Sunday, February 28, 2016

The shadow line of narrative: on the failure of historical novels

I don't know how it was that, over a few rainy days of February, I found myself reading this novel by Juilene Osborne-McKnight. But, as the task is accomplished, I thought I might write a note about the experience. It was - I must say - a little tiresome.

I don't mean to say that the author of "I am of Irelaunde" didn't make a considerable effort to understand what Ireland could have looked like at the time of St. Patrick. But the final result is just flat. The plot continuously bounces from Patrick's first person narration and the Ireland of the Fianna warriors of the Fenian cycle. The two parts never really match with each other and Patrick's character comes up petulant in his continuous worrying about losing his chastity. The whole novel moves on with the same ease of a steam engine chugging on along a steep upgrade,

Is this a problem with this specific novel or general of historical novels? I think it is a general problem. Can you name a modern historical novel that takes place in a remote time and that's really, really good? I can't think of one (*). I can only think of reasonably good novels - or, at least, entertaining ones - that don't try do describe times older than one-two centuries. Think of the civil war, some 150 years ago. I have in front of me Connie Wilson's novel "Lincoln Dreams" - a very good story that bounces up and down from our times to those of the Civil War. And I can think of "Gone with the Wind", surely an entertaining novel. Conversely, I tried once to put together a novel that would have taken place in Florence, during the Renaissance. I know the place, I know the language, and I would have been describing people who might have been my ancestors. But, working on it, it turned out to be too difficult - impossible. Five hundred years are too much to bridge for me. Had I tried, the results could have been as bad as another novel taking place in the Florence of the Renaissance: "Cupid and the Silent Goddess" by Alan Fisk. Perhaps humankind might not have survived the existence of another novel as bad as that one.

So, there seems to be a barrier that limits what a novelist can do. To describe it, I could borrow Joseph Conrad's title, "The Shadow Line" to define a barrier that separates the manageable from the unmanageable in literary terms. And I also think that there is a logic in that shadow line being placed somewhere between a hundred and two hundred years in the past. It is in the fact that, no matter how literate our society has become, we are still people who speak with each other (even though speech may be replaced by "texting" one day, but we are not there, yet). And if we speak to each other, a lot of our knowledge comes from oral sources. So, it may well be that the shadow line corresponds to the time that our grandmothers lived as young children. The barrier that separates stories about real people from stories about the mythical world of the "dreamtime" of aboriginal Australians, where heroes and gods live.

And that's the whole point: whatever story comes from before the shadow line can work only if it is transformed into mythical narrative plots, fantasy in short, without attempting to be realistic. We just can't revive historical characters, such as Patrick of Ireland, whom by now live in the Dreamtime. It is the shadow line of narrative, also the shadow line of history.

(*) all rules have exceptions. In this case, the exception is "Memoirs of Hadrian", by Marguerite Yourcenar, set some 1800 years before the time of the author. But this is the work of a literary genius who defies rules and classifications


  1. My Grandmother Catherine was a great Irish story teller. Most of her stories were not of the grand myth type, some were of evil spirits, most were interesting tales of ordinary people in little Irish villages. It was the way Catherine told the story which invoked the myth and usually much laughter. I am attempting to translate many of her stories from Gaelic to English now as well as tell them.
    Thank you for your insight on "The Shadow Line" which I will practice and your own example of telling great complicated stories.