Hardly fiction

January 29 2014

Certain works of literature […] are concerned with public affairs in the histories of civilizations and for this reason can only be classified as historical, although the technique of “fiction” is employed throughout, so that [they] are indistinguishable in form from other dramas and novels. Such works are Aeschylus’s Persae, Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts, Feuchtwanger’s Jew Süss, and Benet’s John Brown’s Body.

Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel would be another. Will the first part, August 1914, which is about the Battle of Tannenberg, be rediscovered this year? It made a big impression when it came out in England in 1972 and seems to have sunk without trace.

[Footnote: Tolstoy’s War and Peace does not, on the whole, come under this category. It does, of course, contain elements of historiography – for example the thesis, on which the author harps, that military commanders are passive instruments who register events without determining them, and again the rather wearisomely repeated comparison of the Grande Armée in retreat to a wounded beast. In essence, however, War and Peace is a true novel in the popular sense inasmuch as it is primarily concerned with the personal relations of human beings.]

Persae is about the defeat of Xerxes’ navy at Salamis. The Dynasts is a verse drama about the Napoleonic wars, allegedly the longest English drama in existence, and never staged. Jew Süss is a novel about the life of Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, a Court Jew or financial aide to Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg in Stuttgart (reigned 1733-37). John Brown’s Body is an epic poem about the white American abolitionist John Brown (1800-59).

August 1914

Bodley Head, 1972

A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934

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