Fact, Fiction, and Fabrication: History, Narrative, and the Postmodern Real from Woolf to Rushdie
Berlatsky, Eric Lawrence
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While most accounts of Western attitudes towards history in the nineteenth century suggest that Victorians had a faith in its origin, teleology and meaning, twentieth-century assessments of history more often suggest the opposite. Both poststructural theory and postmodern historiography in the wake of Hayden White's Metahistory present a relativist view of the possibility of either objectivity or material referentiality in historical discourse, particularly through the medium of narrative. From this perspective, historical narrative is defined as a discursive creation that obscures the material relations of its production and as an instrument of ideology and oppression. "Fact, Fiction, and Fabrication" investigates what political and ethical repercussions this attitude towards and theorization of history has and how much contemporary fiction typically labeled "postmodern" both initially reflects and ultimately denies this model. This study argues that the assessment of contemporary postmodern fiction as reflecting poststructural models of endless textuality denies an important element of the novels studied: their commitment to the possibility of accessing material reality and the importance of such access both for the construction of an ethics and for political agency. By looking closely at contemporary novels that explicitly theorize history and historiography, it becomes clear that they instead insist on a sense of the "real" at least in part because of these political concerns. These novels, which I label "postmodernist historical fiction," insist that although an inviolable origin, teleology, and even consistent referentiality cannot be obtained in historical reference, there can be a provisional referentiality and access to the real without a return to the classical history of foundationalism, immanence and teleology that contributes to hegemony. These texts are also tied together by their deployment of nonnarrative methods that counter the deformation of the real that takes place within narrative discourse according to White, among others. The primary texts considered are Art Spiegelman's Maus, Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts, Graham Swift's Waterland, and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.