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September 8, 2010 11:37 AM   Subscribe

"On a particular night in October, you’ve got your nose ahead of J.M. Coetzee." Hilary Mantel writes about winning (and, previously, not winning) the Man Booker prize. Her victory has changed History Today's attitudes to historical fiction, it seems. But not Antony Beevor's.
posted by lapsangsouchong (37 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 


I should also say that I loved Wolf Hall (though it did have one slow section about 3/4s through) and am also looking forward to the sequel.

Not sure who Beevor is, but if he doesn't believe that fiction affects our view of the past then he's crazy. It probably affects us more than actual history does. (No arguments about whether what is taught as history is actually fiction. :-)
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:50 AM on September 8, 2010


Not sure who Beevor is, but if he doesn't believe that fiction affects our view of the past then he's crazy.

Noted historian, prize-winning author. Not sure if you actually clicked through, but his point is that historical fiction is detrimental to the public's understanding of the past due to liberties taken with real people and events.
posted by The Michael The at 12:00 PM on September 8, 2010


The first link is actually opening on the second page of the article, just so you know. I was surprised for a moment at what seemed a rather inelegant opening for Mantel. :)
posted by taz at 12:18 PM on September 8, 2010


Yes, I clicked through (but didn't look up his bio). But it sounded like he was saying, "I didn't bother to read Wolf Hall because so many bodice-rippers have been written in the past." Yes, there's bad historical fiction, but doesn't that mean that someone who does their research and works at getting it right should be penalized?

Of course, no one knows what Cromwell was actually like, but that hardly means it's not worth your time if you're a historian.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 12:30 PM on September 8, 2010


"But he deplores what he calls “histo-tainment” and “faction-creep”, and considers “completely corrupting” the tendency of a Wikipedia age to shape the truth to its own ends, and to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction."

From Beevor link (heh)

oh, I so want this little one in my hands.

“faction-creep” thats, thats shiny, a deflection from the obvious that being that fiction ad non-fiction do collide, things get created...ITS LITERATURE.

i have disabled spell checker for the audiences viewing pleasure
posted by clavdivs at 12:33 PM on September 8, 2010


Yes, I clicked through (but didn't look up his bio). But it sounded like he was saying, "I didn't bother to read Wolf Hall because so many bodice-rippers have been written in the past." Yes, there's bad historical fiction, but doesn't that mean that someone who does their research and works at getting it right should be penalized?

Fiction, historical or not, cannot, by definition, "get it right." It involves not telling the truth for entertainment purposes. When it is about historical personages or times, then people erroneously believe that the writers "got it right." That is how people get it wrong.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:44 PM on September 8, 2010


yes
its
LI
TARA
Thour
posted by clavdivs at 12:54 PM on September 8, 2010


Prescience?
posted by BeerFilter at 12:58 PM on September 8, 2010


I would say Grave's "I Claudius" is very illuminating, and if you allow that he follows one track through the sources, he gets it right.

(Of course, I should say "I CLAVDIVS", in deference.)
posted by Trochanter at 1:01 PM on September 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


And then, quite unlike everyone else: “If you like, you can come up and play with my guinea pig.”
Excellent.
posted by Abiezer at 1:04 PM on September 8, 2010


And, if you were out to learn just a bit about semiotics, and the Scholastics, and heresy, and the doctrine of Mother Church, you'd do pretty well to start with Eco's "Name of the Rose."

(Not to mention wonderful cheese in batter.)
posted by Trochanter at 1:10 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I want all my history books to be like the Flashman series.
posted by vidur at 1:45 PM on September 8, 2010


No way am I clicking on a Coetzee link.
posted by zippy at 2:11 PM on September 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


And, if you were out to learn just a bit about semiotics, and the Scholastics, and heresy, and the doctrine of Mother Church, you'd do pretty well to start with Eco's "Name of the Rose."

Name of the Rose is fantastic but Eco sure does make me feel every inadequacy of my crappy mid-American middling education. All those damn bits of interstitial poetry and quotation in Italian, Latin, French, and Greek with no translations. I love his prose but I always feel a bit shamed that I can only struggle my way through some of the French and the rest I just have to ignore.

Then to make it worse, even the parts in English frequently reference bits of history and philosophy where I must have missed class the day we covered it.
posted by Babblesort at 2:24 PM on September 8, 2010


Apparently, there's a really good annotated version with all the Latin bits translated and the allusions explained. "Key to the Name of the Rose," it's called. I'm with you though, in that I had to just let a lot of the Latin go and carry on. Why they didn't include translations I'll never know. But despite that, it's still one of my favourite books.
posted by Trochanter at 2:40 PM on September 8, 2010


Sorry, "Key to the Name of the Rose" is not an annotated version. More like a companion volume.

One other thing: I think that it's possible the obscure stuff was meant to be there. It's part of the theme of the book that people are forever reading things they don't understand, and deciphering stuff.
posted by Trochanter at 2:46 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I like that idea. It makes my struggling with the bits over my head a noble fulfillment of Eco's intent rather than a highlighting of my failings. I'm gonna go with that theory from now on.
posted by Babblesort at 3:08 PM on September 8, 2010


Antony Beevor is an exceptional contemporary historian who has at least two monumental works to his credit, "The Fall of Berlin" and "Stalingrad". Both are go-to books on the subject. He is less well known for my favorite, "A Writer at War", where he edits the notes and dispatches of the great Soviet war time reporter Vassily Grossman.

As a historian, I understand perfectly what Beevor is saying, however as a lover of books, I can also understand the popular appeal of history written in this way. As I read the article I felt myself siding with history in the end. While not popular perhaps, Beevor makes a very astute and valid point - that part of a historians job is to sweat the details, and root out any bias or romancing of the subject. Just the facts, M'am.

Funny though, Beevors works read like novels as opposed to dry works of history, and that is what makes him a great historian - his accessibility.

"Stalingrad" in particular is a thundering page turner, truly a work of art and of history. I cannot recommend it enough.
posted by Aetius Romulous at 3:12 PM on September 8, 2010


Antony Beevor is an exceptional contemporary historian who has at least two monumental works to his credit, "The Fall of Berlin" and "Stalingrad". Both are go-to books on the subject.

Ditto for his The Battle for Spain, the definitive English-language history of the Spanish Civil War and also a pretty gripping read.

That said, I don't agree with his suggestion that historical fiction hurts the cause of history in general. Maybe the quote was chopped up out of context, but the much bigger problem is the catastrophic lack of general historical knowledge (at least in North America), which, for example, allows demagogues to portray the Founding Fathers as biblethumpers and all that shit. My guess is something like the John Adams miniseries - which, because of the demands of TV as a medium, is even less likely to get the details right than a serious historical novel - probably did more for the cause of public education on who the Founding Fathers actually were than anything in the last ten years. I mean, whatever else, they weren't portrayed as evangelicals, right?

Heckuva historian, not much of a cultural critic, I guess.
posted by gompa at 3:39 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would say Grave's "I Claudius" is very illuminating, and if you allow that he follows one track through the sources, he gets it right.

History is constructed, in the post-modern sense. But Professional Historians work hard to get the facts right.

Paraphrase from my old high school textbook: "Emperor Claudius was a stupid man, and it seems odd that the Roman Empire expanded during his reign."

Robert Graves was using the genre of Historical Fiction to make a critique of the science of History relying overmuch upon preconceived notions.
posted by ovvl at 4:10 PM on September 8, 2010


...hmm.
posted by clavdivs at 5:18 PM on September 8, 2010


Good historian Beevor may-be
Does not dismiss

'Faction-creeps'
no matter how clever the phrase sticks
for historical fiction readers.

besides a Turtledove 1-2
would have been better.

IMO, the comparison of history and historical fiction
and its impact on society is mundane in this case and yes, Graves
in the 30's, raised this question and gave a better answer
so
WTF should i care what some historian says about fiction.
posted by clavdivs at 5:29 PM on September 8, 2010


Not sure what you mean by mundane in that sentence.

Besides for the money (no shame in that), Graves wrote the historical novels to offer proposals to historical puzzles that bothered him. Problem was, he generally had little or nothing but conjecture to back his novel positions up.

And ghosts. He claimed that he could feel the angry spirit of Milton breathing down his neck the whole time he was writing Wife To Mr Milton.. And apparently it was a dissatisfied spirit of Claudius who put the spanner in the works of the first attempt to film I, Claudius. (Not sure that either one would back up any claims for truth.)

Me, I work on the assumption that any piece of historical fiction, however entertaining, is guilty until proven innocent, and that goes ten times for movies. If it gets people interested, fine, great, but once folk start spouting off opinion based on a novel you read, well....
posted by IndigoJones at 6:59 PM on September 8, 2010


Agree with the above - Beevor posits a false dichotomy where historic literature can only come at the expense of history, or vice versa. Of course the reality is much more ambiguous than that - historic literature can inform and history writing can misinform.

Furthermore - and I hate to get all postmodern about it - but implicit in Beevor's critique is the idea that "history" and an understanding of such is the goal here, where in reality both forms of writing - and reading - can have quite different hermeneutic and epistemological goals.

To argue that history is predominantly read and promulgated merely to understand, or even know, the past is a fairly bold claim, I would contend. Further, whether history should even be read for such a reason is contentious.

I feel like he is letting an immaculate perfection truly become an enemy of - not even the good, but just the existant. I'm a little more Augustine in my approach, though I respect his work immensely.
posted by smoke at 7:42 PM on September 8, 2010


by mundane in that sentence.

mundane in Beevors postion. not Graves.

Beevor=historical novels led to the distortion of truth

“completely corrupting” the tendency of a Wikipedia age to shape the truth to its own ends, and to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction."

Graves goes much deeper. Not just conjecture, well it would all be conjecture if not for solid historical data. Graves used the best data he could.

i mean who would you side with in the Apollo library Livy? I would because he understood the difference. Graves first little gem in that scene was the bet as to what Claudius was reading. Some trash they wagered.

but the best advice given was to not keep his wits about him.

And apparently it was a dissatisfied spirit of Claudius who put the spanner in the works of the first attempt to film

I think they did use Merle Oberos' accident to cancel it and make some loot. I mean A Korda production says it all.
If it gets people interested

agreed
posted by clavdivs at 8:01 PM on September 8, 2010


His main thing on Claudius was the alleged murder of Germanicus by son Caligula. Pure supposition.

He also gave perpetuated the view of Livia as a beast. Recent scholarship is taking a more subtle view of her.

But let's keep it in perspective. I adore Shakespeare, but his history is for nothing. His characters, profound and interesting though they be, merely happen to share some similarities as real historical figures. Shakespeare is a monument, Graves a minor if interesting also ran. Whatever the value of his novels, the history on which he is improvising, and which constantly reinvents itself, has moved on. Beevor himself will be outdated in another, what? Fifty years? And he would be the first to admit it.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:54 AM on September 9, 2010


Also Agrippina.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:28 AM on September 9, 2010


Graves a minor if interesting also ran.

That's a bit strong. I'd say he's one of the best users of English in his century.

And while our view of Livia has changed, the "she killed everybody" trope, typical Roman misogyny or not, is in the sources. As to having Caligula kill Germanicus, Graves hardly turns a lamb into a snake.

The classics/history professors I've come across usually mention Graves when they cover Claudius, always fondly, and with a strong recommendation.

In fact, I'm sure Mr. Beevor would except the Claudius books from his argument. I suppose he's talking about another class of author entirely. Graves has done one of the authoritative translations of Suetonius. There's credibility in that, surely.

And even further, this quote from Beevor is hardly much to go on. It half sounds like they caught him before he'd had his coffee. I'd like it if he fleshed it out a bit in a piece of his own.
posted by Trochanter at 8:48 AM on September 9, 2010


His main thing on Claudius was the alleged murder of Germanicus by son Caligula. Pure supposition.

poussins painting on the subject matter is intersting

Sejanus looks like the culprit IMO. Livia was a tough, murderous one for sure, but i do not think she would killed her way to "Tiber"....

well.

I adore Shakespeare

Bacon/Marlowe you mean...kidding...agreed

It half sounds like they caught him before he'd had his coffee.

then 'faction-creep' is could repartee for no joe.

IMO Graves picked Claudius because of the times...the automated Emperor. The story of someone with disabilities and brains who becomes ruler of half the "known" world only because
he was family.
posted by clavdivs at 10:40 AM on September 9, 2010


becomes ruler of half the "known" world only because he was family.

And chose to hide behind the right drapery.
posted by Trochanter at 11:47 AM on September 9, 2010


....the +4 tapestry of Imperial sheilding is not in the Magic Encyclopedia.

but he did see that the praetors had little choice unless they wanted to fight the senates troops which occupied the Forvm and Paletine right after littleboots got whacked.

classic example of Law vs military might.
posted by clavdivs at 2:42 PM on September 9, 2010


classic example of Law vs military might.

Which surely could be said of the whole history of the Empire from Sulla on.
posted by Trochanter at 6:38 PM on September 9, 2010


the same could be said of the god kings of Angkor, modern kampuchia or Cambodia more proper, Preăh Réachéa Nachâk Kâmpŭchéa or Kambujadesa (कम्बोजदेश)
The Chinese called it Chenla after the fall of Funan.
now...
there is still a monarch, HRH Norodom Sihamoni (Khmer: នរោត្តម សីហមុនី) or
-Preah Karuna Preah Bat Sâmdech Preah Bâromneath Norodom Sihamoni Nai Preah Reacheanachakr Kampuchea.
his Father, who is still alive has the title of
The King-Father of Cambodia (Khmer: Preahmâhaviraksat) ((you should read his story))

SULLA, the Cornelia have always...pe-pe-pestered my gens...

but then there was THE Pulcher.

besides there was no "Empire" per say in Sullas day
that guy-oss kee-zoor got that rolling, i mean are you serious? Through some prattle and expect an answer when you seem un able to GOOGLE
Roman Empire.
posted by clavdivs at 1:41 AM on September 10, 2010


No Emperor, but a growing empire. It's common to speak of it that way -- you know that. I probably missed a joke, having just started my first coffee.

SLURP

LOL i see wat u did their!@

The King-Father of Cambodia (Khmer: Preahmâhaviraksat) ((you should read his story))

Can you recommend a good novelization?
posted by Trochanter at 8:25 AM on September 10, 2010


yeah, 'my war with the c.i.a.'
or his own movies.
posted by clavdivs at 10:18 AM on September 10, 2010


Where does this fit in?
posted by Trochanter at 9:42 AM on September 13, 2010


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