The screams were silver

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Secrecy by Rupert Thomson
    Granta, 312 pp, £14.99, March 2013, ISBN 978 1 84708 163 6

Where Jim Crace’s Harvest refused all the conventions of the historical novel, Rupert Thomson’s Secrecy seems to run eagerly towards them, and yet the effect once again is of a genre being unpicked and rewoven.[*] A superabundance of signposts, it turns out, can be as disorienting as their absolute absence.

Exposition of period and person is almost caricaturally lucid in Secrecy, with ‘The year was 1701’ the book’s second sentence, and the narrator (of what is in fact a frame rather than the story proper) addressing herself helpfully on the second page: ‘at least I’d lived. Fifty-six, though … And the plain, shapeless robes of an abbess – me, Marguerite-Louise of Orléans! Who would have thought it?’ The rather novelettish flavour disappears as the narrative takes hold. A mysterious visitor tells this unusual Reverend Mother his life story, and is similarly scrupulous about chronology (‘Late afternoon. April the eighteenth, 1691’). There’s a lot of emphasis on exactness: ‘I remembered a bright spring morning in 1675,’ for instance, or ‘a letter of invitation from Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany’ – the numeration of the duke seems particularly unnatural since he still held the title in 1701. This is just the sort of over-eleboration that arouses suspicion in statements to the police.

The visitor is Gaetano Zummo, artificer of morbid tableaux in wax, a real person, originally from Sicily, who lived from 1656 to 1701 (and so is justifiably unwell-seeming when he appears at the beginning of the book). The museum of La Specola in Florence is proud possessor of a group of Zummo’s teatrini, and it’s his time in the city that is Thomson’s subject in Secrecy.

There are advantages to be gained, when writing about a historical figure, from changing the name (if nothing else), cutting the direct link to biography so as to gain imaginative space, in the form of freedom for readers as well as for the writer. That was Peter Ackroyd’s procedure in Hawksmoor (1985), with the baroque architect made over as Nicholas Dyer and a 20th-century policeman somehow assuming the discarded name. Ackroyd has also represented historical figures such as Wilde and Chatterton directly, as well as revisiting the name-substitution tactic at least once. Johann Ludwig Heinrich Julius Obermann in The Fall of Troy (2006) is not (Johann Ludwig Heinrich Julius) Schliemann, but it’s Schliemann that he’s not – Schliemann and no one else. That’s enough to create a little cordon of protected space round the book. A.S. Byatt models characters less directly, avoiding actual portraiture of historical individuals. Olive Wellwood in The Children’s Book (2009) is a transformation of E. Nesbit that includes plenty of other material, the personage melted down and recast, richly alloyed.

Byatt and Ackroyd began making this kind of formal decision before the arrival of the internet, but instant access to information strengthens the case for such defensive strategies. It takes only a mouse-moment to move from ignorance to an unrooted expertise. There’s a lesser allocation of breathing space to projects that both plunder the real and depart from it. It becomes all too easy to collapse a fictional narrative into a piece of failed history, turning it into a travesty of something it never claimed to be. Thomson mentions La Specola and a number of other institutions in his acknowledgments but hasn’t killed his book with too much conscientious research, as happened with Romola, another venture into Florentine history.

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[*] Adam Mars-Jones wrote about Harvest in the LRB of 21 February.