Review by Dylan Brown
It is, unfortunately, all too easy to see the various ways history’s tendrils reach into the present. We are reminded of our country’s brutal past—and present—with each new police shooting and the current resurgence of demagoguery. In The Art of History, the latest in Graywolf’s “the art of” series, Christopher Bram dives into the complex relationship between fiction and history but with a quick pace and relaxed voice. Having published several historical novels himself, he’s uniquely positioned to unpack their construction, idiosyncrasies, and what makes certain novels work—Beloved, and True Grit for example—while others, like Wolf Hall, and Killer Angels, fall short of the mark.
About halfway through the book Bram writes, “While fiction strives for the condition of history, many history books hope to achieve the high drama of novels.” The notion that they both often seek to imitate, or borrow from, one another is central here and he spends roughly equal time discussing both historical fiction and narrative history. Earlier, Bram writes, “The best details in a work of history, fiction, or non-fiction, are like double knots of character and time they ties us to both the people and the age they live in,” and while this isn’t necessarily earth-shattering insight the knot imagery is apt: we are tied to the past, dragging it along behind us, and while we aren’t ever free from it, we might lighten our load or find better ways to shoulder the burden. One of the book’s strengths is that Bram makes the most of these brief moments.
The section on slavery feels especially pertinent, tapping into the American zeitgeist here more than elsewhere in the book. In it Bram writes, “History can be an escape, and entertainment. But we also believe that history is good for us, providing prospective and hard knowledge. And no knowledge is harder than American slavery.” While at times Bram may exaggerate the healing and preventative power of studying history, his assertion that “narrative makes an experience more human, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction” has far reaching implications. Do we, for instance, benefit from humanizing slaveholders? I don’t think the answer is always yes, however as a rule, defaulting to the human is an admirable rule.
Bram takes a broad view throughout The Art of History: there’s a section on details and one on comedy, as well as a quick look at fictional biographies which features the delightful phrase “responsible invention” and a note on how historical fiction can fill in gaps: “Homosexuality is one area where fiction can complete what history, until recently, could only begin. The subject was taboo and the record sparse. But Mary Renault was able to flesh out—literally—the same-sex love of the ancient Greeks in such novels as The Last of the Wine and, gaudier and more exotic, The Persian Boy.” He expands this notion to argue for the importance of making all historically marginalized groups more visible in historical depictions. “Responsible invention,” then, takes on a double meaning: writers ought to remain faithful to the past as well as to the present.
At the end, Bram includes a list of books he refers to and recommends in the text. It’s a nice parting gift with some obvious titles like War and Peace as well as some more obscure, and titillating entries such as The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company, and The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov. It’s by no means a long list but the effect is a pleasant one, similar to that of a friend scribbling a few titles on a scrap piece of paper before you head off to the bookstore.
The fact that he takes on so much and does it in just over 150 pages is a testament to his succinct and crisp writing. In the hands of a less skilled writer such a book could quickly bog down readers or explore too many disparate threads, and at times it does seem to skew a little too heavily in favor of summary, during parts of the section on War and Peace, for example, at the expense of criticism or analysis, but those are brief moments the end result here is still a well-curated selection of works, full of insight, that makes the case for why historical fiction and narrative nonfiction are as relevant as ever, if not more so.
Dylan Brown is a graduate of the MFA program at Oregon State. His work has appeared in Brevity, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and is forthcoming in The Collagist. He lives in the Bay Area and works at an independent bookstore.