Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Tuning In

Alan Hollinghurst - recreating historical disorientation?
Photo by Nick Lansley

I’ve recently been reminded of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, the Booker-longlisted novel which I read over summer. The novel consists of 4 parts, set in different decades spanning from 1914 to the present-day. It’s a memorable read because Hollinghurst rather mercilessly drops his reader straight into a suburban drawing room (1914?), say, or a country house weekend party (the 1920s?) and into his characters’ conversations – about music, Cabinet politicians, minor public figures, or the latest trends in interior design. Because Hollinghurst doesn’t actually give us dates, the reader is left to flounder around like a time-traveller, guessing from the small-talk which year or century they have landed in. And unsurprisingly, a lot of the initial conversation in those scenes makes no sense at all at first, because it concerns the minutiae of a particular historical moment, and you have no reference points to hold onto.

I’m on research leave this term, and spending a lot of time in the Bodleian reading a massive collection of Polish 16C political correspondence called the Acta Tomiciana. Reading The Stranger’s Child is, in many ways, like forging your way through new source material as a historian. When you’re first dropped in with the documents, up close with the fine grain of the evidence and beyond the reach of existing textbooks or earlier published research, you’re swimming in an alien world where a lot of things are totally baffling. I found this as a graduate student first dipping my toes into late medieval Polish letter collections, like the Akta Aleksandra. Who are the Nohalsky Tartars the Polish elites keep talking about, and how do they relate to the Crimean Tartars also mentioned? If a letter is written on the octave of the feast of St. Cyril, what exactly does that mean? With the Acta Tomiciana, there are now new questions: who is the humble Mr. R in Rome, and why do Polish bishops write to him so often? Who is the Cardinal of the Four Saints? Who exactly is encompassed by the troubling enigmatic but commonplace phrase ‘the enemies of Christ’? But gradually, as with Hollinghurst’s novel, you tune in. You work out who the dramatis personae are, their concerns of the moment, and roughly where the story is going. Both Hollinghurst and the Acta Tomiciana have been a sobering reminder to me that before you can say insightful or new things about the past, you first have to work out what an earth is going on at ground level. But what Hollinghurst has done very effectively, and what we as historians sometimes struggle to do because we have tuned into our sources too well, is to convey the disconcerting alienness and bracing otherness of (even the recent) past.

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