Novel approach to his­tory

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

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

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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