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All the world’s a spy novelMichael Wood
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Vol. 42 No. 15 · 30 July 2020

All the world’s a spy novel

Michael Wood

3301 words
Counterfactuals: Paths of the Might Have Been 
by Christopher Prendergast.
Bloomsbury, 257 pp., £19.99, February 2019, 978 1 350 09009 5
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Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction 
by Catherine Gallagher.
Chicago, 359 pp., £26.50, January 2018, 978 0 226 51241 9
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Historians​ are often suspicious of the notion of the counterfactual. It’s hard enough to establish what happens, they suggest, without having to worry about what might have happened. The facts are the facts, aren’t they? When we have agreed on what they are, of course. But then contemporary historians inherit a large legacy of hubris, the knowledge of ‘how it really was’, in von Ranke’s famous phrase, or of ‘the way it is’, as Walter Cronkite said on US television for twenty years or so, and they have to deal with their own scepticism and ours. We could start by wondering what ‘it’ was, before we even get to asking what ‘really’ means.

And then there is Nietzsche’s remark that became a mantra in the days of deconstruction: ‘There are no facts, only interpretations.’ That seems pretty final, and designed to lead us badly astray. But Nietzsche turns out to be up to something more complicated. His complete assertion was: ‘Against the positivism which halts at phenomena – “There are only facts” – I would say: no, facts are just what there aren’t, there are only interpretations.’ This means, I take it, that to someone who said, ‘There are only interpretations,’ he would say something else, perhaps what he says in his own next sentence: ‘We cannot determine any fact “in itself”: perhaps it’s nonsense to want to do such a thing.’ The problem, as this revised possibility suggests, lies not with the facts but with what Christopher Prendergast calls ‘fact-complacency’ and ‘fact-naturalisation’. ‘The “facts”,’ Prendergast writes, ‘can have an imprisoning rather than an anchoring effect, as the mask that “realism” wears when acting as the servant of power.’ And again: ‘Matters of fact, facts of life, facts of nature, facts on the ground – these are expressions that together can acquire something akin to the force of gravity.’ Prendergast quotes Mill’s wonderful remark about the ‘deep slumber of a decided opinion’, and we may well think that they also serve who only sit and sleep.

For both Prendergast and Catherine Gallagher, the counterfactual is not any old fantasy but an alarm call for those who have been sleeping too long or too comfortably. There are attractions and risks in reaching for such an instrument. The might-have-been may offer ‘the perfume of the possible’, as it does for Prendergast in David Lean’s film Brief Encounter. This is quite different from what he calls ‘the cheap fragrance splashed all over’ Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, which becomes Prendergast’s shorthand for feckless or footling counterfactual thinking. He doesn’t want us to get caught up in ‘counterfactual reasoning seemingly bent on staging the shipwreck of Reason’, and returns again and again to the task of distinguishing between ‘the silly and the serious’, or ‘the vacuous and the non-vacuous’.

Similarly, Gallagher has no quarrel with historians whose ‘criticisms seem reasonable’ when they complain of the ‘distortion’ counterfactual thinking often engages in, for example, or its ‘instrumental subordination of scholarship to other aims’, or its ‘general focus on judgment and on making value-laden comparisons between what happened and what might have happened’. Her idea is to see ‘the counterfactual-historical mode in all its guises’ as ‘itself a historical object’. Interestingly, this approach produces an argument in favour not of any particular counterfactual thought but of the mode itself, which she at one point calls ‘actual history’s champion’ rather than its enemy.

But the mode will work in this way only if it is in close dialogue with the facts, rather than seeking to escape from them or simply to invert them. The element of countering has to be active, partly in the sense of contradicting, but also partly as a form of answer ‘merely in reciprocation’, as the Oxford English Dictionary cautiously puts it, a continuation of the conversation that paraded facts are apt to close. Gallagher writes eloquently of ‘the vitality of the permanently unfinished’, and suggests that counterfactual stories can ‘seem enduring not because they solve problems but because they destabilise solutions’. While counterfactuals are obviously fictional in one sense – Gallagher writes in detail about fictions of the American Civil War and of Britain during and after the Second World War – the terms don’t entirely overlap. For one thing, a fiction doesn’t have to be untrue, only hypothetical. ‘Who can boast of being a mere imposter?’ Borges asked. The counterfactual by contrast knows very well what it is not. It targets the facts it wishes to overturn or replace.

The two books complement each other very well, and, taken together, add up to more than the sum of two deeply meditated, extensively researched projects. But they also have different rhythms and goals. Telling It Like It Wasn’t is a history that modulates into criticism (without ceasing to be history), and Counterfactuals is a study of what we might call the problematics of thinking otherwise. It is far from unhistorical but it does confess to ‘roaming’, since it investigates ‘a category of thought and language’ that shows up in many times and places.

Gallagher’s book, as one of her chapter titles announces, is a ‘history of counterfactual history’, followed by a series of explorations of two related modes that she calls ‘alternate history’ (‘departures from the historical record’ but without fictional characters) and ‘the alternate history novel’ (which does have fictional characters). The first part of the journey takes us from Leibniz to Clausewitz, and shows that, although counterfactual thought existed in antiquity, it became an instrument of inquiry only in the 18th century, mainly in philosophy and military history. Clausewitz is especially eloquent on the subject: ‘Critical analysis is not just an evaluation of the means actually employed, but all possible means – which first have to be formulated, that is, invented.’ Gallagher’s next move is to look at some wonderful 19th-century French counter-fictions with titles like Napoléon et la conquête du monde (1836), Uchronie (1857) and Éternité par les astres (1872). The title of the first is self-explanatory – the book, by Louis Geoffroy-Château, is about what didn’t happen after Waterloo. Charles Renouvier’s Uchronie has precisely the opposite politics. It is ‘set … in ancient Rome to emphasise that France’s recent illiberal path had international as well as national repercussions’. Auguste Blanqui’s Éternité par les astres is a world full of alternative possibilities, especially political ones, and therefore something like the reverse of Leibniz’s universe, where God has looked at all the counterfactuals on our behalf and decided against them. Leibniz himself offers a modest example: ‘I am not astonished men are sometimes sick, but … I am astonished they are sick so little and not always.’

The later parts of the book consider rewritings, both historical and fictional, of the American Civil War and the Second World War. These events are of special interest because of the doubts that assail their apparent finality. Could the North have lost the war by winning it? American politics often suggest this is the case, without any help from the counterfactual imagination. The war, Gallagher says, was ‘lamented as it was being fought and regretted in recollection’. The case is quite different with the Second World War, which ‘seems to occupy the polar opposite position’: one war didn’t do enough, the other war did everything. But what was won in the Second World War, and where is it now? The question is all the more important because neo-Nazis seem to be everywhere.

The more we consult, with Gallagher’s guidance, the books and movies and television shows that look at the old questions, the closer the complications of regret and disappointment come to each other. Gallagher writes especially well about Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred (1979), in which a time-travelling African-American writer has to collaborate in old evils if she and her family are to come into existence. ‘The injuries of slavery,’ Gallagher writes, ‘are at once systemic and deeply personal, routed through the longings of intimates as often as through the calculations of strangers.’ She has very good things to say about Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992) too, in which the Germans win the war and cover up the Holocaust. The novel keeps testing the difference between not knowing of such matters and not caring about them: ‘Indifference,’ Gallagher says, ‘is the modality of loss that Fatherland explores most fully.’ It’s interesting too that, as she says in her acknowledgments, her book ‘began in pure contingency’, when one of her Berkeley students, Benjamin Widiss, gave a presentation on Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), a novel in which Roosevelt has been assassinated and Germany and Japan rule the world.

Prendergast’s book shows us, through a series of examples, how a mode of thinking keeps getting into trouble, and also why, in the end, the trouble is largely good news. It opens with a consideration of ‘scale’ in relation to ‘the remit of the counterfactual’ which ends with a brilliant discussion of what Pascal was doing when he remarked: ‘If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter the whole face of the earth would have changed.’ This sentence has been ‘widely quoted, generally derided and commonly misunderstood’, as Prendergast says, taken as a banal reminder that small things can have large consequences or that the quest for meaning in history is a hopeless one. E.H. Carr, curiously, comes closer to Pascal. He is willing to believe that Antony’s feelings for Cleopatra may well have had something to do with the Battle of Actium – ‘it is unnecessarily discourteous to Cleopatra’s beauty,’ he says, ‘to suggest that Antony’s infatuation had no cause’ – but that doesn’t mean history is just a bundle of accidents, only that there are certain causal chains the historian can do nothing with.

For Pascal, the question of scale appears in what Prendergast calls the ‘parodic element’ in his remark, nicely represented, in French and in English, by the juxtaposition of a person’s nose with the world’s face, and the quest for meaning in history is a mistake not because it is unavailing but because it shouldn’t have been undertaken: ‘Pascal’s aim is not to imagine an alternative history, better or worse than, or even fundamentally different from, an actual history. It is rather to place all history, actual and possible, under the common aegis of senselessness.’

Prendergast’s fourth, ‘pivotal’ chapter, ‘Crossroads’, where choices are made and not made, evokes three decisive moments, ‘three tales, three gamblers’, as the chapter’s subtitle has it. The gamblers are Oedipus, Petrarch and Ignatius of Loyola. The first, leaving Delphi with some horribly uncounterfactual news, arrives at a crossroads, and chooses the road (although he doesn’t know it) that will lead him to kill his father in a fit of what Daniel Mendelsohn calls road rage. The second, trying to resolve the deep divisions within himself, decides to try the Sortes Virgilianae not with Virgil’s text but with Augustine’s Confessions. And the third …

This is the most elaborate instance in the book, and very hard to get out of your mind once you have started thinking about it. What happens is that a moment of what looks like pure chance is presented as an example of how closely God directs our lives. While travelling Ignatius meets a ‘Saracen’ who likes to discuss religious ideas. He has no trouble, he says, with the virginal conception of Christ, but can’t see how Mary remained a virgin after giving birth. The Saracen rides on, and Ignatius realises that as a soldier of Christ, which is what he is at this point, he probably should have killed the unbeliever for insulting the Holy Mother. He knows where the man is headed. Is he going to follow him and do the deed? Here is how Prendergast’s source continues the story:

At length, wearied by his inward struggle and not arriving at any determination, he decided to settle all his doubts in the following novel way: he would give free rein to his horse, and if, on coming to the crossroad, his horse should turn into the path that led to the destination of the Moor, he would pursue and kill him; but if his horse kept to the highroad, he would allow the wretch to escape. Having done as he decided, it happened through the Providence of God that his horse kept to the highroad.

This way, he made it to Montserrat without killing anybody, founded a religious order and became a saint.

The story as Ignatius told it (towards the end of his life), and as modern commentators insist, is all about his modesty and his faith. We all make mistakes, even about the question of making mistakes. The situation is slightly complicated by the fact that Ignatius is borrowing his behaviour from a book – from Don Quixote, to be precise, where the hero on one occasion leaves the choice of road to ‘his horse’s discretion’. Cervantes likes this kind of trope, and later has a lion bemused by what it sees as the ‘infantile behaviour’ (‘las niñerías’) of adult humans. Ignatius isn’t sharing his decision with his horse, though; he is treating the horse’s movement as a throw of the dice. He is, as Prendergast says, making ‘a decision not to decide’, so that God’s Providence will not have any inconvenient mortal gesture getting in the way. The question is whether the counterfactual – what if the horse had taken the other path? – can ‘have a place here other than as a threat to the providential order’. Surely, as Prendergast says, ‘there can be no “ifs”.’ ‘God is invoked to close the door to them.’ ‘But not,’ we are reminded, ‘before the syntax of Ignatius’s own prose opens the door to them with his own conditionals.’ The believer in God’s infinite care needs to get back in line very quickly here, and Prendergast can’t resist a mischievous thought in relation to Ignatius’s giving up, on arrival at Montserrat, not only his sword but his horse. ‘Too much should probably not be read into this beyond the obvious symbolic gesture of Ignatius’s renunciation of the soldier’s life.’ But Ignatius is putting some distance between himself and his old accomplice, and as Prendergast says, ‘a thought lingers: bet once and win is one thing, but best not to push your luck, if that is what it is.’

These​ two books invite more interesting questions than I can count, and certainly more than I can unravel – although of course part of the pleasure of thinking about them is their resistance to unravelling. I’ll return now to two of them. They have to do with language and fiction. At many moments in both books, and especially when Gallagher distinguishes between an ‘unaccomplished’ and a ‘merely imaginary’ event – she is thinking of Hitler’s non-invasion of England after Dunkirk – or when Prendergast speaks of chance and luck as ‘the common names’ for ‘pure contingency’, we seem to hear something like language itself, or a complicated culture, murmuring about the secret commissions it is giving to related but different words, allowing them to seem to clarify things while reproducing our bafflement. What does it mean to give the name of Providence to luck that God has a hand in? Why is luck good or bad, an incentive to gambling, while chance seems weirdly neutral? And what was it like in the old days when Fortune played a larger role in ordinary consciousness, taking up quite a bit of the space now occupied by choice and responsibility?

One of the problems of the larger category of fiction (as distinct from the counterfactual) is that it seems endless, leaving nothing out. This is why Gallagher and Prendergast choose to stay close to the logic of countering, as represented by the former’s impeccable definition. A counterfactual is ‘an explicit or implicit past-tense, hypothetical, conditional conjecture pursued when the antecedent condition is known to be contrary to fact’. I sympathise with their wariness. Loose talk of fiction often courts what Prendergast calls ‘epistemological chaos’. I do want to suggest, however, that excessive confidence in the idea of non-fiction – ‘who can boast of being a mere imposter?’ – may have about it an element of the hubris I was ascribing to old-time historians and reporters, and to anyone who, in Nietzsche’s phrase, ‘halts at phenomena’ and doesn’t feel the need to go further. This is not the case with Gallagher and Prendergast, and I am not suggesting that everything is fiction – that’s just the would-be sophisticated opposite of ‘there are only facts.’ But it does seem that fiction is pretty much everywhere, since it’s hard to go very far into the non-fictional day without a metaphor or a joke or a playful or polite lie. This is all harmless, but it gets worrying when the mode moves into the larger worlds of politics and history. Even then, we are perhaps more surprised than we ought to be, and it often feels as if our conceptual language has not kept up with what we know.

Can this be right? Hasn’t fiction always been everywhere? It probably has, but ‘always’ has its divisions. Shakespeare’s audiences no doubt knew that all the world was a stage even before he told them, but they were more attuned to deceit than we are, and they didn’t have behind them an ambitious, simplifying 19th century that abolished so many uncertainties. It created new ones too, of course. In Thomas Pynchon’s novel V., a character says: ‘Suppose … some time between 1859 and 1919, the world contracted a disease which no one ever took the trouble to diagnose because the symptoms were too subtle – blending in with the events of history, no different one by one but altogether – fatal.’ On this model, and on our topic, we might say something like: Suppose some time between 1895 (when Alfred Dreyfus was sent to Devil’s Island) and 1919 (the date of the Treaty of Versailles) – or if you prefer, between 1908 (the date of Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday) and 1915 (the date of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps) – the world turned into a spy novel, and none of us really noticed.

The truth doesn’t disappear in this world, but its existence often seems to matter less than its management or its exile. It is used to tell lies, for example, or to cover up a cover-up. In the course of the Dreyfus Affair, Major Ferdinand Esterhazy was accused of spying on the French on behalf of the Germans. He belatedly admitted that this was true, but that he was doing it for the French. Similarly, when John Le Carré’s spy Alec Leamas needs to act as if he is drunk in order to gain some information, he really is drunk, because pretending won’t do the trick. In these cases, the fact and the fiction coincide, but the truth seems to be elsewhere. Esterhazy probably wasn’t a double agent, but he knew a good story when he saw one; and Leamas’s scheme only makes use of drunkenness, his interest is elsewhere. This is very close to what Gallagher says about ‘the detective/spy novel’ itself during the Cold War. It ‘was already structured like an alternate-world novel, for the actual universe of international espionage is so deeply surreptitious that it can be conceived of as a parallel universe’. My improbable fable just inverts the grammar. Many elements in the supposedly parallel world of fiction have long been at home in the place where we live.

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