A Round-up of Historical Fiction

Jerome de Groot grapples with some dark accounts of human grimness and a novel which takes comedian Peter Cook to Phnom Penh in 1962. 

Whaling in the Arctic, 1854 engravingThis time around we travel from Cambodia to Sunderland, from the bleakness of the Arctic Circle to the mud of the final days of the First World War. The imaginative possibilities open to historical fiction writers are showcased here in the range of setting, narrative and concern. Linking all these books is a sense of the grimness of the human and the effects of wider discourses – geopolitics, social deprivation, economics – on the individual experience of a particular historical moment. 

Pierre Lemaitre’s novel The Great Swindle (MacLehose Press) won the Prix Goncourt in 2013 and is now published in Frank Wynne’s zippy English translation. Beginning with a man returning from the dead in the last days of the First World War, it investigates various cynical ways that memory and the physical stuff of the end of war (that is, the bodies) are manipulated and made profitable. It reminded me strongly of Wisława Szymborska’s The End and the Beginning, her masterful poem about how ‘After every war/ someone has to clean up’:

Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
can pass.

Like this poem, Lemaitre’s book looks at what happens to the war-wracked body when history no longer looks at it directly, when it becomes an index of something that has happened, when it loses its actuality and becomes a symbol. There are many accounts of the aftermath of war – from the third book of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum to Proust’s mournful account of Paris in Time Regained. Lemaitre adds to these a reminder that profiteering and pettiness are as common as nobility, melancholy and kindness. He weaves a story around the (real) scandal of Henri d’Aulnay Pradelle’s misappropriation of funds for military burials in the aftermath of the war. To this, Lemaitre adds an invented racket, with two traumatised ex-soldiers conning towns and villages the length and breadth of France by selling fake memorials. It is heady, cynical stuff, but I would have rather it were much more interrogative of the ways that societies remember, particularly with the current reflection upon the historiography of the First World War. The book seems to be neither national epic nor a reflection upon commemoration and memory. It offers some First World War and trench tropes and then skips to postwar France. While the material is fabulous and fun, it does not really have the imaginative or the intellect-
ual heft it might need. In the end, it comes off as slightly breathless and a little superficial, despite the events it articulates. I was reminded of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, but not to Lemaitre’s advantage. Like those novels, The Great Swindle att-empts to think about the human consequence of the trauma of the trenches writ large on society, to move between the personal and a wider sense of a nation in shock. 

My colleague Ian McGuire’s gritty The North Water (Scribner, 2016) also considers the savagery in the human heart. McGuire’s unpleasant yarn involves a whaling ship, multiple homicides, survival against the odds and various dead polar bears. Set during the waning of the whaling industry, McGuire’s concern is with the nature of horror and evil. It is uncomfortable and thrilling by turns. Like many novels contemplating the sea (and hunting its inhabitants in the frozen north), The North Water suggests that, when faced with implacable nature, man has a tendency to be overcome. There is (I think) an homage to Moby Dick’s obsession with lists and facts in the novel’s immensely precise description (‘the asynchronous splash of blades in the water’). It gives the book a slightly brittle quality, ensuring that reading it is uncomfortable: quite a feat to achieve and echoing the frosty grimness of the frozen wastes it inhabits. 

Similarly concerned with style echoing content is Mark Blacklock’s grim I’m Jack (Granta, 2015). This is a description of John Humble, known as ‘Wearside Jack’ or the ‘Ripper Hoaxer’. During 1978-79 Humble sent the police, searching for the killer of women in Yorkshire, a series of messages that warped their understanding of the case. His formerly cold case picked up after years, Blacklock’s Humble is a strange, unhappy figure, incoherent and unable to face the shame of what has defined his life. Blacklock presents a fragmented, jagged account using Humble’s confused thoughts, letters and police interviews. The ageing Humble is a figure lost on the margins of society: alcoholic, in and out of gaol and lacking any real relationships. Just as David Peace and Gordon Burn in their works on the Yorkshire Ripper (particularly Peace’s fiction 1980 (2009) and Burn’s 1984 true-crime drama, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son) suggest that crime might be understood by looking at the particular social situations that contribute to it, Blacklock presents Humble as far from ‘evil’ but a melancholic echo of wider deprivation. 

Finally, bringing much-needed levity to this all-male round-up of horror and grimness, a brief examination of the pressures of comic genius. Ian Gregson (another former colleague of mine) presents us with a whimsical alternative history of the life of comedian Peter Cook. Gregson’s novel The Crocodile Princess (Cinnamon Press, 2015) explores what might happen if certain paths had not been taken. Gregson imagines Cook turned off comedy just before his breakthrough, a personal crisis precipitated by adverse reactions to his jokes about one-legged men. He becomes a diplomat in the (then) backwater country of Cambodia and Gregson presents a complex account of geopolitics expressed in the various figures brought together randomly in Phnom Penh in 1962. It is a gentle, unguarded, strange book, which has some good jokes (albeit most of them funky echoes of Cook’s own) and arresting characters. 

Jerome de Groot's books include Remaking History (Routledge, 2015)

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