Theodore Zeldin

  • Dead Certainties by Simon Schama
    Granta, 334 pp, £15.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 14 014230 4

‘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.

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