ‘‘ the most widely read text of Australian history’’.
Dark, he said, had annotated her own copy of the volume with footnotes documenting her historical sources. ‘‘ Her fiction was disciplined with referenced facts . . . yet it had been the freedom of her fiction that had allowed her to write into a great silence. These silences and this uncertainty are the historian’s creative opportunity — and should be part of any story we tell.’’
Griffiths went on to describe the factual inventions in Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang as ‘‘ relatively trivial’’, praised the ‘‘ authenticity of its voice’’ and concluded: ‘‘ I think we cannot now write the history of the Kelly outbreak without learning from the extraordinary ventriloquism of the novel.’’
Clendinnen’s slender frame and white hair disguise for less than an instant her intellectual ferocity: Griffiths was not going to get away with this blurring of the lines: ‘‘ Tom’s rules for history are too elastic!’’ she protested, rejecting his claims for Dark as a literary historian.
‘‘ There is no middle ground between fiction and history. They are mutually enriching; they are also conflicting. Fiction writing is very thrilling and uses qualities of the imagination that historians have to keep on a tight leash.’’
What still holds her ‘‘ in thrall’’, she told her rapt audience, is ‘‘ the intellectual and the emotional and the imaginative exercise of ‘ doing history’ ’’, the hunt for historical details to breathe life into people such as Bennelong’s wife Barangaroo, a Cameragal woman living on the shores of Sydney Harbour in 1788 and a central character in Dancing with Strangers , Clendinnen’s masterpiece on early contact between Aborigines and Europeans.
What first drew the historian to Barangaroo was governor Arthur Phillip’s record of a female Aborigine who wore a male ornament — a narrow bone through her septum — a sure sign of individualism. Barangaroo has been dead for more than 200 years and ‘‘ had left no physical trace of her being . . . But there she is. It’s certainly a recognisable person, where before there was only a fleeing shadow.’’
‘‘ I agree with Tom,’’ opened McDonald, the last to enter the fray. ‘‘ I’m also on Inga’s side — like someone from Israel’s Likud Party might be surprised to find themselves in agreement with Hamas,’’ he added.
Fictional, not historical, motives drive his work, he said, ‘‘ even if it does overlap with historians’ questions’’. And he argued that ‘‘ fictional truth’’ comes out of the work itself.
So what is fictional truth? McDonald: ‘‘ I would say a sense of conviction in a writer and reader that the world described inside the pages of the novel actually exists. All that is relevant to the plot decides fictional truth. This is not history.’’
A novel, he continued, ‘‘ is a living experience of potential shapes. Those shapes demand names, faces, voices, wills. They must be dressed, fed, loved, nurtured or resisted. Diaries, letters and documents uncovered by historians in a lifetime’s work can be the afternoon playthings of a novelist diving into the dress- up trunk.
‘‘ History, no matter how imaginative it is, is a forensic art having its day in court. A novel must appear more real than life itself even while aiming for redemption and reconciliation of opposites.
‘‘ When the novel is there it is up to the reader to decide how it will expand the truth they know.’’ When I gathered up the speakers’ papers at the end of the session, I noticed Clendinnen had scribbled two words from Griffith’s address on the front of hers: relatively trivial. Stay tuned.
review@ theaustralian. com