Looking over my posts for the year I am struck by the recurrence of history in my material. I have read more history than literature this year – although of course I would believe that history is one branch of literature. A quick recap of my year’s reading, before some reflections on what all this history means.
- Richard Fidler’s Ghost Empire about Byzantium and his own discovery of the remnants of this forgotten empire in our lives
- William Dalrymple The Return of a King: the battle for Afghanistan about the first Anglo-Afghanistan war and the sheer folly and bastardry of British colonial rule
- William Dalrymple The Last Mughal: the fall of a dynasty.. Delhi 1957 about the ruin of a tainted but marvellous literary culture and the “Indian Mutiny”
- my own writings on the history and meaning of the eight hour day
- Kay Redfield Jamison’s biography of Robert Lowell
- Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilisation: a cultural history of insanity from the Bible to Freud, from the madhouse to modern medicine
- Taylor Downing, 1983: the world at the brink.
- Christopher Hibbert The Borgias and their enemies
- parts of Burckhardt The Civilisation of Renaissance Italy
- parts of Machiavelli The Prince and The Discourses on the History of Livy
- the end of Weber The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
- samples of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West
- Orlando Figes A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution 1891-1924
- Simon Sebag Montefiore The Romanovs: 1613-1918, which was truly marvellous
- Stephen Platt, Imperial Twilight: the Opium War and the end of China’s last golden age (Knopf 2018)
- and I began Ian Kershaw’s Roller-coaster: Europe 1950-2017
I also watched television dramas, documentaries and movies, some fictional but glorying in the recreation of past worlds, and not all of which I can recall:
- The Plague set in Seville in the 1590s
- The Medici: Masters of Florence, about Cosimo de Medici
- The latest version of War and Peace by the BBC
- The Alienist, portraying an early forensic psychologist/psychiatrist in 1890s New York
- Civilisations with Simon Schama and Mary Beard
It has been a history feast this year. I am not sure I have read a single fictional novel, although I have enjoyed fictional television dramas. No, I recall now I did read Proust’s Time Regained; but that is it for fiction, and that great artwork is somehow almost in a different plane than mundane storytelling. I read a tiny bit of Gerald Murnane’s A history of books, and Blanchot’s The madness of the day, again not the usual fiction. I tried reading a couple of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories but did not get through more than one or so of the shorter stories.
It is as if I am not willing to take the fictional bargain, the willing suspension of disbelief, and take on the reader’s burden, the making together with this text of an imagined world. By contrast, I willingly project myself into past real worlds through empathy, attention and invented dialogue with the figures of the past.
I want to believe that one day I might return to enjoying fiction. I heard Bernard Cornwell, the historical novelist, say that the fascination of reading a novel if to find out what will happen in the end. I remember that feeling, and spending hours immersed in Trollope, Dostoyevsky and many other books. But maybe the fascination of history, that spreads into great literature for which the stories are known and established, is not what will happen in the end, but how and why will they get there, and what twists and turns will there be on the way. And truth is stranger than fiction, and the minds of many that you hear in any well-crafted history are always richer than the single writer’s voice of any fiction. The invented is of less interest to me than the discovered. The documented is more compelling than the dramatised.
History, or good history, has a power of insight into the dilemmas of our times that cannot be found in the private mirco-troubles of some fictional character, who so often these days is a caricature of identity – or so I suspect, since I read too little contemporary fiction to know. History helps me to orient myself in the world, and to place my own dramas and the melodramas of our republics in distress against a greater story and a more vivid canvass. History teaches the virtue of patience, and the lesson that this too will pass. It teaches that empires fall and rise, and in the spaces of their negligence the life of the mind can flourish and leave an unanticipated legacy. History teaches that culture is an unruly garden, and the schemes of the great to protect their status after death rarely succeed. The worms and the termites of the world eat away at the registers of wealth; the wind and the sand of the desert overtake every fortress of magnificence; memory and the meaning of the past spread like bizarre underground rhizomes in directions no gardener can plan.
Let me close then with Shelley’s Ozymandias
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”