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why doesn’t the historical novel “die”?

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The historical novel is alive and kicking, on the shelves and on the screen, in the skilled hands of an Englishwoman and a New Zealander. From the first two volumes of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on the Tudor dynasty, composed by Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies (both awarded the Man Booker Prize) e The Mirror and the Light, the BBC drew the TV miniseries Wolf Hall, winner of the Golden Globe 2016 for best miniseries. The Luminaries by Eleanor Cotton, also winner of the Man Booker Prize, is set in the period of the gold rush in New Zealand in the late nineteenth century; this historical novel was also adapted as a television miniseries in 2021.

In reality, the historical novel was born and resurrected several times over the centuries, from the cycle of Waverley by Sir Walter Scott (1814) and his reconstruction of the second Jacobite uprising by Bonnie Prince Charlie, the leader of the revolt portrayed in the novel as a fascinating figure more for the myth surrounding the last heir of the Stuart dynasty than for historical truth. Although Scott’s novel is an apology for “national unity” as it reinterprets the Stuart (Scotland) vs. Tudors (England) as inevitably destined for the fusion (according to Scott) of the two worlds, the work greatly contributed to the birth of a Scottishness to oppose the Englishness. Until the end ofEdwardian was, the historical novel continued to dominate the British market (and the French, Italian and Russian markets followed with Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas, Alessandro Manzoni and Lev Tolskoj) but increasingly transformed into a sterile genre, capable only of representing more or less decadent a dead world, without any capacity for investigating the past, without that nationalistic inspiration that had inspired it, and without any capacity to illuminate the present.

After the First World War, in England the advent of Modernism and its interest not in the great paintings of the times populated by historical figures in the background and made vital by the vicissitudes of common men, but for the stream of consciousness, gave what appeared to be the coup de grace to the historical novel, whose allure of heroic battles did not withstand the impact of the first, devastating world conflict.

But far from the sirens of psychology and protected (at the time) by the Atlantic Ocean, the United States produced Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell. It was the first major epic of the American Civil War and also an incredibly successful film in 1939, awarded eight Oscars the following year. An expression of the American segregationist culture of the first half of the twentieth century, it will sooner or later be a victim of that cancel culture revisionist who instead could spare, indeed, bring in vogue the large group of historical novels – with Thomas Mann and Bertold Brecht among others – which he presented in the same years, under the guise of a Julius Caesar, or of the crowds claiming their Augustus , Nazism, restoring part of its original strength to the historical novel.

However, this was not enough to prevent what today is considered a masterpiece of Italian literature and historical fiction, The Leopard by Tommaso di Lampedusa, was rejected by publishers in 1958; how could this fresco of an aristocracy be resurrected in a dying absolutist order and in the midst of the birth of a feeling of national unity, this narrative of the laborious adaptation to this “subversion of the order of things” in Sicily?

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After the Second World War, the historical novel became an instrument in the hands of the “periphery of the empire”, explicitly declaring its “revolutionary power”. The meta-historical narrative began in the beautiful islands of the Caribbean first with Alejo Carpentier, The kingdom of this world (1949), followed by the disruptive One hundred years of solitude by Garcia Marquez; a wave in flood with many other authors for at least thirty years.

In the US, racism started the American branch of the genre with Sophie’s Choice by William Styron (1979) – 1982 film adaptation with Meryl Streep -, The Purple Color by Alice Walker – film adaptation by Steven Spielberg in 1985, Beloved by Toni Morrison (Nobel Prize for Literature). This branch was added to the existing one of the “empire” with The charm of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, representation of the most turbulent decade in American history (Vietnam, costume revolution, JFK, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement). The giant took the same line Underworld by Don DeLillo, more than a fresco, a kaleidoscope of the USA in the chaos of the Cold War, and American pastoral by Philip Roth, again on that decade of Vietnam War, civil rights movements and political killers who transformed a generation. Similar operation attempted with Falling Man, on the trauma of the Twin Towers for the American conscience.

The recent efforts of Mantel and Cotton show once again how the historical novel touches the “bare nerve” of an identity, whether it is to be accepted or refuted – Hilary Mantel openly poses as a critical voice of that identity. Englishness that the Tudors have defined in a radically different and definitive way. When will the elaboration of Afghanistan’s mourning for the US? or will it be removed in the fast narrative of the network and the media?

What ultimately allowed the survival, mutation, transformation of the historical novel, born as a rib of the fashion novel? Probably precisely the fact of having been generated by the attention, typical of the fashion novel, to the spirit and customs of an era, not the present one as in the fashion novel, but the past one, colored by a desire for identity, to be forged o find or criticize, individually and collectively; a moment in which the destiny of the individual is intertwined with that of a sociologically identifiable group at a crucial moment in one’s history, and in which the story of one brings many closer to the life of many, for a love, a hate, an injustice suffered or saleswoman, a search for meaning and destiny. The historical novel elaborates the griefs, traumas, joys, passions of a “people” and prevents them from being canceled by those who tell us the story as a mere chronicle – for their exclusive use and control, mind you – of facts dead and deceased.

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