Historical fiction is an intriguing creature because of its double nature: rooted in history, but executed in that wide spectrum known simply as “inspired by.” Characters in these novels may have only a tangential connection to the historical record or they may be based squarely on what is known. And since history is “told by the victors”—is ultimately a collection of perspectives that happens to have survived, regardless of “truth”—is the question of accuracy a fair one to ask under any circumstances?
A reviewer at The Guardian thinks so, and asks it in her review of Anna Funder’s debut novel All That I Am. The book, which was released in February by Harper, is inspired by the lives of two Jewish German couples who resisted Hitler. Joanna Kavenna has high praise of Funder’s prose, but spends a significant portion of her review calling out the novel’s “claims to authenticity”:
Funder supplies citations for certain incidents in the narrative and tells us that the story has been “reconstructed from fossil fragments, much as you might draw skin and feathers over an assembly of dinosaur bones, to fully see the beast… ” The skin and feathers are impressive, but these are daring, contradictory claims. There is a slippage in Funder’s account of her book as she writes: “Most characters’ names are their true names, others have been changed.” But “characters”, surely, have no “true” names; they are the creations of a novelist. Funder has taken first-person narratives of real people – Blatt and Toller – and “reconstructed” them into the first-person narratives of her characters, “Blatt” and “Toller”. I don’t know to what extent she has quoted from the originals and to what extent she has rewritten them. It doesn’t matter if one is merely assessing her book as a novel. However, the claims of authenticity, of “reconstruction”, are risky and complicating, as Funder seems to acknowledge as she urgently seeks to define the enterprise, each attempt raising further questions.
Such as: if a novelist aims at drawing “skin and feathers” over the “dinosaur bones” of her sources, then what is the “beast” she is allowing us to “fully see”? A reconstruction of the past, to be judged on how realistic or convincing it is? Or an impossible fantasy, to be judged solely on the extent to which it entertains the reader?
It seems to me that these questions pertain less to Funder’s novel specifically and more to epistemology in general, to the way we understand history and fact and real. On one level, I’m all for publishers adding A Novel to the cover of a book to distinguish it from A Biography or A Memoir (and in this case, Harper chose to label the cover “A Novel.”). But on another level, there’s a real sense in which History and Biography are just as troubling in this regard as Memoir, given that all are based on extant records left by people with a stake in the story. So who’s to say that the historical novel gets it right or wrong?
Kavenna’s questions are worth asking, of this novel and of others. I’m not sure they can be answered, but they’re worth raising even if only for the discussion. I know they have piqued my curiosity about this novel, which I’m adding to my reading list.
What about you? Do you expect an historical novel to be accurate? Or do you, in Kavenna’s words, judge it “solely on the extent to which it entertains the reader?”