by Joshua Mostafa
On the first floor of Foyles, the bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London, I found the bookshelf devoted to historical fiction. It’s free-standing, and the reverse side is populated by romance novels: a not unsuitable pairing, though the appearance of the books themselves suggest an affinity with the fantasy genre: the authors’ names are displayed in large, chunky lettering with aspirations to Gothic or Celtic style. So close is the marketing style or ‘branding’ of the book covers of the two genres that a stray swords-and-sorcery title had been misshelved between a novel about the Wars of the Roses and another set in the French Revolution.
From a marketing perspective, there is probably a significant overlap in the target readerships, and what likely attracts them to those genres: escapism, the desire to explore another world, and perhaps a quasi-Romantic sense of alienation from the contemporary world and its technology. I even saw one ‘prehistorical’ fiction title listed in the ‘fantasy’ category on a publisher’s website; the opposite mistake to one I spotted in Foyles. The creation of the texts themselves also poses similar challenges to fantasy writing: unlike historical fiction, the protagonist’s Lebenswelt is not an adaptation of historical sources but an extended exercise in imaginative projection. The facts known about a given time in prehistory are necessarily more scant, and, between them, much wider gaps must be filled in with the writer’s speculation.
The deeper into prehistory one goes, the more acute certain problems become, while others are settled perforce: there is no question of using plausible ancient-language words in the Ice Age, for instance, because we have no idea of the languages spoken, or even the hypothesised protolanguages. That doesn’t stop some authors from merrily making up arbitrary combinations of phonemes, of course, but if they do, the impression given by their work tends to degenerate into heroic or romantic fantasy; and what is true for language is true a fortiori for the broader task of the accurate portrayal of ancient culture and society. Others attempt a kind of austere simplicity, a ‘primitive’ existence in which the main reference points are the natural world, a kind of cultural tabula rasa. But this is implausible. Nowhere in the world, in any sufficiently thorough anthropological study, can we find a simple culture; complexity seems to be an immutable feature of humanity’s being in the world.
As the Hungarian philosopher and critic György Lukács argues in The Historical Novel, these questions are not cosmetic ones, but intrinsic and vital:
The historical novel therefore has to demonstrate by artistic means that historical circumstances and characters existed in precisely such and such a way. What in [Walter] Scott has been called very superficially ‘authenticity of local colour’ is in actual fact this demonstration of historical reality.
Evoking the past, not just in the sweep of history but in the small details that constantly remind us of its otherness, is indeed no trapping or guise but the substance of historical (and prehistorical) fiction, the means by which it carries out its function. And yet: ‘reality’? ‘Precisely’? These strong terms oversimplify the relationship between text and setting. The text, if it is successful, is realised as a compromise between our own language and culture and that of the past. It is not a transparent medium that lets us see into that other world, the lost world of history or prehistory. Prehistorical fiction, especially, cannot pretend to precise verisimilitude, which is why realism is a highly unsuitable mode for the genre. It is, nevertheless, the most commonly deployed one, despite the obvious anachronism of using a prose technique that originated in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the reason for this is an assumption that it is natural, invisible; but that’s a terrible assumption, as the briefest perusal of a mediocre, conventional novel set in the prehistoric past will demonstrate.
What, then, is the alternative? The opposite method – to create a pastiche of the literature contemporaneous with the setting – is incredibly difficult to pull off, and usually results in a pompous disaster. Besides, it’s unavailable to prehistorical fiction, as by definition there was no literature then. The most successful and evocative texts take other routes. Margaret Elphinstone’s The Gathering Night opens with a brief dramatis personae, from which are drawn a number of first-person narrators. Each section is introduced with the narrator’s name: ‘Haizea said’, ‘Amets said’. Jim Crace’s The Gift of Stones uses a layered narrative structure, with narrators of varying degrees of reliability, constantly probing its own veracity in a way that somehow brackets questions of the authenticity of the novel as a whole. Ian Sansom, reviewing The Devil’s Larder in the London Review of Books, suggests that ‘Crace doesn’t really write prose at all: he writes dramatic poetry.’
Certainly, the texture of Crace’s writing, its spare and luminous lyricism, resists association with a particular time; in the same publication, Adam Mars-Jones remarks that Crace’s novel Harvest is ‘a historical novel that takes place outside history’, and points out the futility of trying to root out anachronism, which is endemic, like ‘Japanese knotweed in language’ that ‘sharpens the pleasure of an evocation of the past by reminding us that it can’t be more than that.’ I can recall just one such effect in The Gift of Stones: Crace repeatedly refers to the ‘scripture’, meaning an article of faith or received wisdom, of the stone-smiths who work flint, whose way of life is eventually overturned by the coming of bronze-smiths. The word operates as a metaphor, for the benefit of the reader, drawing attention to itself (and its metaphorical nature) by the fact that pre-literate, Neolithic society knew nothing of actual ‘scripture’.
The aesthetic success of books like Crace’s and Elphinstone’s – which, it must be said, makes them stand out in stark relief from the bulk of novels written in prehistoric settings – indicates that an experimental, or at least not a conventionally realist, approach is required for prehistorical fiction. This is why I’m reticent to say yes when asked if I’m writing a novel; fiction, certainly, but is the best medium for that story the novel? I can’t pretend to know the answer, yet.