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The Art of His­tory: Un­lock­ing the Past in Fic­tion & Non­fic­tion by Christo­pher Bram

“His­tory, Stephen said, is a night­mare from which I am try­ing to awake.” — James Joyce, Ulysses “His­tory is a night­mare dur­ing which I am try­ing to get a good night’s sleep.” — Del­more Schwartz

In The Art of His­tory, Christo­pher Bram tack­les the past and wraps it up in a tidy 184 pages.

To be more ac­cu­rate, it is not his­tory in toto on which Bram sets his sights but the busi­ness of writ­ing about it, in fic­tion and non­fic­tion. He makes use of a read­ing list from his some­times-es­o­teric library to make and flesh out his points about how his­to­ri­ans can bring their sub­jects to life by em­ploy­ing nov­el­is­tic de­vices and how novelists are ir­re­sistibly drawn to the pages of his­tory to in­spire and en­hance their works of imag­i­na­tion.

Bram’s book is the lat­est trea­tise on writ­ing in what its edi­tor, Charles Bax­ter of Gray­wolf Press, has called “The Art of” series. Other ti­tles in­clude The Art of Time in Mem­oir: Then, Again by Sven Birk­erts; The Art of Syn­tax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song, by Ellen Bryant Voigt; and The Art of Sub­text: Be­yond Plot ,by Bax­ter him­self.

Bram has writ­ten nine nov­els and a cou­ple of non­fic­tion books. His best-known work, a his­tor­i­cal novel about the ec­cen­tric film di­rec­tor James Whale (Franken­stein, Bride of Franken­stein, Show­boat) was

Fa­ther of Franken­stein, but it was reis­sued as Gods and Mon­sters when the movie based on the book was re­leased bear­ing that ti­tle.

A good deal of Bram’s ex­plo­ration of the art of his­tor­i­cal writ­ing, fact and fic­tion, is de­voted to anal­y­sis and of­ten lengthy syn­op­siz­ing of his cho­sen ex­am­ples, some fa­mil­iar, some (at least to me) not. His fa­vorite is prob­a­bly Tol­stoy’s War

and Peace, which he browses hap­pily for pages and re­turns to of­ten. An­other is Giuseppe To­masi di Lampe­dusa’s The Leop­ard. Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez gets plenty of space as well, with Love in the Time of Cholera earn­ing Bram’s nod over One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude as “a more ma­ture, wiser, stronger novel.”

He’s not shy about crit­i­ciz­ing books that have en­joyed crit­i­cal and pop­u­lar suc­cess. For Bram, Hi­lary Man­tel fails with Wolf Hall, which he de­scribes as hav­ing “a bril­liant, woozy, Joycean sur­face of ro­bust prose, but the novel of­ten feels like it’s all lob­ster may­on­naise and no lob­ster.” Brother Wil­liam of Baskerville, the name of Um­berto Eco’s de­tec­tive in his best­seller The Name of the Rose, “is meant to be funny, and maybe it is, but in the leaden man­ner of jokes from an old-school phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor.” Of The Killer An­gels, Michael Shaara’s nov­el­is­tic recre­ation of the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg, he com­plains that “the good di­a­logue is out of a John Ford western, but there’s much bad ex­pos­i­tory di­a­logue.”

But he takes us on ex­ten­sive ex­pe­di­tions through some won­der­ful works of his­tory and his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, like Gore Vidal’s Burr, while point­ing out that many of the ear­li­est nov­els “in­clude bi­ogra­phies and au­to­bi­ogra­phies of imag­i­nary peo­ple: Robin­son Cru­soe, Moll Flan­ders, Tom Jones, and Tristram Shandy.”

One of the great at­trac­tions of writ­ing nov­els rooted in his­tory is the dis­cov­ery of the un­ex­pected. Re­search can take the writer down some strange and won­der­ful paths. The novelist pok­ing around in the court of Louis XIV, prowl­ing the nar­row streets of Paris in the ’20s, or sift­ing through Charles Dick­ens’ Amer­i­can Notes or the ob­ser­va­tions of the Trol­lope fam­ily, mère et

fils, on the va­garies of 19th-cen­tury Amer­ica can find him or her­self pulled ir­re­sistibly into en­tire sub­plots and new char­ac­ter di­rec­tions. Bram wisely ob­serves that in deal­ing with th­ese se­duc­tive ar­eas of re­search, whether in fic­tion or non­fic­tion, “writ­ing well means know­ing what to leave out.”

An­other thing about writ­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion: You get to bend the facts a lit­tle, if it suits your pur­poses. The novelist, play­ing God, can choose to al­low a his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter a few ex­tra years be­yond his ex­pi­ra­tion date. All things be­ing equal, the writer tries to hew to the ac­tual record, but when the cir­cum­stances de­mand it, the tune can be al­tered to suit the dance. Bram men­tions Wil­liam Sty­ron’s 1967 best­seller, The Con­fes­sions of Nat Turner, about the leader of a bloody slave re­volt in Vir­ginia in 1831: “[Sty­ron] later dis­cussed in an es­say the lib­er­ties he took with the his­tor­i­cal record.”

Some­times the hardest part, whether the mat­ter at hand is his­tory or his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, is know­ing where to put the fi­nal pe­riod, “be­cause his­tory doesn’t stop,” Bram ob­serves. “It keeps hap­pen­ing.”

De­spite a weak­ness for drawn-out de­scrip­tions of plots and his­to­ries, Bram de­liv­ers some di­gestible and of­ten tasty ob­ser­va­tions on the art and chal­lenges of writ­ing in and around his­tory. His “Books Re­ferred to and Rec­om­mended” ap­pen­dix of­fers an in­trigu­ing in­vi­ta­tion to fur­ther read­ing, and many more ti­tles are scat­tered through­out his trea­tise. His own writ­ing is equal to the task at hand, of­ten en­ter­tain­ing, some­times in­sight­ful, oc­ca­sion­ally a lit­tle cava­lier with gram­mar (“I think Amer­i­cans are do­ing pretty good if we know the past three hun­dred years . ... ”). We can prob­a­bly for­give the hy­per­bole of the jacket blurb from Tony Kush­ner call­ing Bram “one of the best novelists writ­ing in the world to­day,” an en­comium that sug­gests the play­wright must be a good friend. The Kirkus re­view of the jewel in the au­thor’s crown, Fa­ther of Franken­stein, ends by de­scrib­ing it as “a lum­ber­ing, tooth­less mon­ster.” Crit­ics. — Jonathan Richards

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