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MONIKA FLUDERNIK


History and metafiction

Experientiality, causality, and myth





































Originalbeitrag erschienen in:
Bernd Engler (Hrsg.): Historiographic metafiction in modern American and Canadian literature.
Paderborn [u.a.]: Schningh, 1994, S. [81] - 101
MONIKA FLUDERNIK
History and Metafiction:
Experientiality, Causality, and Myth
Historical Metafiction at first sight appears to be a contradiction in terms. History
is supposed to refer to the Real, fiction to the Imaginary; and metafiction signify-
ing the self-reflexive strain, the postmodernist mode of writing, in turn suggests
playful invention and rampant irreferentality and therefore seems to conflict with
the realist connotations of the histori(ographOcal. All the same, in recent critical
work a connection has repeatedly been drawn between historical and fictional
modes of writing, proposing by way of argument that history is nothing but a
fiction with no immediate claims to a representation of the Real.' "Thus historians
can write only by combining within their practice the 'other' that moves and
misleads them and the real that they can represent only through fiction.' This
argument has been supported by reference to fictional techniques which are
observably employed in historiography. Histories, particularly those composed in
the nineteenth century, not only concentrate on major political figures and their
motives, decisions and personal weaknesses, they additionally use invented
dialogues, free indirect discourse and sometimes even interior monologue, re-
shuffle the chronology for artistic effect3 and cast their narratives into recognizable
The supposed factuality of history is presented as a mimetic reality-effect, an illusion of the Real,
by Roland Barthes, among others; Roland Barthes, "Le discours de l'histoire," Poitique, 49 (1982),
15-21. The fictionality of historical writing has been propounded forcefully in the following works:
Paul Veyne, Comment on icrit l'histoire (Paris, 1971); most of the essays in Geschichte Ereignis
Erzahlung, ed. Reinhart Koselleck and Wolf-Dieter Stempel (Munich, 1973); Michel de Certeau, The
Writing of History (New York, 1988, 1 1975); Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural
Criticism (Baltimore, 1978); Robert F. Berkhofer, "The Challenge of Poetics to (Normal) Historical
Practice," Poetics Today, 9/2 (1988), 435-452. The revolutionary insights of Droysen are noted in
Lionel Gossman, "History and Literature: Reproduction or Signification," The Writing of History:
Literary Forms and Historical Understanding, ed. Robert H. Canary and Henry Kozicki (Madison, WI,
1978), 3-39.
2 de Certeau, The Writing of History, 14.
3 See, e.g., the excellent study by Ann Rigney, The Rhetoric of Historical Representation: Three
Narrative Histories of the French Revolution (Cambridge, 1990), as well as her earlier "Du recit histo-
rique: La prise de la Bastille selon Michelet (1847)," Poitique, 75 (Sept. 1988), 267-278. More recent-
ly, Philippe Carrard has undertaken to examine the workings of Annales school historiography in
Poetics of the New History: French Historical Discourse from Braudel to Chartier (Baltimore, 1992).
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Monika Fludernik
generic modes of literary origin: satire, tragedy or comedy.' Another argument that
is frequently adduced in support of the 'fictionality thesis' is the reference to the
constructedness of both fictional and historical discourse. Whereas the story is
pure invention in the case of literature, in history data may have a basis in a
reality beyond the text but are nevertheless constructed entities since the flow of
events, of happenings (Geschehen), cannot be partitioned off into historical data
without a prior conceptualization, necessarily eliminating, restructuring and recon-
stituting events in order to transform them into historical data. 5 Historical data
become significant only once they acquire a position in a chain of sequentiality
or a chain of argument, such that a causal or at least contributory function can be
assigned to them. The teleology of historical writing, indeed, is generally acknowl-
edged to be an imposition by the historian. 6
Nevertheless, it seems to me, one can exaggerate the fictionality of historiog-
raphy, failing to observe the very important differences between historical and
fictional writing, "For our understanding of fiction needs the contrast with history
as much as our understanding of history needs the contrast with fiction."' These
differences, I should hasten to add, do not primarily derive from the textual
surface of such writing. On the contrary, the thesis of history's entirely fictional
nature has come precisely from critics interested in the linguistic make-up of
historical writing, and the fictionality markers which they have disclosed in the
discourse of historiography do indeed bespeak a heavy reliance on literary devices
and techniques.' It is also true that, in so far as historians are telling a story (and
not all historians do these days), they are attempting to achieve storytelling effects
which are comparable to those of literary fiction. It is for these reasons that
history can so easily be read as literature and vice versa.
The distinctions which one needs to draw between history and fiction are to be
situated not on the textual plane (at least not necessarily so) but on the levels of
production and reception. They include the historical piecing together of what
must have happened from a frequently daunting amount of so-called historical
evidence: witnesses' reports, archival registers and documents, previous historical
4 See Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse.
5 See Paul Veyne's enlightening remarks on the constructedness of historical data or facts: S..]
les 'faits' n'existent pas a l'etat isole: l'historien les trouve tout organises en ensembles oil ils jouent
le role de causes, fins, occasions, hasards, pretextes, etc." Comment on kilt l'histoire, 45.
6 See Veyne, ibid., and de Certeau's incisive discussion of the very fictional effect of historical
reliability which is the consequence of history's narrativization: "It [i.e. the inherent metaphorical
slippage of historical discourse in its narrativized shape] carries causality off in the direction of
successivity (post hoc, ergo propter hoc). It takes relations of coexistence as coherence, and so forth.
The likelihood of statements is constantly substituted for their verifiability. Whence the authority which
historical discourse needs in order to uphold itself: what it loses in rigor must be compensated for by
an increase in reliability." The Writing of History, 93-94.
7 Louis 0. Mink, "Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument," The Writing of History, 148f.
8 In particular see the work of Anne Rigney and F.R. Ankersmit, Narrative Logic: A Semantic
Analysis of the Historian's Language (The Hague, 1983).
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presentations, archaeological and biological evidence.' The first job of the
historian is therefore one that bears an uncanny resemblance to the puzzle game
in which a reader of the typical (post)modernist grand narrative has to engage
when trying to resurrect a simple chronology, a connection between events, an
interpretation of motivation and causality from what at first appears to be an
opaque chaotic mass of unrelated details in textualized shape. (I am thinking of
novels such as Proust's Recherche, Joyce's Ulysses, Cortazar's Cambio de pie!,
or Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, to name just a few obvious examples.) Once a
historian has pieced together a chronology of events and has found a logically
(and psychologically) consistent explanation for the succession and causal depend-
ency between them, these insights are then due to be retextualized in story form.
The historian's fabu/a is thus a fabula which he has in turn elicited from previous
texts and which he now textualizes into an 'ordinary' narrative (sj uzhet) by means
of the well-known discourse operations of narrativization: emplotment, teleology,
causal explication and (non-obligatorily) stylistic and aesthetic literarization
(reshuffling of the chronology, focalization, reader-oriented entertainment value,
scenic dialogues, presenting character's conciousness, humorous asides, etc.).
There are, however, additional explicit markers which quite openly constrain
interpretation in the direction of historical, i.e. referential, meanings. Thus, as both
Cohn and Genette have recently proposed, titles and author's names significantly
determine the reader's latitude of interpretation'', particularly by generic elements
in the (sub)title. Some histories, especially those of an austere academic per-
suasion, also explicitly discuss their methodology the sources used, the problems
which these presented for interpretation, the knotty question of causality, etc.
Likewise, some fictions deliberately display their fictionality (although to entirely
different effect) and they therefore intentionally undermine the realist illusion
which most fictional and historical narrative relies on.
The reader's interpretation of a text, though constrained by such textual markers,
can in many cases transform texts into a referential or fictional genre which
contradicts that of their original conception. Nineteenth-century histories frequently
no longer provide historically adequate evidence and engage in historiographically
suspect kinds of argument. Such texts can, however, be enjoyed as narrative
versions of 'proper' histories with an indeterminate claim to historical accuracy
and truth. Fictional reinterpretations of this kind occur with particular insistence
9 Cf. Veyne, Comment on icrit l'histoire, 14: "[...1 en aucun cas ce que les historiens appellent un
evenement n'est saisi directement et entierement; il l'est toujours incompltement et lateralement, a
travers des documents ou des temoignages," and Dorrit Cohn's remarks in her "Signposts of Fictionali-
ty," Poetics Today, 11/4 (1990), 775-804, esp. 781. Paul Ricoeur has likewise emphasized the deri-
vational and intertextual nature of historical writing, Time and Narrative, vol.!, transl. by Kathleen
McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago, 1984).
Compare Dorrit Cohn's "Fictional versus Historical Lives: Borderlines and Borderline Cases,"
The Journal of Narrative Technique, 19/1 (1989), 3-30, and her "Signposts of Fictionality" with Gerard
Genette's "Fictional Narrative, Factual Narrative," Poetics Today, 11/4 (1990), 744-755.
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Monika Fludernik
in those texts which employ what are now perceived to be dated explicatory
techniques, relying on perceivably nineteenth-century psychological or philo-
sophical and indeed moral persuasions. To read Macaulay as fiction is, however,
an entirely different interpretative renegotiation of a text than would be the read-
ing of (historical) novels as history, a pastime that has become increasingly
popular as the general reader finds historiographic discourse less and less 'read-
able.' The recent genres of the nonfiction novel and the new journalism" in fact
cater to exactly this kind of readership. History and fiction can therefore be argued
to share a textual narrative pattern which lends itself to reinterpretation but reposes
on entirely different writing techniques which may each implant a textual meta-
narrative trace in the discourse. Metanarrative discourse, in historical writing,
serves to underline the historiographer's cautious and circumspect treatment of
available evidence and therefore enhances the realist illusion, whereas, in the
fictional realm, the creative inventiveness of the writer is foregrounded much to
the detriment of the realist illusion.
A third argument that is reiterated in support of the fictionality of histori-
ographic discourse feeds from our experience of the actual world as a chaotic
plethora of unrelated details, which we recognize as having been pressed into the
service of ideological simplifications whose fictionality is all too apparent. In the
post-modern world, it is argued, one's worst fantasies are becoming true; in fact,
actual events exceed fictional scenarios in their grotesqueness, paradoxicality and
incomprehensibility. As Raven Quickskill says in Ishmael Reed's Flight to
Canada, "Who is to say what is fact and what is fiction?" It is this situation which
critics have postulated to be at the root of historiographic metafiction, and which
is argued to reflect the climate of the American 60s and 70s. It is therefore no
coincidence that the great historiographic metafictionists are writing precisely
during that period, producing representations of a chaotic world such as those
found in Heller' s Catch-22, Vonnegut' s Slaughterhouse-Five, Pynchon' s Gravity's
Rainbow, or in the work of Hawkes and DeLillo.
I will return to this posimodernist mode shortly, paying particular attention to
the range of historical models used and to the cross-fertilization between the new
history of the mentalites and private life schools on the one hand and the concerns
of the novel (traditional and postmodern) on the other. For the moment I would
like to briefly clarify some aspects and indeed subcategories of the conceptions
of 'history' as well as present a discussion of the concepts of narrativity and
causality. In the course of this argument I will maintain that fictional narrativity
is based on the quality of narrative experience (experientiality), and will suggest
that historical writing lacks experientiality and hence narrativity. I will then return
to historiographic metafictioiind analyze some of its most prominent features as
"For these genres see John Hollowell, Fact and Fiction: The New Journalism and the Nonfiction
Novel (Chapel Hill, NC, 1977) and Barbara Foley, Telling the Truth: The Theory and Practice of
Documentary Fiction (Ithaca, NY, 1986).
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85
they relate to the models of historical discourse types, paying particular attention
to the parodic reinstatement of the mythic prototype of historiography in some
contemporary novels. I will conclude this essay with what I believe to be one of
the most fascinating historiographic fictions of recent times, George Garett's The
Succession (1989), casting a surreptitious eye across the Atlantic to briefly include
Adam Thorpe's Ulverton (1992) in the discussion. I will suggest that the term his-
toriographic metafiction has to be limited in its application, since one now finds
too many very different works classed in the category. Indeed, one can argue that
an entirely new genre has been born from a confluence of fabulation, Latin-Amer-
ican magic realism, the metafictional genre, the nonfiction novel and autobio-
graphical new journalism, a new genre that has allowed itself to accommodate a
new historical mythology' 2 and also subscribes to metafictional writing techniques.
I. What is History? Causality and the Everyday Concept of Historical
Explanation
In contemporary criticism the concept of the historical has come to be defined
largely in terms of the referential or the institutional. History appears to be that
which we reconstruct to have happened in the past, and the reconstruction of such
a chain of events is undertaken in accordance with firm institutional guidelines
designed to ensure a maximum of objectivity. Such an account of current his-
torical practice frequently leaves out of sight the earlier causal preoccupations of
the historical profession those, that is, starting with Hempel" according to
which the sequence of historical events should be explained on the basis of
generally valid historical rules. That such rules have never been unearthed is by
now a critical commonplace, and the bankruptcy of empirical historiography can
nowhere be recognized more thoroughly than in the disappearance of the age-old
question of historical cause and effect. Not even the statistical method has
managed to document a sufficient number of recurrent statistical tendencies to
vouchsafe for causal explanatory models. Even more than sociology, the subject
matter of history has resisted the attempt at empirical explanatory analysis,
remaining fmally trapped in singular events and their motivated but not rule-
governed successivity.' 4
Historical enquiry of the Annales school type has tended to somewhat blur this
basic failure of historical science as an empirical discipline by shifting the empha-
12 "History is probabally our myth. It combines what can be thought, the 'thinkable,' and the
origin, in conformity with the way in which a society can understand its own working." de Certeau,
The Writing of History, 21.
13 Karl Hempel, "The Function of General Laws of History," The Journal of Philosophy, 39 (1942),
35-48. On the covering-law model see also Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, 121-143.
14
Compare the earlier passage from de Certeau quoted in fn. 5. Veyne, Comment on ecrit Phis-
wire,
is quite frank about this, noting the specificity (if not singularity) of historical events (73-75) and
the "sublunar" kind of causality operative in historical argument (176-209, esp. 178f.).
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sis away from historical events and major protagonists in the political realm to the
questions of long-term historical developments as they emerge from the geograph-
ical, climatological, institutional and ideological realms, resulting in the famous
histoire de mentalites and the history of the longue duree. Such reorientations
towards the complex entities of natural and man-made forces shift the focus from
historical events, which seemed to be more immediately determined by human
agency, to processes and developments whose historical development quite
obviously cannot be explained on the basis of concerted human action. Such an
enquiry therefore backgrounds the question of causality in the actantial sense and
instead appears to allow for a causal model that is closer to that of the natural
sciences. However, as should have been clear from the start, empirically valid
causality cannot be postulated in this realm, either. In fact, the processes of
economic development or of shifting beliefs among people resist causal determina-
tion even more forcefully than do the historiopolitical 'events' of traditional his-
tory. Historiography never manages to explain in an empirical fashion why certain
events took place or why institutions developed into new directions, although
historians are able to provide very good possible reasons (i.e. plausible reasons)
and a plethora of contingencies which all apparently contributed to pushing a
certain constellation of circumstances into one direction rather than another.
Historians who are frank about their discipline will probably argue that their aim
is to collect as much information about synchronic states and to develop theses
about which of the changes occurring in such states may have resulted in more
complex historical shifts. The model for such explanatory theses is not that of an
empirical science in which unchangeable laws can be observed to apply, laws
which can be tested since they recur in determinable environments; explanations
in history after all remain conjectures, but conjectures that are supported by a
mass of detail. Even this limited causal pattern, one needs to note, is not a real
cause and effect argument. In fact, as far as the explanation of historical data
goes, history deals in the accumulation and combination of contingencies which
happen to result in certain changes and developments!' Contingency and chance,
which are such crucial factors also in fictional plots, cannot be eliminated from
history (and only imperfectly suppressed in historiographic discourse) precisely
because historical destiny (a fictional strategy in some kinds of traditional
histories16) is no longer admissible as a last-ditch resource. Historical laws, such
as they emerge in historical writing, are very much post-factum rationalizations
based on common sense (not to say commonplace) insights into human nature:
power will be abused; boys will be boys."
15 On contingency see esp. Ricoeur in Time and Narrative, 96f.
16 That the nineteenth-century discourse of historical destiny and of impeccable objectivity owes
no slight debt to the omniscient narrator convention of nineteenth-century novelistic discourse and its
invocation of reliability is noted in Gossman's excellent "History and Literature," 24.
17 Such truisms can fruitfully be compared to novelistic 'rules of life' such as the ones studied by
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87
A second crucial aspect of historical writing concerns the necessarily retrodictive
character of historical explanation' and the intrinsic exposure of the historical past
to the reconceptualizations of recent and present-day shifts in interest, ideology
and mentalities. Hence the recurring need to re-evaluate historical knowledge in
the light of present-day developments. The continual rewriting of history therefore
not only reinterprets the significance of historical events for present-day concerns
but also helps to explain present circumstances as resulting from a series of non-
teleological developments. Teleology, in fact, is what we obtrude on the historical
evidence on the basis of our informed hindsight of how things happened to turn
out. Causality as it surfaces in historiography therefore frequently reposes on the
folk model of historical explanation rather than the scientific notion of causality,
even though few historians would confess to these 'low' origins.
The folk model of historical explanation can best be illustrated from everyday
usage:
"Why are there German-speaking communities in Minnesota?"
Answer: "Because of large-scale immigration."
"Why was there large-scale emigration?"
"Because people went into exile for economic and religious reasons."
"Why did people emigrate for religious reasons."
"Because of the Counter-Reformation."
One immediately notices how this series of apparent cause and effect arguments
allows itself to be extended indefinitely, leading from the Counter-Reformation to
the Reformation and back to the abuses within the Catholic Church (in so far as
these are perceived to have triggered the Reformation), from there back through
the history of State/Church relations (the Investiture conflict) to the origins of the
Christian State religion and the origins of Christianity and the origins of these
origins. The term "origin" is of course fully appropriate in this connection and
should replace cause and effect patterns. If somebody says, "This can be explained
from history,"2 the implication is that there is precisely such a chain of develop-
Michael Riffaterre in his Fictional Truth (Baltimore, 1990).
18 Veyne, Comment on icrit l'histoire, 176-209. See also von Wright's remarks quoted in Jean-Luc
Petit's "La narrativiti et le concept de l'explication en histoire," La Narrativite, ed. Dorian Tiffeneau
(Paris, 1980), 193 and 199. Compare as well the quotation from Droysen in Hans-Robert Jauss,
"Geschichte der Kunst und Historic," Geschichte Ereignis Erzahlung, 189: "Das, was war, interes-
siert uns nicht darum, weil es war, sondern weil es in gewisseth Sinn noch ist, indem es noch wirkt,
weil es in dem ganzen Zusammenhang der Dinge steht, welche wir die geschichtliche, d.h. sittliche
Welt, den sittlichen Kosmos nennen."
19 See de Certeau, The Writing of History, 23: S..] any reading of the past however much it is
controlled by the analysis of documents is driven by a reading of current events." Compare also de
Certeau's distinction between "the 'meaning' which has become an object, and the 'meaning' which
today allows it to be understood as such" (34) a distinction which reflects that between meaning (as
denotation) and significance.
2
The folk theory of historical explanation under the catch phrase "Das kann man nur historisch
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Monika Fludernik
ments which are bound together by a narrative logic of motivated sequentiality
and in which coincidence plays a crucial role, as it does in the Realist novel.
History does not prove any necessary sequences of events, but once events have
occurred one can usually trace them through a series of stages which have suc-
ceeded chronologically and therefore contributed to the present net effect. 21
In this respect historical explanation indeed resembles fictional narrative which
traces largely coincidental developments to their fmal resolution. 22 Unlike history,
however, fictional narrative can afford to start with a clean slate, usually the birth
of the protagonist, and its fascination may derive in part from the entirely unreal-
istic promise of eventual resolution of the plot. Such (artificial) end points where
discordant elements are harmonized do not occur in real life which continues un-
abated with no mental resting place or resolution point in sight. That nineteenth-
century histories attempted to provide master narratives to make human life mean-
ingful in no way proves that history as a real-life entity is like that at all. History
in its nineteenth-century manifestations indeed, like art, attempted to fill the
vacuum of meaning left gaping by the loss of theologically validated meaning, and
the construction of historical explanation has resulted in precisely the kind of
paranoia vs. chaos scenario that one finds in so many metafictional texts from
Pynchon to DeLillo and Coover.
Liibbe's examination of the folk theory of historical explanations relies on the
existence of perceivable irregularity, of present-day phenomena which require a
reference to a (retrospective) series of developments which happened to result in
their synchronic oddity. The example of the German-speaking population in
Minnesota illustrates just such a synchronic difference which history naturalizes
by an account of a diachronic series of developmental stages. 23 In truly para-
doxical fashion, that which only can be explained historically is precisely some-
thing that resists explanation in the first place 24 because it cannot be referred to
a meaning (Sinn) or causal necessity (Gesetzmafligkeit) but merely to a series of
coincidences. Ltibbe here concurs with Paul Veyne's illuminating remarks on the
fundamental utterance of the historian: "That's interesting." 25 However, Veyne also
erklaren" has been the subject of two stimulating papers by Hermann Liibbe, "Was heiBt: 'Das kann
man nur historisch erklaren," Geschichte Ereignis Erzahlung, 542-554, and "Wieso es keine
Theorie der Geschichte gibt," Theorie und Erzahlung in der Geschichte, ed. Jiirgen Kocka and Thomas
Nipperday (Munich, 1979), 65-84.
21 This folk model of historical explanation, however, needs to be kept separate from the discourse
of historiography which negates such a loose 'one thing after another' approach, attempting in proper
scholarly fashion to test a number of hypotheses about the distribution and extent of determining
factors.
22 As Gossman, "History and Literature," 8-10, points out, Aristotle defined history precisely in
terms of contiguity and made this to be one of his criteria for the superiority of (unified) poetry over
(patchwork) history.
23 Compare especially Liibbe, "Was heiBt," 544f.
24 Ibid., 544.
25 See Veyne, Comment on icrit l'histoire, 63-65.
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89
gives their due to the historical documents and to the sifting and weighing of
evidence, whereas Liibbe tries to raise the folk model of 'That can only be ex-
plained historically' to the one and only theoretical model. Present-day singulari-
ties may of course alert the historian to interesting outcomes of historical pro-
cesses, but no historian resolves such oddities by reference to a loose series of
contingencies per se but will necessarily ask a number of much more complex
questions. Instead of following the presence of Germans in Minnesota in the naive
and sweeping manner of folk theory, the historian will outline precisely when
what specific groups of Germans crossed the Atlantic, from what social and reli-
gious backgrounds they came, who moved and who stayed at home, where they
tended to settle in North America, etc. A historian would therefore tend to produce
a history of German emigration rather than a concatenation of (very suspect)
causal stages in a series of explanatory steps.
From the previous remarks I would like to draw the following conclusions.
History, like fiction, operates by means of emplotment and is based not on
empirical cause-and-effect causality but on motivated sequentiality, with a super-
added level of teleological significance which is (in the case of historiography)
explanatory of an eventually known, and (in the case of fiction) aesthetically or
morally-philosophically motivated, outcome. History and fiction are, however,
entirely different in their conceptual make-up. History relies on the validation of
historical evidence, which interacts with the argumentative presentation of
explanatory theses. Fiction, on the other hand, concentrates on individual human
experience even if that experience is viewed from the perspective of a general,
philosophical vantage point and constitutes an analysis of the human predicament.
Ricoeur says in reference to historical temporality: "[the epistemological status of
historical time] appears to have no direct connection to the tim_e_of the memory,
expectation, and _circumspection of individual agents. It no longer seems to refer
to the living present of a subjective consciousness."26 History and fiction therefore
both concern themselves with the tensions between an actual vs. an imagined past,
but they also interpret human experience from complementary points of view, with
history describing human interaction on a transindividual plane (reaching into the
realms of the institutional and economic) and fiction depicting the typically human
on the basis of an individual's transpersonal relations. Fiction is therefore tradi-
tionally much closer to evoking for the reader the experience of being in the
world, whereas history, even in the life of kings and statesmen, has to concentrate
on the larger context of processes affecting entire classes and populations27 and
therefore treats only secondarily of individuals. What I am trying to suggest is that
there is a necessary functional difference between the fictional and the historical
mode, but that this difference cannot be resolved in terms of the traditional dichot-
26 Time and Narrative, 177.
' Compare Cohn's initial statement that history usually deals with a plural subject. "Fictional
versus Historical Lives," 3.
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Monika Fludernik
omy between the Real and the Imaginary. Recent accounts of the 'fictionality' of
historical writing have been correct in pointing out that historiography, like fiction,
creates an imaginative narrative, configures a plot and does not directly represent
a historical given which would pre-exist the historical discourse as a categorizable
entity without always already owing its conceptualization to a prior historiographic
discourse, if only that of the witness report. But all this means is that the Real
cannot be grasped on the historical plane, just as it certainly cannot be grasped in
physics without the intermediary discourse of theoretical models describing and
thereby constituting the Real even in the present.
If therefore the story of "what happened" disappears from scientific history (in order, in contrast,
to appear in popular history), or if the narrative of facts takes on the allure of a "fiction" belonging
to a given type of discourse, we cannot conclude that the reference to the real is obliterated. This
reference has instead been somewhat displaced. It is no longer immediately given by narrated or "re-
constituted" objects. It is implied by the creation of "models" (destined to make objects "thinkable")
proportioned to practices through their confrontation with what resists them, limits them, and makes
appeal to other models; finally, through the clarification of what has made this activity possible, by
inserting it within a particular (or historical) economy of social production. 28
The fabricatedness of historical narrative in no way elides the existence of a Real
even if it fails to circumscribe it, or sketches it only imperfectly.
Perhaps, too, by holding to the idea of discogrse and to its fabrication, we can better apprehend the
nature of the relations that it holds with its other, the real. In this fashion, doesn't language not so
much implicate the status of the reality of which it speaks, as posit it as that which is other than
itself?"
Both history and fiction therefore need to employ an illusionist discourse which
pretends to refer to the Real, but that real is a historically specific real in the case
of history and an imaginary singular of ideal truth in fictional writing. It is
because fiction attempts to propose that which has always been true about the
human predicament that it chooses the example of individual experience to make
its case. Fiction therefore needs to cohere with our understanding of human nature
and only secondarily with our historical knowledge. Historical writing, on the
other hand, is not only made up of prior writings and evidence, it also needs to
cohere with these writings and project a continuum, a flow of events and an inter-
active contiguity with other known historical subjects. 3 History therefore needs
to be consistent externally as well as internally, and it is precisely this contiguity
with other historical accounts that allows for the falsification of historical
explanations.
I may have seemed to suggest that history and fiction are radically and incom-
mensurably different from each other. That the above basic dichotomy is not an
2' De Certeau, The Writing of History, 43.
" Ibid., 21.
3 Cf., for instance, Berldiofer, "The Challenge," 439-441.
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91
absolute, however, should require no insistence on my part. Like Barb= Foley,
I would like to insist that the reader keeps utilizing prior conceptions of the
historical and the fictional which initially appear to be irreconcilable attitudes
towards the authenticity of a specific text. 31 The historical novel and the (histori-
cal) biography, however, need to be situated precisely in the intermediate realm
between history and fiction, and historiographic metafiction, in its turn, exploits
this very generic indeterminacy, allowing for the ironic (ab)use of, and the self-
reflexive play with, factual parameters. 32 Like the historical novel, which claims
to be coextensive with historiographic presentations of a specific period, meta-
fictional texts may adopt the very shape of historical genres, choosing to write
personal histories of current events (the nonfiction novel, the new journalism) or
inventing the memoirs of a historical figure." In this respect, fiction starts to adopt
the present-thy concerns of the mentalites school, reproducing on an entirely
fictional level what historians like Le Roy Ladurie performed for medieval com-
munities such as Montaillou. 34
H. The Novel and History
At this point we may well ask what the relation between the novel and history has
been within the fictional text itself. The mere fact that the novel has traditionally
taken history as one of its most favorite themes illustrates that after the initial
period of differentiation between the two genres in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries" novels and histories have after all remained different genres even if
they cross-fertilized one another. As regards the beginnings of the novel, suffice
it to note how crucial was the importance of the autobiography in the early
struggle for the truth claim of fiction. And it is no coincidence that (auto)biogra-
phy is precisely that subgenre of history which most closely resembles the
experientiality of narrative presentation. After this initial period, history shows up
in the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century novel primarily in two
disguises in the subgenre of the historical novel, and in the general referential
factor within the narrative text.
' Foley, Telling the Truth, 36f.
32 See ibid., 107-112, where Foley first retracts her earlier either-or position.
" Joseph W. Turner, "The Kinds of Historical Fiction: An Essay in Definition and Methodology,"
Genre, 12 (1979), 335.
34 See Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294 -
1324, transl. by Barbara Bray (Harmondsworth, 1981).
"See, especially the ground-breaking study of Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel,
1600-1740 (Baltimore, 1987). As regards the late medieval and early sixteenth-century periods, the epic
and the romance were opposed to the history and the vita, but the crucial concepts of historical
evidence, even if only on the basis of personal witness reports, did not bring about the functional
differentiation that began to emerge in the second half of the sixteenth century. See also Lennard J.
Davis's Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel (New York, 1983).
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Monika Fludernik
To start with the latter, all fiction, particularly of the nineteenth century, situates
itself in the realm of real geography and real history with very few utopian
exceptions. Even the most fabulous romances such as Hawthorne's The Marble
Faun or, earlier, Charles Brockden Brown's tale of Edgar Huntly's adventures in
the American wilds at least pretend to a realistically conceived location of their
unbelievable and fantastic plots. To choose a fictional location in the dim past is
always at the same time to invoke historical knowledge, even if that knowledge
may be of the vaguest. Such history as a background may be of a variety of
shapes and may reach well into the recent past, a topic that is in fact thematized
in many Victorian novels, for instance in George Eliot's Mill on the Floss.'
The so-called historical novel therefore constitutes only an intensification of
such hybridization of real and fictional reference within the ordinary run-of-the-
mill tale of the nineteenth century. As Scott's work demonstrates very forcefully,
the distinctions between the historical novel on the one hand and the romance or
tale of contemporary life on the other are fluid in the extreme. Historical reference
in the historical novel appears to be a matter of proportion: emphasis on the real
historical events with secondary emphasis on the merely fictional protagonists,
pastness or remoteness from the audience's geographical and temporal location.
Much of the concept of the historical novel remains a matter of taste or expedien-
cy. War and Peace is much less of a historical novel than Thornton Wilder's The
Ides of March, and George Eliot's Romola much less so than Yourcenar's
Memoirs of Hadrian. 37
Present-day historiographic metafiction therefore cannot be fruitfully opposed
to a unified, generically discrete concept of the historical novel except with regard
to form, and that only in the sense that twentieth-century self-styled historical
novels usually imitate the realist novel (and therefore also the nineteenth-century
historical novel) as well as complying with a definition of the historical-real that
has become outmoded in both professional historiography and progressive fiction.
If postmodernist works of fiction as well as the non-fiction novel therefore 'feel'
different from our prototypical concept of the historial novel, this is because
historical 'reality' itself is now conceived of as fantastic and chaotic and because
the writing styles employed in postmodernist writing deliberately mirror this pre-
dicament of general disorientation. Thus Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow includes
'snatches' from the 'history' of World War II which are very specific, yet closer
to the history of private life than to the traditional schoolbook history texts pur-
36 There are numerous references in Mill to the good old times as well as to a village chronicle
with the town's legend of the Holy Virgin appearing to St. Ogg. Compare my "Subversive Irony:
Reflectorization, Trustworthy Narration and Dead-Pan Narrative in Mill on the Floss," REAL, 8 (1991-
1992), 164 fn. 15, and 168.
37 The definition of the historical novel is taken for granted in many studies, a failing pointed out
persuasively by Turner, "The Kinds of Historical Fiction," who proposes instead three types of histori-
cal novel based on the texts' relation to documentary evidence.
History and Metafiction

93
porting to deal with our recent past. Whereas, in the classic type of the historical
novel, political events and major political figures were responsible for the historic-
ity or authenticity index of these writings, postmodernist fiction has already been
informed by the most recent developments in historiography. It is therefore not
really fruitful to exclude such metafictional novels from the genre of the historical
novel since their departure from nineteenth-century models is due to a reconceptu-
alization of the historical and of historiography as much as to a difference in
fictional styles and techniques. Historiographic metafiction, from this perspective,
appears to be simply the updated late-twentieth-century version of precisely the
same genre (the historical novel) which has meanwhile adapted to twentieth-
century conceptualizations of the novel and of the historical.
Many recent developments in fictional writing, even if they are not proclaimed
to be "historiographic," nevertheless reproduce or re-enact new forms of histori-
ography. The history of private life, for instance, as a genre seems to converge
easily with writing strategies observable in minority literature. Thus presentations
of black community life are frequently told from the inside perspective of a few
protagonists who help the non-black reader to empathize with black attitudes, to
submerge herself within a culture that initially seemed foreign and therefore
incomprehensible. Such presentations of black community life very closely
resemble the techniques of historians attempting to resurrect the 'feel' of private
life in the Middle Ages, the experience of 'heretical' communities, and the like.
They are necessarily predicated on the presupposition that the subject of (hi)story
is the Other, whether in the shape of the exotic past or the present-day unknown.
A brief survey of other postmodern writings yields a similar convergence, an
interlacing of the fictional and the historical-real. Not only is real life demonstra-
bly more fantastic and grotesque than enlightenment culture would have vouched
for. Areas of what used to be called superstition, fantasy or madness are slowly
regaining recognition as historically significant phenomena whose 'reality' consists
primarily in the authenticity and presentness of these phenomena for their 'experi-
encers.' 38 Historians and fiction writers alike suspend disbelief, taking seriously
the mentalites, the illusions and prejudices of medieval or present-day witches,
faith healers, religious fanatics, and so on. In this manner historiography has in
fact repeated developments perceivable already in the great novels of this century
which have notoriously chosen to present the psyches of 'marginal' individuals
the criminal, the insane, the homeless, or 'the preterite,' as Pynchon calls them.
From the Tin Drum to Gravity's Rainbow, from Beckett's fictional personae to
38 These authentic experiences cannot, however, be treated historically as insights into the psyches
of historical subjects the interiority of experience remains irretrievable. Historiography can discuss
such experiences only in an external fashion as practices and routines and rituals, quoting internal
evidence only as the direct discourse of the Other which remains 'framed' by the naturalizing historical
discourse. See Veyne, Comment on icrit l'histoire, 212-249, on the crucial notion of praxis as
disjoined from consciousness, especially the example of human sacrifice (216).
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Monika Fludernik
Marilinne Robinson's Housekeeping, from the portrayal of communes and social
rebel groups to the depiction of the harsh reality of immigrants and guest workers'
lives, fiction has increasingly come to assert the exceptional and hitherto marginal
over and against the American or European default value of the WASP family, the
bourgeois middle-class household. That type of history is taken so much for
granted that it can now only be parodied, so that serious treatments of middle
class life appear to have retreated to the popular novel, British fiction, and TV and
film culture.
Such choices on the part of historians and novelists alike to concentrate on
ethnic identity or societal marginality and on the precariousness of human exis-
tence obviously reflect both ideological and aesthetic preoccupations if not agen-
das, and they display a quite intentional disregard for rationality and social con-
formity. The unplanned, the random, the uncanny, the paradoxical, the fabulous
as well as the irrational, otherwordly and mythic have come to replace the position
of control, objectivity and order. It is no news that the battle between these
dichotomies lies at the heart of the fiction of Pynchon or Heller, Coover or
DeLino. Indeed, the explicit rejection of the Western humanist and technological
tradition is here being carried out in fictional terms, feeding not merely from a
political 60s' culture mentality but also from the more intellectual attitudes of anti-
colonialism and anti-logocentrism. This resurrection of the fabulous, the mythic
and the occult parallels the writings of the so-called Magic realists which are
precisely of a postcolonial provenance. Rushdie' s Midnight's Children, like Pyn-
chon's scenarios, has a nightmarish quality of chaos, but this resistance to order
and rationality is more than offset by the imaginative exuberance and playfulness
of the exercise (a feature prevalent also in the Latin American novel) and by the
reinvention of the mythic.
One of the most noticeable developments in recent fiction, particularly in what
is here called historiographic metafiction, seems to be the reinvention of myth as
a viable attitude in relation to the past. With the disappearance of causality as the
ordering myth of historiography and with the demise of both causality and teleolo-
gy in the realm of fiction, mythic accounts have again taken over. These myths
are, however, of a large variety of forms and contents, although they share a
human rather than divine texture. If history is no longer experienced as a rational
process, then the competing genres of oral storytelling, of the tall tale, of family
history retailed in ever more fabulous shape, or of the accounts of otherwordly ex-
periences, seep in to replace, restructure and rewrite historical conciousness. In the
absence of accepted parameters for verification, historical 'truth' can no longer be
invoked for such accounts although their subversive force is decisively restricted
within historiography due to its institutional framing: heretics' experiences keep
being opposed to the views of their antagonists, and the realm of the purely expe-
riential (visions, religious ecstatic mystical experience) remains off limits as that
which cannot be checked against 'facts.' In historiographic metafiction, by con-
trast, myths frequently become major reading models that require operative assent
History and Metafiction

95
within the fictional world even if this suspension of disbelief is soon counteracted
by the audience's 'real world' experience. As with the more traditional fantastic,
the postmodern magic realist text requires sympathetic agreement, and that even
in quite prominently self-reflexive texts such as Midnight's Children.
Before turning to George Garrett's The Succession a perfect example of the
successful merging of historical and fictional concerns let me briefly point to
the scale of techniques employed in such mergings and inter-correlations between
'reality,' 'history' and 'fiction' as they appear in a number of historiographic
metafictions. Some of these texts concentrate on a major historical (i.e. 'real')
event and relate it by means of fictional techniques. This is the case of the non-
fiction novel, for instance Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, or of the various
accounts of the Rosenberg case (Doctorow's The Book of Daniel, Coover's The
Public Burning, Evanier's Red Love). Fictionalizing techniques here include not
only the inevitably fictional insight into the psyche of the various protagonists, and
the replacement of protagonists' names (thereby creating a kind of roman a clef),"
but also the fictional prerogative of invention (of minor characters, of events and
scenes, and of course of protagonists' dialogue, memories and thoughts) and of
the selection, rearrangement and "falsification" of the historical evidence. Other
postmodernist novels merely include historiographic episodes (Doctorow's Rag
Time), and these may be fantastically distorted as well (Cohen's Beautiful Losers
or Reed's Flight to Canada). Others are "historical" only in the sense that they
lend themselves to being read as an implicit presentation of current historical
events even though, literally, they do not refer to present-day concerns (Heller's
Catch-22 or Mailer's Why are we in Vietnam?). Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five,
like Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, presents historical events from the perspective
of individual experience, and therefore resembles a view of history close to that
propounded in people's stories about their wartime experiences (e.g. in oral history
collections such as Studs Terkel's The Good War). One may come across a wide
spectrum of such alternative 'handlings' of history, from more historiographical
or at least biographical novels all the way to texts which merely play with the
presence of historical characters and situations, and to reflections on historical and
mythical knowledge with little 'real' historical background.
I will now turn to George Garrett's The Succession (1983) as an instance of the
use of metafictional techniques in the service of the fullest possible evocation of
historical circumstances, and at the same time as an example of a post-
modernist novel of indeterminacy in which its historical chronology superficially
helps to anchor some of the disparate events within an order of sorts. In fact, as
I will argue, Garrett's text can be regarded as indicative of a new historical
consciousness within the realm of fiction, a model for a new historical novel
which reflects more recent theoretical interest in the past for its own sake. 4 '
39
Cf. Turner's category of the "disguised historical novel." "The Kinds of Historical Fiction."
' Cf. Turner, ibid.
41
The allusion is to the New Historicism and to cultural criticism in its analysis of sixteenth
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Monika Fludernik
III.The Succession: A Novel of Elizabeth and James: History as Fiction
and Fiction as History
George Garrett's two novels The Death of the Fox (1971) and The Succession
(1983) combine fictional techniques and historical or historiographical preoccupa-
tions in a manner that initially appears to be very different from that of the
historiographic metafictionalists. Whereas Pynchon and others emphasize people's
subjection to external forces of political or ideological provenance, Garrett, who
is after all dealing with the efficient intelligence service during the reign of Queen
Elizabeth, nevertheless manages to keep individuals and their motives, failings,
ambitions and desires at the center of attention. Nor is Garrett tempted by great
remythologizations. Although much of the novel has no specific historical back-
ground, inventing minor characters and their personal affairs, Garrett goes out of
his way to evoke a historical flavor rather than a fantastic-fictional one, and that
in spite of treating subjects that would easily lend themselves to a fantastic and
mythologizing treatment. Both novels deal with the Elizabethan-Jacobean period,
The Death of the Fox describing Sir Walter Ralegh's life and death, The Succes-
sion providing an overview of the reign of Elizabeth I from a few chosen per-
spectives.
The Succession centres on the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and James
VI of Scotland, her successor, or it does so at least superficially. The novel opens
and closes with a scene from 1603, hinting at the queen's intuition of her own
death and portraying Christmastide as merry even for the poor of her realm. This
is the closest Garrett gets to a mythology of the so-called "golden" Elizabethan
age which is otherwise presented in some of its harsher and darker colors. The
relationship between Elizabeth and James also occupies the very center of the
novel, where we get extracts from their correspondence. The succession of the
queen, a topic on which she refuses to' pronounce until the very last, is the central
thematic unit of the novel, with noblemen's rebellions and the entire secret service
engineered by Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir Robert Cecil trying to ensure the
queen's safety (a major risk because no successor has been named). The nobility's
behavior is also motivated by the prospects of the queen's demise and the necessi-
ty to inform the heir of this event,' or to be on the correct person's side ("Secre-
tary: 1603," 51-55).
In this net of political intrigue minor characters are swallowed up. There are
three of them, all engulfed by the political whirlpool. The messenger, a merry lad
whose career was turned into that of a spy in the service of Lord William Cecil
(the father of Sir Robert), provides the reader with an insight into ordinary
people's concerns, rubbing shoulders as he does with innkeepers, their patrons and
through nineteenth-century literary and non-literary discourses.
42 See the "Courtier" section, The Succession: A Novel of Elizabeth and James (New York, 1991),
475-481.
History and Metafiction

97
scullery wenches. The messenger comes on stage five times, and in these five sec-
tions, which narrate a kind of 'interior monologue,' 43 one gets a description of his
indirect presence at the birth of James VI, of his trip south to London (a tour de
force which introduces a geographically determined line of development from
the Scottish border to London) and of a series of reminiscences which provide a
crash course in early Elizabethan history: the history of the queen's accession to
the throne, the interlude of Bloody Mary, Sir William Cecil's ability to choose the
right party, Elizabeth's. The precariousness of court life and the dangers of exile,
the discomforts of being a spy and the meagre financial rewards of such work are
all detailed compassionately through these supposed memories. As it turns out in
the final section, this trip to London is yet to be performed, the reward (including
a bath) still far ahead in the uncertain future.
The second person who is swallowed up by the manipulations engineered by the
story's 'doers' is the priest. As we learn from the priest's section, which consists
of the papers found on him at his arrest, the priest is a rather naive and unstable
person, who opted out of a career at court and was unable to reach a reconciliation
with his father. On the other hand, the documents also shed a substantial light on
the eventual strength of his faith. The priest is portrayed as an all too human
person, rocked with doubts at his own ability to withstand temptation and torture,
but his writings also display a naive childlike trust and belief in God which
illuminates the entire novel with a spiritual light. By the end of the priest's section
one has conceived a great respect for this man in spite of his obtrusive naivety,
particularly for his humanity and humility. The priest's documents are followed
by a letter to Lord Walsingham which apologizes to him that the priest has died
under torture without giving away any names. The weakest character in the book
has therefore proved the most courageous, and he is the only one (except for the
reivers of section seven) who is not harassed into sycophancy and opportunism.
The third unimportant character is that of the player. For fmancial reward the
player has acted as a spy and is now nearly killed because he might know too
much. Luckily, the documents which he gathered turn out to be harmless, and so
he even receives some more money. Narratologically speaking, this section is a
major tour de force since it is written in the second person form, from the per-
spective44 of the secret agent who comes to get the documents, and who is in turn
addressed as you (in the dialogue) by the player. The "Player" section also com-
plements the novel's picture of the Elizabethan world by the locales of the theatre
and the tavern.
43
Actually, the narrative is third person omniscient present tense, with much monologizing by the
protagonist in what needs to be defined as present-tense free indirect discourse.
" That is to say, the you
refers to the protagonist, the uncanny visitor who attends a performance
of the player and then goes on a drinking spree with him before he finally gets down to his real
purpose.
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Monika Fludernik
Besides these three minor characters the reader is also introduced to the
"Reivers," Scottish cattle thieves who engage in large-scale plunder across the
English border. The reivers are courageous people who live by their skill, and are
as yet little affected by the political events which impinge on the other characters,
thriving as they do on the political differences between Scotland and England. The
"Reivers" section consists of a storytelling session at which tall tales and ghost
stories are related. The effect is an implicit histoire de mentalites of these people
which also allows us a glimpse at their customs, life style and professional risks.
The remaining sections of the book deal with two more prominent characters:
the above-mentioned courtier, Sir Robert Carey, who was the first to tell James
VI of his succession to the English throne but fell into disgrace and recovered
preference under Charles I; and Secretary Sir Robert Cecil, one of the main
political figures of the 'story.'
As one can already gather from this summary, there is no real unitary plot to
this novel, it is a fragmented collection of vignettes which are linked by the
reader's knowledge of historical events Queen Elizabeth's accession, the birth
of James VI, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots (watched with disbelief by the
priest), the Earl of Essex rebellion, the death of the Queen. Unlike most histories
of the Elizabethan period in which the queen takes the center position and every-
thing revolves around her, Elizabeth here merely provides a frame which is also
the horizon of her life, her death; but the events appear to be manipulated through
others to whom she succumbs and behind whom she hides. Likewise James,
although a major protagonist in principle, is somebody with very little substance
and riddled with great doubts. He apparently succumbs to the wiles of the Queen
without ever having met her, communicating with her by proxy, by letter. One of
the Queen's successes is that James allows his mother to be executed, swayed by
the hazy prospect of his own succession to Elizabeth. Instead of a retelling, an
ordering of historical events, one gets a series of personal experiences which allow
an insight into the Elizabethan mentalite, and beyond this through the charac-
ters' involvement with political events open themselves to a larger historical
perspective from the people's vantage point. Garrett's Succession therefore pro-
duces a 'history' very close to the Annales style, thus lending a more precise
meaning to its definition as a historical novel: it deals with a specific historical
period and it writes history in a recognizably historiographic mode. 45
On the other hand,
The Succession can also be described as a venture in meta-
fiction. For one thing, the presentation is a fictional one in most parts of the book,
excepting a few documents and the reference to actual historical figures. These
historical figures are, however, described in the intimacy of their minds in a
reconstruction of their character and their musings which can hardly claim his-
torical validity. This is apparent from the start on the basis of fictional technique.
45
That historiographic mode, of course, does not comprise the linguistic and particularly narra-
tological aspects of the novel which quite decisively put the text into the fiction category of writing.
History and Metafiction

99
Although most sections are written in a third person omniscient present tense
mode, they keep shifting into the third person character's interior monologue or
free indirect discourse and have longish sections of pure internal focalization. This
technique recalls both the oral style of an interventive narrator (the third person
present tense narrative is colloquial) and at the same time allows for a trans-
personal presentation of Elizabethan England. Moreover, it also makes possible
the typologically impossible: an external inside view of characters' minds. Such
a contradictory technique immediately emphasizes the fictional nature of the text
and it also constitutes a first metafictional element.
The Succession is metafictional, additionally, on account of its fragmented
structure which foregrounds selection and juxtapositon. Particularly with regard
to the chronological reahn46 this fractured discourse acquires a metafictional tone
after all, the multi-perspectivism can be said to realistically reflect the absence
of unitary meaning, the lack of historical interpretation.
The Succession therefore combines both the historical and the metafictional in
what one could describe as a modern history in the shape of fiction or a novel in
the shape of Annales historiography. It is on this paradoxical middleground that
the experientiality of the 'new' history and the standard experientiality of narrative
meet to produce a text that is bare of traditional causality (earlier a defining
property for both history and fiction) and which keeps myth in abeyance that,
too, a traditional historiographic concern. This refusal of mythological signification
and the reverting to authentic agents and events can be linked also with the
inception of the novel as a genre where myths, too, needed to be opposed (both
in the shape of the epic and in that of the prose romance). The Succession there-
fore appears to me to link the historiographic and the (meta)fictional in a truly
remarkable manner, in a manifestation of a new paradigm or genre. Such a new
non-fabulous historical novel will have profited from the experiments of earlier
postmodernist writing techniques and will resist the old historical novel's implica-
tion with outmoded historical paradigms.
IV. Concluding Remarks
That The Succession is not the only such star on the horizon has recently been
documented by a British novel, Adam Thorpe's Ulverton (1992). Unlike The
Succession, Ulverton has a chronological structure, stringing together episodes
from successive stages of the history of Ulverton, a village in Berkshire. These
vignettes are highly fictional, consisting as they do in a series of tales by former
villagers or even internal monologues, written diary accounts and, finally, a film
script. Although Ulverton appears to be less of a historical novel than Garrett's
' The various sections center on the Queen's death in 1603 but are arranged in seemingly
haphazard fashion, also incorporating many reminiscences: 1603-1566-1603-1587-1626 (1575), 1566,
1602, 1602-1603, 1566, 1626, 1603, 1566, 1602, 1626 (1603), 1566, 1602-1603.
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Monika Fludernik
piece since it does not confine itself to a recognizable historical period, it is in fact
more of a history, lending itself to be read as the documentation of the evolution
of mentalities of English village folk from the Civil War to the present. Ulverton
therefore demonstrates what fiction at its very best can do in the historical realm,
joining hands with the best of historiography in an evocation of lived human
experience resurrected from the past.
It is now time to pull the threads together. I have argued in this essay for a
basic difference between fiction and historical writing, a difference that does not
necessarily appear from the actual shape of the text. On the contrary, fiction and
history appear to differ in their paradigmatic emphasis on the experience of a
restricted group of individuals on the one hand, and, on the other, on the trans-
personal experience of a specific social group, class or nation in their synchronic
or diachronic but in any case systematic relation to institutions and political,
social, ideological and religious settings with which this group of historical sub-
jects is implicated. Whereas the subject of fiction therefore typically concerns the
experience of frequently one specific human being and across this medium the
quality of general human experience, mores and ethics, historical subjects remain
specific to precise historical locations and points in time and their study serves to
explain not human nature in general (a knowledge of which is presupposed and
enters by way of establishing motivation) but a specific society's or group of
people's historical situatedness with a view towards generalizing towards the
historical specificity of that group, that society, that particular era or township.
This basic distinction between history and fiction needs to be opposed to the
many similarities that exist between the two realms of writing. Both fiction and
history are discourses that reconfigure plots and therefore construct (alternative)
realities rather than as their rhetoric pretends mimetically representing them.
Both deploy, and rely on, the illusion of referentiality, but only historical writing
sifts (prior documentary) sources and comments on the establishment of one plot
outline or one explanation rather than the other.
Having said this much, one needs to then point out that history and fiction easily
overlap in all possible sorts of ways. Historical writing not only relies on fictional
techniques, it can be read as fiction (Michelet, Macaulay), and it has more recent-
ly taken account of ever more private areas of life which had before this been
reserved to (auto)biography and fiction. Secondly, there have always been numer-
ous genres and writing modes situated on the borderline of fiction and history: all
the biographical and autobiographical literature (including travellogues), the so-
called historical novel, and within the novel itself the well-known intermixing of
historical material which constitutes part of its 'reality effect.'
The historical novel, in particular, is much less uniform a genre than one would
initially suppose, yielding a number of different types and constellations which to
no negligible extent depend on the different meanings of 'history' and 'the
historical' that operate in them. Besides Turner's three types of the historical
History and Metafiction
101
nover (that which creates a past, that which disguises a documented past and that
which recreates a documented past), one can go on to catalogue fictional histories
of an entire era, the fictional family chronicle, works which deal with major
political events or have major political figures among their cast, novels that
recreate a historical period by way of genre painting (Eco's Name of the Rose),
and so forth. Not only are different conceptions of history at play (the historical
as the diachronic, history as that which can be looked up in official history books,
history as that which concerns people and events of historical factuality...),
historical novels also imitate ways of writing history, and it should therefore come
as no surprise that postmodernist attempts at the historical novel imitate both
fictional innovations and historiographic developments.
Historiographic metafiction for these reasons straddles the fiction/history
boundary in triple and quadruple manner, radicalizing the hybridization which was
already the key note of the historical novel and gleefully subverting any genre
features of traditional fiction or historiography. This is not the place to provide a
categorization of the many texts which belong to historiographic metafiction (a
definition that would prove even harder to come by than for the 'traditional'
historical novel). One development can, however, be noted in the direction of a
renewed interest in the past for its own sake which can now be approached with
the sophisticated toolbox of postmodernist writing techniques and embarked on in
the light of state-of-the-art historiographic methodology. Whereas much of the
exuberant and rebellious spirit of the 60s and 70s went into a debunking of serious
historical questions, exploding instead the received historical mythology of great
men and History with a capital H, more recent historiographic metafiction has
been increasingly concerned with the life of 'the people' in former ages or with
diachronic development of people's attitudes and beliefs. I have chosen The
Succession for my central example of such a concern, but similar attempts can be
observed in several contemporary kinds of writing always provided that one is
willing to apply a particular conception of the historical to these texts. I am think-
ing of Toni Morrison's Beloved and Jazz, Adam Thorpe's Ulverton or Graham
Swift's Waterland (as well as his more recent novels), or of Lawrence Norfolk's
Lampriere's Dictionary and Patrick Stiskind's The Perfume. A new, more serious,
mode of historiographic metafiction seems to be hatching, one that is less playful,
more specifically concerned with 'history' (in different ways) and less simplis-
tically and dichotomously mythological than most of the historiographic meta-
fictions of the 1960s and 1970s. Should one therefore, as I have suggested, desist
from calling such texts historiographic metafictions and talk instead of "the new
historical novel"? That, I Mist, history will tell.
47
See "The Kinds of Historical Fiction."