New College of the Humanities

Portrait of the Author as Historian

Alexander Lee's series profiling writers who confronted history through literature.

©  Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Attempting to recover the human experience of Communism in the post-Soviet era, a Belarusian investigative journalist found pessimistic nostalgia in place of hope for the future. 

Image of Pramoeyda Ananta Toer. ©  Yusnirsyah Sirin/Zuma/Alamy

In newly independent Indonesia, nationalism, communism and Islam competed for the attention of the people. But the country’s greatest novelist saw humanity behind the ideologies. 

Way of the samurai: Mishima on the day of his suicide. Ⓒ AFP/Getty Images.

Angered by his native country’s rush towards western-style modernisation, the acclaimed Japanese author committed a shocking act of protest.

Imre Kertesz © Getty Images

Struggling to make sense of the Holocaust, one Hungarian novelist came to the startling realisation that the 20th century’s darkest moment might not yield any lessons for posterity.

Toni Morrison. Copyright Everett Collection/Alarmy

The dead, white, male canon has not merely stifled African-American history so much as smothered it. One author has spent her career grappling with the problem of America’s whitewashed past, writes Alexander Lee.

Moral quandary: Naguib Mahfouz in Cairo, 1989.

The ideas of a French philosopher provided the great Egyptian novelist with a way of assessing the good and the bad in his nation’s past, writes Alexander Lee.

Chinua Achebe at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, 1970s

The son of a country whose history had been written by outsiders, Chinua Achebe recognised the need for African literature with a Nigerian voice, writes Alexander Lee.

Witnessing the slow decline of his native Sicily, the last Prince of Lampedusa saw both blame and possible salvation in the island’s unique location and history, writes Alexander Lee.

Head in the clouds: Jorge Luis Borges in Palermo, Sicily, 1984.

Is reality simply a collection of unconnected moments and impressions? If so, what does it mean for our understanding of the past? For one Argentine writer, fiction was the perfect place to explore such questions, says Alexander Lee.

The Booker Prize-winning writer eschewed autobiographical novels for historical fiction in a bid to resolve the porous distinction between objective and subjective history, writes Alexander Lee.

The leading light of the French Annales school revolutionised the writing of history by imbuing it with wider, holistic, narratives and literary flair, says Alexander Lee.

Stefan Zweig

The Austrian writer, whose short stories and novellas have recently enjoyed a new burst of popularity, used history to remind us that a better life is possible, as Alexander Lee explains in his new series.