In Other Words
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