Novels: History and Literature: The Invention of Truth in Three Novels

What should literature add to the story? A comparison of three exciting contemporary novels that attempt to explore history.

It is often said of art in general and literature in particular that it highlights a truth that lies deeper than the abstract. But how is the novel supposed to do that when it deals with historical events? Three possible paths can be identified in the current business, each causing quite a stir in its own way.

American writer Hernan Diaz had the best chance of winning the Booker Prize for best English-language novel of the year within a month with “Loyalty.” German Helmut Krauser was placed on the throne by star writer Daniel Kellmann by saying “When did Jane begin”; And Swiss Alain-Claude Sulzer’s “Double Life” enters the first fictional revival of a pair of legendary brothers in the real world of literature.

In “Double Life”, Alain-Claude Sulzer takes us back to Paris in the mid-19th century

“Imagination is the queen of truth and the possible is one of its provinces” – Sulzer put this sentence to the poet Charles Baudelaire at the beginning of his book, with which he brought us back to Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century. In the classic way of the historical novel, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, the brothers after whom it is named, offer us not only the most prestigious French literary prize – their memoirs are themselves the most interesting and revealing documentaries, half-literary insights into society. Life at the time, including the royal family and star authors such as Zola, Hugo and Flaubert.

It is clever that Sulzer does not make the legendary brothers themselves, but their housekeeper, the title character – an indirect view, which at the same time promises special everyday knowledge and an interstitial space in which imagination can follow intuition – into a more intimate reality, as I already felt, to be with Goncourts or even to be on nature. Only then does Sulzer paste everything with colorful pictures, detailed descriptions, and emotional qualities in such a way that readers no longer have any room for empathy and projection, which alone can provide the truth here. So he has just written a fairy tale about two brothers, who are sober in the life of the Goncourt. Pity.

Helmut Krauser takes a completely different, more personal approach. In fact, he fully reveals his factual base when he quotes many historical sources on Joan of Arc and Jeanne de Belleville, legendary figures of the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries respectively. Daniel Kellman recently emphasized how highly skilled he was in dealing with such cultural and historical subjects, and thus accused the Germans of not giving him enough credit for one of their greatest authors because he might have been too clever for them. So does this also appear in When Did Jane Start?

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When did Jane start: The great alternative narrative of Helmut Krauser

As a means of truth, Krauser adds a pair of narrators to his novel that is not just fiction but fiction: raised characters, more than a hundred years old, who know white magic, and also encounter historical figures in rituals and can talk to them. . And embark on a path of strength deeper into the work of the story.

Krauser writes about Joan of Arc.


Yes, that sounds pretty weird, especially since it’s sometimes annoying that Krauser lets his old souls explode into contemporary phrases (“Who cares?”), inserting rock song lyrics as magic spells and at the same time mocking the wake-up speech of a woman’s sensitivity in League . But the mixture of history and fiction then unfolds at least one great alternative narrative through some wit, like the fact that it was the plague that made the Renaissance possible in the first place. And only those who are willing to question what is supposed to be understandable and unambiguous can walk the path of truth. But as Krauser said to the reader, “If all this sounds so silly and so cool, so colorful, and you can’t even imagine it, just put on the blinker so that at some point it all starts to make sense at your level.”

“Loyalty” by Hernan Diaz tells the story of a legendary New York stock market speculator and his wife

Finally, the barrier to entry in Hernán Díaz is the lowest. Or not. Because “Treue” (meaning “trust” in English and thus also meaning the octopus-like form of the company) tells as accurately and vividly as nineteenth-century classics (such as Edith Wharton’s “Age of Innocence”) of the legendary and successful story of a New York stock market speculator and his dazzling wife Oddly enough, but then tragically ill. It comes on as pure fiction, but cleverly sheds real light on a time when the financial industry, which continues to have a killer impact globally today, took shape with billions of dollars in short buying and bear market bets. But this novel is only one of four parts of the book. In another case, for example, the speculator, who saw himself and his private life exposed through that novel and thus maliciously distorted, commissions an author to compare his own, and thus begins to research.

Diaz writes about the New York stock market crash of 1929.

Photo: dpa

Thus a new level of truth emerges from the pure interweaving of the narratives (which, incidentally, can be read neatly one by one simply and easily). It is not only the unscrupulous financial market and the moral self-aggrandizement of the players before it. Above all, the focus is on women, their role and with them the reality of gender relations. In which one does the novel (written by a man) represent the wife, and in which one does it represent her husband? On the other hand, does anyone really doubt the dedicated author and which one she saw herself? Since the end of Diaz’s book consists of her own notes, it also becomes poetry, and thus, see Baudelaire, is true in its own right. “Only with great effort can I convince myself that I am here today.” – “Nature is always a lot less comical than I remember. It has a much better taste than I have.”—“I put my hand in a heap of warm moss. I watched it slowly swell up again and erase my mark.”

books – Alain Claude Sulzer. double life. Galliani, 304 p. , 23 € – Helmut Krauser: When did Jane start?. Berlin, 384 pages, €25 – Hernan Diaz: Loyalty. Translated by Hans Mayer, Hanser 416 p., 27 €

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