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Historical Fiction



Risk and Reward

At the end of February 2017, the second conference of the Historical Fictions Research Network will occur in London. Agincourt made a cameo appearance at the 2016 conference at Cambridge (one twenty-minute presentation) to an exceptionally supportive audience. Mr Vandervort and I met several wonderful people who validated what we’ve been trying to do. In light of some recent criticism (however limited), everyone who’s been involved shares the good will we brought back from London.

I discovered the first conference by the accidental flick of a finger (which took me to the NEH website) and found the call for papers. The very idea of presenting to academics at Cambridge intimidated the hell out of me. But the invitation was so inclusive that there had to be a place at the table for the likes of us:

We welcome people working on prose, drama, visual art, reception studies, musicology, museum displays, film, tv, gaming, war gaming, graphic novels, transformative works and any other areas engaged in the narrative construction of the fictional past.

Whatever “risk” I may have anticipated was happily rewarded.

Playing in the sandbox of history

With next February’s conference in mind and the memory of a history-based architecture design studio behind me, this week’s mail brought the latest New York Review of Books, with an article by Lydia Davis [look for a collection of her short stories; you’ll thank me] entitled “Eleven Pleasures of Translating.” Number eleven resonated in a way that seemed more than coincidental:

(11) And for translators who are also engaged in writing of their own, here is another great pleasure, as well as a great difference from one’s own writing and an effective complement to it: just as you can enter another person and speak in his voice, you are also no longer confined, as a writer, to writing in your own style and with your won sensibility, but can write in the style of Proust, for instance, with his elaborated syntactic pyramids, and then, a few years later, in the style of Flaubert, with his clipped clauses and fondness for semicolons. You are at the same time clothing yourself, for a time, in the sensibility of the original author: Proust’s affectionate portrait of the grandmother in Swann’s Way becomes my own affectionate portrait, in Proustian sentences. Flaubert’s moment of compassion for the dying Emma becomes my own compassion in English, though I may privately feel more for the often derided Charles, quietly meeting his end in the sunlight, on a garden bench, as he is being called to lunch.

This phenomenon, of slipping into the style of another writer, gives you great freedom and joy, as a writer. You are ventriloquist and chameleon. And while you comply with this alien style, you may also positively, react against it: it was while I was translating, with such pleasure, Proust’s very long and ingenuity-taxing sentences that I began, in contrary motion, to write the very shortest stories I could compose.

Would that I had had Ms Davis’s insights several years earlier.


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