Dead Certainties 
by Simon Schama.
Granta, 334 pp., £15.99, May 1991, 0 14 014230 4
Show More
Show More

‘Are you a satisfied man?’

‘I am certainly not that,’ replies Simon Schama.

But he is the opposite of a revolutionary. Even when he complains, his criticisms are carefully padded, as though in boxing-gloves, so that they do not hurt. Perhaps these days no one can admit to being satisfied.

On the other hand, he is the Mellon Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard and he has just published a work of fiction. Is he a theologian who has lost his faith? Has the hidden frustration come to the surface at last?

His novel is about 18th-century America, which is not his speciality, nor mine. But it has enabled me, who am temperamentally different, to get to understand him much better, in a way that a conventional academic book would not have allowed.

The Daily Telegraph recently warned against a dangerous epidemic of academics who have misguidedly strayed into novel-writing, which, it insisted, should not be attempted by amateurs. It did not go as far as to say that a course in novel writing at the University of East Anglia should be a compulsory qualification, nor did it suggest that Iris Murdoch should have stuck to philosophy and Anita Brookner to art; nor did it examine the tradition of novel-writing by academics; going back to the Water Babies and Alice. What the Telegraph did not like was the idea that everyone had a novel in him, and could produce one in their spare time. How novelists can start except as beginners it did not explain. ‘Good novels,’ it said, ‘are written by people who make it their main business to write novels.’

But I do not mind that Schama, whose previous books have shown that he knows how to hold the attention of large numbers of readers, is not primarily interested in the writing of novels. I am curious to know what his frustration, or his ambition, is. Whereas real novelists do not find it easy to hide behind their constructions, academics, who play at being impersonal purveyors of the truth, are much more elusive behind their pontifications. Fiction enables them to say what they would not otherwise divulge.

Schama’s new book deals with two historical events presented as fiction. The first is General Wolfe’s death in 1759, and the second a murder committed by a Harvard professor in 1849. Instead of summarising the plot, I prefer to offer you the plot which I think is concealed behind this story. I do not say that I have found the key. Other keys may turn the lock just as well. But this is what I now feel, which I did not feel before.

The first clue I found was banal. Schama is both a man of our times and uncomfortable in his times. He is a man of our times in the sense that he is not going anywhere in particular: he is a citizen of the age which comes after the age of ideology. He has no strong political commitments. He does not, despite his title, preach Weber or Foucault at you; indeed heeven puts a joke in his novel to show his exasperation with his students who insist on serving all statements about power with Foucault’s sauce. Schama is a family man. That may seem irrelevant to stern readers. But his deepest concern is for his children, for conjugal love, for his home, and the tulips in his garden. It is no accident that his book on the Dutch in the 17th century focused on domesticity.

However, he is uncomfortable in his times, to such an extent that he dislikes writing about them. ‘When one arrives at Bismarck,’ he says, ‘one starts feeling the weather go cold.’ He was once persuaded to venture into the contemporary era, in a book about the Rothschilds, but ‘the further I advanced in the 20th century, the more clumsy and hollow and mechanical I thought my perception and writing was. I could never write very satisfactorily about the world I have myself seen.’

Having been brought up as an Orthodox Jew, and ‘having left that definitively behind’, he held a series of seminars at Harvard on Jewish history to see ‘whether there was anything I wanted to resume from my slightly depleted sense of Jewish identity’. But the experiment left him even ‘more confused, uncertain, alienated’. He could not find ‘something into which I could fit’. That was how he came to write about Rothschild. But even then he did not discover what Jewishness meant.

After 12 years in the USA, he still does not feel wholly at home there, nor in his native England either. But ‘I am very happy in Boston.’ Or rather in Lexington, a suburb with a village atmosphere, where he can imagine himself to be remote from the intellectual fumes of modernity.

In Harvard too, his home is not the faculty, but the Centre for European Studies, a little village with a family atmosphere, many of whose other members are also Europeans in voluntary semi-exile. Schama’s Embarrassment of Riches ends with him declaring his love for the villages of the Netherlands, sprouting organically to express neighbourly intimacy, his admiration for a society which does everything modestly, which devotes itself to defending small things.

I say to him that his writings have all been laments. That can be seen from his very first book: yes, he agrees, it was ‘certainly a lament, that’s for sure. I had never thought about this. I think of myself as a fairly sanguine historian. But it doesn’t sound like it when we review all these things. You’re right.’

That means he does not search for solutions, nor does he offer his readers any message. He even tries to avoid having conclusions in his books. Citizens ends with a sort of conclusion though a brief one, which he regrets; he only added it because he felt it was ‘incumbent on him’; he would have skipped it ‘if I had had the courage of my convictions’. Both of the stories in this latest book have endings deliberately smudged with an ‘aftermath’. The first story was originally published in Granta, whose editor removed the aftermath, but now Schama has insisted on bringing it back. In the second story, whose climax is the hanging of the culprit, he cannot bear to let that be the conclusion; life resumes with the dead man’s relatives writing letters, opening up new prospects. There is no end, any more than there is a goal.

The reason is that Schama is above all a storyteller. If he had lived in the 17th century, he would have been known as such – ‘I would have loved that’ – or he would have been a polisher of lenses, around whom little crowds of people would gather because he told such wonderful stories. ‘It’s an old Jewish tradition,’ says Schama. It is a universal tradition. The storyteller’s aim is to mesmerise his listeners, to make it impossible for them to stop listening. So it does not much matter what the story is about. The subjects of his books have not been chosen for deep reasons, but as a result of various accidents. Citizens was written because a publisher telephoned to suggest it. The Rothschild book was commissioned by a Rothschild.

However, Schama’s novel represents a denial of the assumptions of the dignitaries who established his professorship, that life is a series of causes and effects, which can be explained with the help of the social sciences. Historians, he says, are specialists in fitting pieces of explanation between the facts of the past, but their explanations are more or less guesswork, suppositions. In this novel, he has used a lot of documents, just like a conventional historian. He did not invent the trial of his murderer, and he uses transcripts of what was said more or less verbatim. But instead of inserting explanations in the usual historian’s authoritative tone, he invents imaginary conversations or interior monologues which are an alternative form of supposition, for whose accuracy he makes no claims. Historians invent causes; so he has taken invention a stage further, and openly told the reader that all this speculation about motives is guesswork.

Schama has not lost his faith in history, and does not want to say that all history is fiction. He is critical of the kind of academic history where ‘footnote speaks to footnote,’ but he still values that as a useful activity, and is not averse to indulging in it sometimes. However, he rightly recognises that what distinguishes him is the pleasure he obtains from allowing his imagination to roam almost freely, while remaining loosely tethered to the archives. What he resents is the academic restrictions placed on imagination: university ‘disciplines’ demand professionalism, which means that they expect their adherents to behave in a predictable manner.

Schama has a dream, about once a year, in which he is locked in his old college in Cambridge (England), and cannot get out. Though he ‘quite liked the ceremoniousness’ of that life, living in college is a memory of claustrophobia. The inability to escape haunts him as much as the dislike of being put in a pigeon-hole. His great regret is that he was forced by the university system to choose between literature and history. Now, having won his union card, he believes he is free to mix the two, to let his imagination wander.

I have read a review of his book in which he is accused of falling between two stools: why did he not write a real historical novel, with no pretence to accuracy, and without the appendix of sources to prove his erudition? It is not surprising that the question should be asked by critics whose expertise is literature, and who judge such offerings by the criteria of their speciality, expecting him to create ‘fictional life’. But that is to fail to notice that his book achieves other purposes.

Authors (indeed all individuals) are so mysterious, so difficult to understand, that any help, of any kind, is welcome. It is only slowly that books reveal whether they are works of art or not. Meanwhile, they are visiting-cards, by which people introduce themselves. As such, they are successful if they are not instantly forgotten, if they arouse curiosity and a desire to prolong the conversation, if they establish a link of sympathy between author and reader, if they reveal to the reader sympathies he or she was not fully aware of. The more imagination there is in a book, the more chance there is of that happening, the more interesting and unexpected will the encounters be. The fictional world, for me, is a playing-field where one gets to know people who would otherwise be strangers.

I can now reread Schama’s earlier works from a new perspective. There are some ways in which he is totally different from me – I am interested in the past only because I am interested in knowing how we can have some influence on the future; a narrative for me is only the raw material for my thoughts. But I now see how we share a fondness for the play of the imagination, and a conviction that professionalism is a slow form of suicide, if it is taken to mean the exclusion of fantasy, the refusal to attempt the seemingly impossible. Learning to write history is really quite easy: but once you have learnt the rules, you are in danger of repeating the same gestures for ever, varying only the sources you use, the names and the places. We both prefer more risky adventures.

However, whereas he is interested in colouring his language and creating discontinuities in his narrative largely for aesthetic pleasure, I regard the purpose of mixing history and fiction as a method of imagining how events might have occurred differently, of suggesting how people can see themselves as having more freedom than they thought they had.

He is not of course the first historian of the French Revolution to combine history and fiction. When the poet Lamartine introduced imaginary dialogue into his History of the Girondins (1844-7), Alexandre Dumas applauded, saying: ‘He has raised history to the level of the novel.’ However, both literary critics and professional historians condemned him: why, they asked, did he not stick to what he was good at? He resented being for ever labelled as a poet: he wanted to write a book which would rouse the masses to revolution, but also give them ‘an aversion to executions’, showing them that violence was a mistake. By using his imagination to ‘make history interesting’, he hoped to stir ordinary people into feeling passionately about history, pushing it in a new direction. But he deceived himself into believing that words were deeds.

Schama is in some ways a romantic also, who rather than having illusions about the future, seeks companionship in the past: writing about Boston is a way of making himself more comfortable in the folds of its landscape, even though what he sees is a landscape that has vanished. He treats the world like a cat, which will purr if it is stroked, and he was surprised that after publishing Citizens, angry scholars should have turned their back on him: the French did not translate the book. My view is that beyond the search for companionship lies the realisation that individuals have irreconcilable disparities which neither romantic nor national nor other enthusiasms can eliminate. New kinds of personal relationships have to be constantly invented, and fiction can help to do that.

I shall make no effort to judge Schama as a novelist. All I can say is that I felt some puzzlement in the early pages of his book, but then I was gripped. Puzzlement occurs whenever anything which cannot be immediately categorised is encountered. This is perhaps not a book for those who know in advance what they like, who have definite ideas about what constitutes good history or good literature. But it confirms that Schama is a writer of exceptional talent. And it shows that the epidemic of academic novelists is made up of as many different diseases as there are such novelists, each with its own symptoms.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences