Is it possible to write a good historical novel?

All about fiction.
Sept. 13 2005 6:47 AM

Marching Orders

E. L. Doctorow and the problem of historical novels.

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I say a word and I can't remember it. What did I say I can't remember?

A word.

Yes. That's why my head hurts. It's always now. That's what hurts. … There is no remembering. It's always now.

Are you crying?

Yes. Because it's always now.

In contrast, there is Calvin Harper, a photographer's assistant who takes over the mobile enterprise when his boss dies. He must constantly interrupt his progress to stop and make pictures of the threatened past. "Once he moved on, history would know of the city's disaster only what he had photographed." "It is fixing time in its moments and making memory for the future. … Nobody in history before now has ever been able to do that." The last sentence, with its curlicuing redundancies, is a characteristic Doctorow nudge, the kind of thing Manzoni thought would kill the novel, but that seems calibrated to keep our hovering attention precisely where it belongs.

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Late in the novel, Harper is dramatically blinded by a muzzle flash. By the end, his sight is slowly returning, "like a photograph beginning to come out in the developing tray." The whole world, if it returns, will be a photograph for Harper, a simulacrum; but the flash isn't what matters. The critical term here is "developing," and it holds the novel together, linking representation and warfare, art and conflict. The cavalry is frequently off "developing" the Rebs, picking fights with them to learn their strength and tactics. Doctorow, we might say, develops history the same way. One novel after another.

J.D. Connor is assistant professor of English and of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard. He is working on a book about neoclassical Hollywood.

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