Historical Musings #51: The Long Take – and a question of perspective

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

Let’s start with the winner of this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, which was announced yesterday at the Borders Book Festival. Congratulations to Robin Robertson who has won the prize with The Long Take, a book written in a combination of prose and verse. I haven’t managed to read this book yet, but here is what the Walter Scott Prize website has to say about it:

Walker is a Canadian veteran of the Normandy Landings and this extraordinary and exceptional prose/verse narrative tracks the progress of this damaged but decent man through the bleak and violent streets of post-war America. While New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are in a state of constant change and reinvention Walker is trapped by his searing experiences; his devils too present for him but to remain an outsider. Illustrated with grainy black and white photographs and inviting comparison with cinema The Long Take defies conventional literary boundaries but is a moving, memorable and wholly original work of writing.

The other shortlisted books were:

After the Party by Cressida Connolly (my review)
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller (my review)
The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey (my review)
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (not yet read)
A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey (not yet read)

The Long Take was probably the book that sounded least appealing to me from this year’s list, so I will be interested to see what I think of it when I get around to reading it. If you have read it, did you enjoy it and do you think it is a deserving winner?

~

On a different topic, I came across this interesting quote in one of my recent reads, The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie:

Mr Quin shook his head gently. “I disagree with you. The evidence of history is against you. The contemporary historian never writes such a true history as the historian of a later generation. It is a question of getting the true perspective, of seeing things in proportion. If you like to call it so, it is, like everything else, a question of relativity.”

Alex Portal leant forward, his face twitching painfully. “You are right, Mr Quin,” he cried, “you are right. Time does not dispose of a question – it only presents it anew in a different guise.”

What do you think? I think the opposite argument could be made – that it could be the contemporary historian who writes a truer history because they are actually experiencing the period and events which they are writing about and will understand them in a way a later historian can’t. On the other hand, somebody in the modern day writing about an earlier period will be able to look at that period in the context of what happened afterwards, has a wider range of sources to study and can draw on research and information that has come to light more recently (such as the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton in 2012).

To give an example from the world of fiction, would we learn more about the Regency period from reading Jane Austen, who lived and wrote during that time, or from an author like Georgette Heyer, who was writing in the 20th century but researched the Regency thoroughly? Which gives us a more accurate idea of Victorian society – Bleak House by Charles Dickens or Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters?

What are your opinions on this?

26 thoughts on “Historical Musings #51: The Long Take – and a question of perspective

  1. volatilemuse says:

    I would always go for the contemporary writer. No amount of painstaking research can afford a later writer the cultural immersion of the one who has lived through events.

    I lived through the 60’s (yes I’m that old) and have seen many films and TV programmes that purport to be set during that time but they just don’t ring true. You can research the decor down to the last details, but mannerisms, speech, attitudes to women, to minorities? No. Half of the stuff that went on you wouldn’t even be allowed to show or write about now, thank goodness.

    • Helen says:

      I agree – personal experience can never really be matched by research, no matter how thorough. And yes, I suppose the need for modern writers to be more politically correct does take away some of the authenticity (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, in a lot of cases).

  2. Liz says:

    It’s such an interesting question – I think we benefit from both perspectives. It is a huge advantage to compare and contrast different accounts, from different times. Any author, contemporary or otherwise, can only write from his or her specific viewpoint, so no one person can ever be relied on for the whole picture.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, that’s why when I find a subject that interests me I like to read about it from as many different perspectives as possible. It’s the only way to build up a true picture, taking into account the bias of various authors or the limitations of the information available to them.

  3. Café Society says:

    Is another factor which contemporary is writing the history? We’ve all come across the idea that history is written by the victors. Perhaps a greater perspective allows us to see that contemporary accounts are partial at best, falsified at worst.

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I think I would tend towards the contemporary, although the perspective of history read alongside might help. Certainly the contemporary can really give you sense of living through times or events, but there may be partisanship or a particular perspective which doesn’t take into account everything that’s happening. Definitely room for both, I would say! 😀

    • Helen says:

      Definitely! I think reading a mixture of contemporary and more recent sources is the only way we can build up a full picture of a particular subject or period.

  5. jessicabookworm says:

    Ooo that’s a tough question! I would say you would a get a truer feel of what it was like to live in the period from a writer writing at the time i.e. Austen or Dickens. But perhaps you get a broader more detailed view of the period as a whole from a modern writer with all their research and of course hindsight.

  6. piningforthewest says:

    I would opt for contemporary writing. No matter how much research an author does there are bound to be areas that remain unknown to them, and the atmosphere is always just going to be a best guess.

    • Helen says:

      I think both contemporary and later authors can tell us a lot about a period, but atmosphere must be difficult to get right unless you’ve lived through that time yourself.

  7. www.rosesintherainmemoir.wordpress.com says:

    First, to answer your question, I think it depends upon the writer. David McCullough’s painstaking research — and oftentimes painfully slow reading — reveals details that might be missing from a contemporary writer in the same period. Personal letters from the era, on the other hand, reveal personal emotions and opinion that a modern historian may or may not include. Now, don’t get me started. I could go and on, so I’ll stop there.

    Second, I have read WARLIGHT by Michael Ondaatje and still have it on my library shelf for rereading again soon. Yes, it’s that good! Would you like to review it in another post?

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read Warlight yet, but as soon as I do I will be posting a review. I’m glad you liked it enough to want to reread it!

      And yes, I think letters – or diaries and journals – written during a particular era can describe personal experiences in a way a modern writer would struggle to do.

  8. Calmgrove says:

    My preference would be for both, as each one will give a different take on what happened according to the beliefs and prejudices of the time. Writers who are comtemporaries to period events may give a skewed description, given that they may not have access to documentary or archaeological evidence that later generations might have; but they may enunciate a more authentic response to those events according to the morals and attitudes of the time than later commentators might have.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think the general consensus is that we need to read a mixture of both! Relying on one point of view, whether contemporary or more recent, will never allow us to build up a full picture of a subject or period.

  9. Elle says:

    The Long Take’s pretty good – my heart was with the Andrew Miller, but Robertson’s inventive and capable and I’m not all that surprised that he won.

    Re. contemporary or not, I’d say the answer is probably different depending on whether you’re talking about history or fiction. Primary sources are obviously hugely valuable to a historian’s work, but one of the things I value so much about reading a historical study of a period written at a later date, is that it can provide some kind of overview, a breadth of analysis, that no primary source can really manage–it gives me a better chance of seeing the wood for the trees. Fiction, on the other hand, can function as a primary source in itself; Dickens’s Bleak House tells us things about Victorian perceptions of C19 society, if not necessarily objectively true things, that Fingersmith can’t, just by virtue of having been written roughly contemporaneously with its setting. (Although one of the interesting things about Bleak House is that it was written *after* Chancery was reformed, which makes it seem much less a plea for change than a cautionary tale about protecting reforms once they’ve been made.)

    • Helen says:

      Of the three books I’ve had time to read from the shortlist, I thought the Andrew Miller was the best, but I’ll be interested to read The Long Take and see what I think.

      That’s a good answer to the contemporary or later question; it does depend on whether it’s history or fiction that we’re talking about. With fiction, I used Sarah Waters as an example because she has the freedom to write about topics like sexuality and gender in a way that Victorian authors couldn’t – but of course, it’s the Victorian authors who immerse the reader fully in the period and give a more accurate view of attitudes and perceptions.

      • Elle says:

        That reminds me—do you know The Other Victorians, by Steven Marcus? You probably do, but it was such a mind-rearranger when I was an undergrad; all about C19 pornography and underground movements of what we’d now call sex-positivity. Fascinating.

  10. Judy Krueger says:

    I think I need both when I am learning about a period. That is why I am reading so many books set in or about the years I have lived in order to write the story of my life. That said, being contemporary to my own life, I can pick out the ones that get it right and the ones whose research is incomplete or incorrect.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think if we want to really understand a period we need to read as much as possible about it. Your reading project is such a great idea – especially as you’re able to tell which authors get it right and which don’t!

  11. FictionFan says:

    Ooh, interesting! In terms of “proper” history books, I always feel they shoudn’t be written by people who lived through the events, or whose parents did, because they can never really be objective. So I consider history can’t be written till it’s a hundred years past.

    But fiction… ah, I hadn’t thought of that! Reading so much classic crime set during the war years has made me wonder why we spend so much time reading historical fiction when we could read contemporaneous accounts instead and get an accurate picture of what people thought at the time. So I guess I’m swaying towards the contemporaneous writer…

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think ‘proper’ history can’t really be written by people who lived at that time – it would be more of a memoir in that case. As for fiction, you must be learning a lot about life during the war years from reading so much classic crime!

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