The Tiger and the Whale; A misappropriation of historiography for fiction
I recently began reading Jamrach’s Managerie, the Man Booker Prize shortlisted book by Carol Birch (I have a one-and-a-half hourcommute to my new job, not all of which can be spent preparing for seminars or revising article drafts). It’s entertaining and I think I’ll probably finish reading it at some point. But about 3 pages in I put it down and picked up Moby Dick instead. I started reading Moby Dick two summers ago and was really enjoying it, until I had to put it down to study for my viva and then it got packed up in storage when we were somewhat itinerant for the past 7 months. So, I picked up Moby Dick, which hasn’t exactly been on the top of the book pile, instead of Jamrach’s Managerie. They’re both books about somewhat fantastical adventures, filled with colorful details about life in port cities in the nineteenth century. Not too surprising that one should lead to the other, I guess. So what does this have to do with history, you ask? Well, probably until yesterday I would have said ‘nothing.’
Yesterday I was teaching Leopold von Ranke to my final year historiography class. We got into a debate about the purposes of history, its uses and abuses, and narrative forms of history. The students pointed out that there is an ongoing debate over whether when Ranke said ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ he meant ‘just the facts’ or if he meant ‘how things actually were’ more descriptively. In either interpretation, they got the point that one of Ranke’s major contributions to history has been an emphasis on primary sources. But at the end, I asked the students if approaching history without a sense of dramatic irony was possible, pointing out that most of them had spent the hour pointing to the irony of Ranke believing that he was beyond subjective impressions even though it’s now obvious what a product of his own time he was. The point of this question was to get the student’s back to EH Carr’s critique of Ranke (we did Carr in the first week), which was that, essentially, there is no past without the present – they are in constant dialogue as interest in the past and questions about the past are informed by the present.
In popular and narrative forms of history writing, the element of dramatic irony is crucial. Removed from the context in which a belief or economic system, political system or value is predominant, the historian can see the influence of that factor and weigh it against other factors based on its outcome. In writing my concluding chapter, for instance, I was encouraged to talk about what happened next for my protagonists. The ‘what happens next’ is supposed to link your story to the present by showing how the events that you described influenced how we ended up where we are. In some ways this is just educational – particularly in African history, where a popular market may not have been filled in on the twentieth century history of Africa at school and be able to draw their own line from past to present. Historians are selecting ‘what is important’ from the past and building a narrative timeline to the present, in this understanding of history. Dramatic irony, foreshadowing, and lots of other narrative tools are necessary in this form of history writing, not only for getting the reader from A to B, but for getting readers in the first place! This can be problematic when historians are called upon to comment on contemporary events: witness David Starkey making absurd, racist claims about the London looters, or the weak ending of Simon Schama’s The American Future; or any historian who contributes to a news program with their take on historical events (most will retreat immediately to the past and render only hesitating judgment on the present). It doesn’t turn out well because there isn’t the distance from the event to tell a good story about what was important to where we are now. It lacks dramatic irony.
The students got to this without much prompting, but I was left with a nagging sense that this was my problem with Jamrach’s Managerie, and that somehow, although I agree with Carr about history, I would kind of prefer a Rankean approach to fiction. By page three of Jamrach’s Managerie, the description of London (Bermondsey and Watney to be specific) had set me on edge. It’s well-written and full of really convincing descriptions. But whether it is the voice of the narrator telling us about his childhood, or the contemporary writer’s tone, I couldn’t help but feel that there was a knowingness about it. Like ‘I bet you didn’t know how gross London was – yes, the very London you’re standing in now!’ Something that children’s museums are always doing with history displays. It doesn’t bother me because it’s true. It bothers me because it seems to be trying to wink at the audience. Now, there are some kinds of dramatic irony that I really enjoy in fiction. The kind where everyone’s going happily along, careening towards the First World War (An Ice Cream War, The Alexandria Quartet) is probably my favorite. But this seems different. It was trying to tell it ‘as it really was’; but that just made me want to read Moby Dick, which, I guess kind of counts in some form as a primary fiction source. So not exactly ‘just the facts’ either, but somehow less knowing. Because this wasn’t a story that needed to use the reader’s knowledge about what London looks like now in order to tell the story; unlike fiction that sets, for instance, the First World War as the backdrop, this story did not need the audience to know ‘what happens next’ in the cleaning up of London, etc. It did need to describe what London was like, but somehow the fact that it does this in a Moby Dick style – describing the chaotic, unruly port town filled with weird and wonderful characters back from overseas adventures – rings false, like something meticulously researched, rather than something actually witnessed. Like something that in history I admire, and in fiction, begins to grate.
I will pick it up again, I’m sure. But for now, I’ll go back to the original source.