Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What makes good historical fiction

I have never been a great fan of historical fiction. It seems that most of the novels that I tried reading, often involving the Tudor period in England, seemed contrived, with  artificial dialogue resembling furniture that's been antiqued.  Lately, I have encountered some fiction rooted in the 20th century, where I feel more at home or, I should say, where the author and I feel more comfortable.

One of the very best in this genre is The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, recommended to me by someone in the audience at my talk on Hemingway last month at the University Club in Winter Park.  Hearing what I had to say about Hadley Richardson and the Paris years of Ernest Hemingway, she said, "you must read this book."

I find McLain's novel a template of what makes historical fiction function well. First, the author is clearly immersed in her subject, having read probably everything, including the letters, of the people involved; as a result, she captures the rhythm of their sentences in her own elegant style. It helps that McLain is a published poet since her language is original without being showy, and her sentences sparkle: "we wore navy-blue skirts," she writes, "with knife-sharp points."  Ernest at 21 is "white hot with life."

As a result, the reader--at least I--can feel the energy of the man, which is easily reduced to a clichĂ©, as in Woody Allen's otherwise charming movie, Midnight in Paris. Her style brings the characters to life in a way that rings true for someone like me who had read a lot about and by Hemingway over many years.

The result of reading the novel is the true litmus test of historical fiction: I forget at times I am reading fiction. It all seems real! This is made possible by something recommended by Wendell Berry in his poem "How to be a Poet": "you must depend upon affection."

Reading and knowledge are important for a writer, along with narrative skill and the careful revision of every sentence, but McLain's success begins with her obvious love of her material. Her enthusiasm draws me in so I have an immediate affection for Hadley and even the young Hemingway. She is able to convey the tragic family background of her narrator, Hadley, whose father committed suicide, with subtle feeling but no sentimentality.

She has also organized the narrative crisply, with clear transitions when flashbacks occur; and the novel is concise. No doubt I came to this book with a bias in its favor, having just spent a lot of time on Hemingway's life and the women in it, but I never expected a female novelist to bring alive the man's charisma:  "He grinned a grin that began in his eyes and went everywhere at once. . .  .He moved like light. He never stopped moving--or thinking or dreaming apparently."

(I say "female" novelist because Hemingway has been famously unpopular with many women readers; of course, McLain's real subject is his first wife.)

I have no formula for good historical fiction, and I doubt if I would ever attempt a historical novel since I can see the great challenge involved: making real, well-known people into fictional characters who have an imaginative life, apart from the facts of history; and not letting the facts dominate. Letting, rather, the affection dominate, as McLain admirably does.

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