History and the Contemporary Novel

History and the Contemporary Novel

History and the Contemporary Novel

History and the Contemporary Novel

Synopsis

Cowart presents a study of international historical fiction since World War II, with reflections on the affinities between historical and fictional narrative, analysis of the basic modes of historical fiction, and readings of a number of historical novels, including John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa's The Leopard, D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel, William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses, and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

He proposes recognizing four modes of the historical novel: the past as a "distant mirror" of the present, fictions whose authors seek to pinpoint the precise historical moment when the modern age or some prominent feature of it came into existence, fictions whose authors aspire purely or largely to historical verisimilitude, and fictions whose authors reverse history to contemplate utopia and dystopia in the future. Thus, historical fiction can be organized under the rubrics: The Distant Mirror; The Turning Point; The Way It Was; and The Way It Will Be.

This fourfold schema and his focus on postwar novels set Cowart's work apart from previous studies, which have not devoted adequate space to the contemporary historical novel. Cowart argues that postwar historical fiction merits more extensive treatment because it is the product of an age unique in the annals of history- an age in which history itself may end.

Excerpt

The historical novel, like the genus Chrysanthemum, exists in a wide variety of forms, from the weedlike Sweet Savage Love (1974) to the highly cultivated War and Peace (1863- 1869). Prismlike as well, it generates the entire spectrum of critical hues, from the contempt of Henry James to the qualified admiration of Georg Lukács. Indeed, as the critics wax more or less respectful, the historical novel itself proves subject to history. But the increasing prominence of historical themes in current fiction suggests that the novel's perennial valence for history has acquired new strength in recent years. Produced by writers sensitive to the lateness of the historical hour and capable of exploiting technical innovations in the novel, this new historical fiction seems to differ from that of calmer times. A sense of urgency -- sometimes even an air of desperation -- pervades the historical novel since mid-century, for its author probes the past to account for a present that grows increasingly chaotic. To gauge the significance of this development, one must consider the claims of both art and history to insight into the past. In doing so, one finds the past often less accessible to history than to historical fiction.

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