To be honest, I have never been particularly interested in history. Why should I care about those old hats? Therefore, I would never even have dreamed that I would one day be a writer of historical fiction. When I read in a newspaper that I had become exactly that – it was a review for my novel The Philosopher’s Kiss (Die Philosophin) that first bestowed that title on me – I rubbed my eyes in amazement: Who has lost his marbles here – the writer of the review or I?
The following theories do not intend to offer a definition of the term, and neither are they an analysis of a literary phenomenon. They do not make any claim, and I don’t wish to prove anything with them. They are but a very personal, thoroughly subjective declaration: Why I write historical fiction in spite of my lack of interest in history, and why my joy in doing it is in fact still growing.
And a writer of historical fiction is no historian. Although they both describe historical events, they each have a different motivation. While the historian is trying to reconstruct the past as exactly and closely to reality as possible, the novelist’s first and foremost interest lies in the symbolic meaning, which he believes to recognise in a certain historical situation. That is what I consider as my main task – to visualise this symbolic meaning of a historical event in a new and own form. For me the historical reality is by no means the sense and purpose of my work, but a quarry: material for a novel.
Of course, historical novels can transport educational contents, and as a rule of thumb that is what they do. But is that their principal raison d’être? As with every novel, also the historical novel is first and foremost a game – a game with reality. In this game more or less everything is allowed, as long as it makes the game more attractive – even if our jurisdiction forbids it. Therefore, a historical novel does not reproduce history but uses it. Academic research supplies the facts – but it is the narrator who fills them with life and sense.
We have always been fascinated by great stories from history. Because in spite of all the changes our lives are undergoing, the relevant motivating powers of mankind will always be the same: Love, hate, greed, envy and jealousy, search for beauty and wealth, for glory and power – all those great emotions and passions human beings are capable of. For that reason we can still experience and understand old tragedies, millenniums after they were written. But that is not all that makes a story from history worth telling. What is important is if it still has some meaning for us today, if it reflects us in our self-understanding, if it gives us courage and lust to face the great adventure of our own life.
Every novelist’s unattained as well as unattainable role model is the Holy Spirit – after all he has written for us the most magnificent drama we could ever imagine: life itself. His dramaturgy remains the measure of all things. With one exception, however: The historical story follows the laws of reality or of historical science, the story of a novel, however follows the laws of the narrative. In order to create it dramaturgically the writer will be forced to change the chronology of events every now and then or some minor detail. Not out of disrespect for the facts, but in order to create a closing narrative circle and to put all the historical events into a connection that grasps their inherent powers and in addition to point beyond the framework of historical facts that holds them in place.
A good story functions in the same way as life itself. It is only credible, when its characters feel, think and act in accordance with their inner nature and also with the outer reality of their lives. A Madame Bovary is no Lady Macbeth! Therefore, the fate of my characters will not be fulfilled in a vacuum but in a specific historical situation. Their individual fate is my free invention, but the collective framework where this fate is fulfilled is historically proven. In this sense, historical novels are as realistic as life: While the reality surrounding us is what it is, while it gives us in one second hope and in the next second fear, while it is sometimes helping and then again sabotaging our plans, we invent ourselves on a daily basis, and only through the course of life do we develop into the people we are – in the interplay between freedom and determination, between autonomy and heteronomy, between inner imagination and outer reality.
Reality challenges us – not only in life but in a novel as well. The rule applies: As harder reality presses and harasses a character as clearer he becomes recognisable to us. Therefore, I take the historical reality I chose to throw my characters into, as serious as my own life. God does not change my reality in order to make my life easier, and in the same way I am not entitled to change historical reality for the sake of the heroes and heroines of my novels – all their pleading and begging is to no avail. This is the only way for me to find out what my characters are made of, chapter by chapter. And a welcome side effect is: the direr the distress my characters are in the bigger the hope that my readers feel nicely entertained. And they have a right to feel that way! After all, they do not only pay their money for my book, but invest some of the most precious resource they possess to read it: some time from their lives.
The material for a historical novel lies basically on the street – but why does one writer reach to pick it up while the other one does not? As with any other novel, a historical novel is a mirror for the writer’s soul. Only if I find my own soul in the historical characters that I describe, with all their good and bad sides, their virtues and vices – only then I can breathe life into them, feed them with their own reality as I gather it during my research. But if I do not find my characters within myself, I can research myself to death – they will remain lifeless figureheads, dead letters on paper.
A story can only touch us if we recognise ourselves in it. History alone, however, leaves us cold. Also in this a historical novel is no different from any other novel: It is a medium to understand oneself. While apparently telling us about other epochs and foreign cultures, it does not only provide us with an understanding of our existence as it has developed but also puts in front of us a mirror, to reanimate dead roots of our collective thinking and feeling. What does happiness mean? What does freedom mean? What does justice mean? By reliving the aberrations of our ancestors’, dusty textbook sentences rise to new life. Achievements, which other people, not even that long ago, risked their lives for but which we have become accustomed to so that we no longer notice them, become noticeable again and gain a new, existential meaning – here and now. Because we now understand them not only with our brains, but with our hearts as well.
Great stories from history – that is the material, which our historical novels are made of. Great stories are always three things at the same time: good entertainment, encounters with other lives and times, symbolic hieroglyphs of fate. And the latter is the most important. It causes the great story to grow beyond the borders of simply copying history, which only produces reproductions. Great stories, however, provide symbols. Images of people who go to the borders of what is possible for a human being. In order to explore what it means and what it could mean to be human. .
Published in: Barbara Korte, Sylvia Paletschek (Hg.): History goes Pop. Zur Repräsentation von Geschichte in populären Medien und Genres. transcript Verlag: Bielefeld 2009; Conference papers for the DFG Symposium „Historische Wissenschaften in populären Wissenskulturen“ (“Historical Science in popular knowledge culture) at the University of Freiburg 2008; pages 61-64.