Otto de Kat writes for PEN Atlas about the risks and benefits of using history in the novel, a device that when used badly can lead to over-writing and when used well serves the novelist like a butler
Writers are catchers of the past; writing is an attempt to get a grip on the things that were, and another word for melancholy; writing is a fight against forgetting.
The art of the historical novel is mainly the art of pre-selecting the kind of facts that can enhance the story you want to tell: if you want to write about history you have to be a historian, not a novelist. History in a novel can be a demanding décor, but it has the function of a butler, serving at the right time, at the right place – totally at the service of the characters.Beware how much history you use in your novel, and how precise and how detailed you are. There is an odd expression in the theatre: ‘What a beautiful set this play has, it’s a pity that the players stood in front of it.’ I believe that too much historical detail is dangerous for a novel.It’s a subtle art: as a writer you have to forget most of the history books you have chosen for your research. Forget the facts, forget the figures, use them sparsely, and only if they add to the overall atmosphere.It’s a strange thing to write fiction situated before the time you were born… On the one hand, you have to forget a lot of historical details, it can be burdensome to know too much. But on the other hand, you will need to know the tiniest little facts about certain circumstances. When you write about a meeting taking place in Lübeck, Germany, in 1938, as I did in my novel, Julia, you ask what the weather was: you try to figure it out, and in the age of internet you are often lucky to find the details. And you use them, you want to be absolutely sure that it was raining a lot at that moment, in that part of the country. But if only one reader happened to have been in Lübeck, in 1938, and he or she should remember that the sun was shining a lot that month, your scene would be spoiled. So you make sure that the sun shines only at the right moment, and the sun in your book is shining like it did right there and then…Another example of historical accuracy: in my last novel, News from Berlin, Emma Regendorf is arrested at her home by the Gestapo. They drive her to the Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse and they pass the Potsdamer Platz. Emma notices that the clock on the Platz is working as usual. And at that point I mention in the novel the peculiar form of the clock, namely its four sides, each with an individual clock-face. It is 1941, and the clock has always been a sort of landmark, placed there in the twenties. But what I didn’t know was that it had been removed from the square in 1939 (and it was brought back after the war), so in 1941 there was no clock with four sides. My German translator, Andreas Ecke, the most dedicated and capable translator a writer can wish for, dryly informed me about that fact. He saved me from a few letters…The Walter Scott Prize defines the historical novel as being set at least 60 years prior to its publication: well, in that sense News from Berlin, set in June 1941, and just out in English translation, is a historical novel. The terrible Second World War is always in the background of the novel, but the main focus is on the life and fate of my three main characters. ‘History’ is looming, you can feel it, but it’s never essential.For Dutch ears the term ‘historical novel’ sounds a bit negative. One could have a good novel or a bad novel, but a historical novel sounds already like an excuse: as though in a historical novel, one doesn’t have to worry about the lack of psychology.But for British ears the historical novel is an essential part of the literary tradition. Is that because the British want to learn more about their glorious past? Do they have more history than others? What silly questions. The fact is that quite a few British writers look deep down at certain periods in history. Fair enough. A writer is free to use whatever era and setting he or she wants, of course. But then I am back to my comment about too much knowledge, too much history: historical novels have the tendency to expand. Five hundred pages and more are easily written. I am a strong believer in shorter books. I believe that in every long book, a short one is hiding and crying: I want to get out! Long live editors of publishing houses who advise authors to cut and cut… About the authorOtto de Kat is the pen name of Dutch publisher, poet, novelist and critic Jan Geurt Gaarlandt. His highly acclaimed novels have been widely published in Europe, and Man on the Move was the winner of the Netherlands’ Halewijn Literature Prize.Additional informationOtto de Kat’s latest novel is News from Berlin, and is published by MacLehose Press in the UK this month.