Nothing to be Frightened Of

Not exactly ‘archives in fiction’, but close enough, is something I just found in Julian Barnes’s meditations on death, dying and family history: Nothing To Be Frightened Of.

After a long disquisition on what little remains in the family and public archives for his grandfather, he makes the following observations:

A Bertie who changed into a Bert; a late volunteer; a mute witness; a sergeant discharged as a private; a defaced photograph; a possible case of remorse. This is where we work, in the interstices of ignorance, the land of contradiction and silence, planning to convince you with the seemingly known, to resolve – or make usefully vivid – the contradiction, and to make the silence eloquent[1].

Whether he is commenting on his work as a novelist or as a writer of literary non-fiction, what he says is so accurate a description of what those of us working in family history (and history more generally) attempt to do, especially when we are delving further back than direct memory allows – faulty as that is, too. He is a great deal wiser than those historians who try to assert that what they have to say is ‘the truth’, and it too is ‘nothing to be frightened of’.

[1] Julian Barnes: Nothing to be Frightened Of, Vintage Books, London, 2009, page 240

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2 thoughts on “Nothing to be Frightened Of

  1. I think you (and Julian Barnes) are right. Unfortunately too few historians place emphasis, I feel, on their own voice or the style they are using to write. Perhaps more thinking about an imagined reader would produce more meaningful things to read!

    • Thanks Hilda – I have commented before on the growingly close relationship between history and literature, particularly when the latter has become reliant on exploring and deeply researching historical background (both recent and distant past). There was an interesting spat on Start the Week (BBC Radio 4, 12 October) when two ‘historians’ (Niall Ferguson and Gabriel Gorodetsky) ganged up on the novelist Jane Smiley on the relationship between the two genres. As the radio programme generated more heat than light on the subject due to the extreme condescension adopted by Ferguson towards Smiley’s work, it was good that she got the right reply in print in the Guardian later the same week. Apart from the fact that she was not given the space to properly explain her approach to research, which was every bit as extensive as that of the two biographers, she was not allowed to explain the differences in material for her research. Perhaps more significantly, neither Ferguson nor Gorodetsky were able to grasp that history while it happening is seen and felt differently from the standpoint of ordinary people than from the viewpoint of the major players, but that these different viewpoints are equally valid as ‘truth’, whatever that slippery concept means. I found it much easier to warm to Jane Smiley’s recollection of what it felt like to live in the shadow of the bomb in the late 50s and early 60s, and I am as equally powerless to do anything about it now as I was then. I know who I am more likely to read and appreciate, without for one minute confusing history and the novel as different literary genres. [Unlike Gorodetsky, I do not see history as any sort of science.]

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