A tale of three genres: history, fiction, and the historical Detektiv.
In Russia, Scott also enjoyed a popular vogue. The similarity of his historical approach to that employed by Nikolai Karamzin in his monumental 12-volume history has often been commented on, although there is no direct evidence of his influence. As for Pushkin's writing in a historical vein, the relationship is well established if complex. (5) It should be recalled that both Karamzin and Pushkin approached the writing of history as poets. Karamzin perceived this as a double advantage: history provided dramatic incidents the poet could exploit, and there was poetic charm in what was remote in time. (6) No doubt these were among the reasons Pushkin relied on Karamzin's work for his historical detail and defended him against his critics. But Pushkin was searching for the appropriate genre in which he could best work through his historical imagination: the drama (Boris Godunov, 1824-25), the historical novel (the unfinished Arab of Peter the Great, 1827), the romantic poem (Poltava, 1828-29), the historical poem (The Bronze Horseman, 1833), the historical monograph (History of the Pugachev Rebellion, 1834) and again, after the eruption of Scott's novels on the Russian scene, the historical novel (The Captains Daughter, 1836). In each of these genres Pushkin found different possibilities for combining dramatic, lyrical, romantic, and historical elements. That he ended up with the historical novel reflects, in the view of Jurij Striedter, his appreciation through reading Scott of an emerging new historical consciousness. This was, in his view, the best way to solve the problem of how to retain a sense of historical distance and yet narrate events as a story. (7) His multiple experiments in genre gave inspiration to Russian writers (although not historians) like Dostoevskii and Tolstoi, who invented new genres that departed from the novel as it was evolving in West European literature. (8)
Undeniably influenced by Scott, did these writers of history and their spiritual descendants err in crossing the line between fact and fiction? David Hackett Fischer thinks so. In his lengthy list of historical fallacies, he defines the "aesthetic fallacy" by making oblique reference to Scott as one who "subordinated historical precision to the demands of character and plot." Hackett seals the verdict by invoking Virginia Woolf's stern but in his view "sound maxim" that "truth of fact and truth of fiction are incompatible." (9) But are they?
The most notable recent theoretical attempt to close the gap, although not one greeted enthusiastically by many historians, was Hayden White's Metahistory. White argued that the deep structural content of history, at least in the 19th century, was "generally poetic, and specifically linguistic"; its narrative was emplotted and its explanatory argumentation imitated literary conventions. Although White does not mention Scott, his treatment of Carlyle may serve as a surrogate. He extracts from Carlyle a notion of the historian's task as "palingenesis, the pious reconstruction of the past in its integrity," which requires "both scientific and poetic apprehensions of the world within the mode of Metaphor in such a way as to conceive the relationship between them as a natural 'transfer' of concepts." (10) Whatever the specific combination of elements that may be deduced from White's scheme to characterize Carlyle, his analysis suggests that there are affinities of style, emplotment, and motivation between Carlyle and Scott, or more generally between historical narrative and historical fiction. Yet, ironically, it was Scott who drew a careful distinction between the literary and the historical: "the most marked distinction between a real and a fictitious narrative [is] that the former, in reference to the remote causes of events it relates, is obscure ... whereas in the latter case it is part of the author's duty to ... account for everything." (11)
The problem with establishing the relationship between history and literature arises from the difficulty of the two concepts. Historians and literary critics have long contested the definitions and boundaries of their disciplines. For the historian, there have been romantics, realists, positivists, relativists, postmodernists, and postcolonialists, to mention only a few "schools." For literary scholars some of the same categories show up, supplemented by formalists and deconstructionists, among others. It would be a prolonged exercise to examine how representatives of all these schools engage the problem of history and literature. (12)
The controversy over whether historical fact and fiction are incompatible is related to the question, equally debated, over whether historical fiction is a distinctive genre. Taking Dostoevskii and Tolstoi as his exemplars, Saul Morson introduces the concepts of "boundary works and threshold literature" as ways of understanding the uncertainty that arises when it is not clear "which of two mutually exclusive sets of conventions governs a work." As a historian of frontiers (and a modest practitioner of historical detective fiction) I take delight in his comparative approach: "A boundary genre may be compared to disputed territory over which neither side has clear sovereignty at a given moment." (13)
Does crossing genre boundaries differ in its epistemological essentials from crossing disciplinary boundaries? If historians are willing to introduce theoretical perspectives (conventions) borrowed from anthropology, for example, then what stops them from adopting literary devices? Is anthropology more truthful in providing explanations or interpreting factual data than literature? A reasonable objection will surely be raised at this point: that while historians may, consciously or not, adopt literary conventions in their narratives, they do not, or are not supposed to, invent dialogue, characters, or incidents that have no basis in fact, or if the term fact is problematic, then in verifiable documentary evidence. Although historical fiction as a genre has undergone many permutations since Sir Walter Scott, there is one convention that has survived: it is the requirement for verisimilitude. The treatment of the physical setting, chronology of events, dress, customs, and social relations ought, at the very least, to avoid historical anachronisms. At best, it should be based on contemporary evidence drawn from such sources as belles lettres, letters, memoirs, travelers' accounts, court records, newspapers, monuments, images, and artifacts as well as the physical sites of the events described. Clearly, the historical novel requires extensive research. If characters are invented, then they must conform to contemporary social types in thought and behavior. The greatest challenge to verisimilitude in reproducing the atmosphere of a past era is the employment of dialogue or everyday language. Translating regional accents, colloquialisms, proverbs, and even curses can be a daunting task, as anyone can testify who has winced at the attempts of American and especially English translators to find equivalents for the Russian speech patterns of different regions and classes in their own country.
History and the Detective
The historical detective novel is related to the idea of the historian as detective. This perspective has enjoyed a long tradition and continues to be popular, although it lies far from the so-called cutting edge of history writing in the 20th and 21st centuries. One of its earliest and most distinguished advocates was R. G. Collingwood. In a series of three essays, "The Historical Imagination," "Historical Evidence," and "Who Killed John Doe," he defined the work of the historian as spinning "a web of imaginative construction" that linked established facts and other facts implied by them. (14) The historian derived information from testimonies, which he interpreted in his own way, and from his observation of physical evidence. Like the detective, the historian interrogated his sources with a specific object in mind. Through a process of question and answer, he engaged in a process of discovery that had the solution of a puzzle as the end result.
Robin Winks popularized this view in his edited volume The Historian as Detective, although he did not seem to adopt the methods proposed by his authors in his own work. (15) Nor did he write any detective novels, although he was a well-known critic of them. A large number of historians adopt similar standards to those outlined by Collingwood, without identifying them with the methods of the detective. These historians are often labeled "traditional." An example would be G. R. Elton, who makes the case for "good history" as an attempt to avoid all assumptions and patterns "until the evidence--preferably all the evidence--has been surveyed with an open mind." (16) Elton concludes that the best a historian can do is provide a standard of proof achieved by technical analysis in presenting the case for "persuasive probability." This may not be enough to solve a crime. Yet what is important in drawing the parallel between the writing of history and the detective novel is the method, not the result. As Ellen O Gorman argues, the fictive element of the whodunit is not the element which precludes its comparison with history"; that is, "the most important feature of the detective novel is not the story of the crime but of its detection." This is even truer of the historical detective novel: the "historical whodunit (that is, the detective novel set in the distant past) appeals for verisimilitude not only to the 'Active' knowledge of the reader ... but also to the reader's 'historical knowledge. That is, historical fiction is plausible realism in a given social context." (17)
The Detective in Literature
The detective story also boasts of a long tradition with many claimants for the honor of being first. Probably the most venerable is Judge Dee, an investigating magistrate at the Tang Court in seventh-century China. A historical figure, he was the subject of an 18th-century (Ming dynasty) Chinese mystery tale Dee goungan (Cases of Judge Dee), which was translated by the Dutch sinologist Robert van Gulik. (18) Other, better-known claimants are William Godwin, the English philosophical anarchist, and, more generally accepted as the inventors of the detective before the word was coined, Edgar Allen Poe and Emile Gaboriau, the last dubbed by Gide as the father of all current detective fiction." (19) Poe's C. Auguste Dupin and Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq established a set of conventions that was followed by most Victorian detectives, including Sherlock Holmes. They were amateurs, employed occasionally by the police; they solved crimes through a combination of ratiocination (Poes term) and informed guessing; and they possessed certain personal idiosyncrasies. It was only in the 20th century that detectives in the United States evolved into hard-boiled, alienated figures. But they still exercised their rational faculties, retained personal idiosyncrasies (of a more modern type), and kept their distance from the police.
The Russian detective appeared only on rare occasions and then not as a major figure in a novel until the pulp fiction at the end of the century. The sole exception, brilliantly conceived, was Dostoevskii's Porfirii Petrovich in Crime und Punishment. A generation later, Ivan Putilin emerged from the shadow of the oft-translated Sherlock Holmes to become, in the words of Louise McReynolds, "Russia's first detective to star in hero-centered pulp fiction" and, remarkably, "the only one." (20) Surely there were other detective stories in late imperial Russia? Many, but the protagonists were overwhelmingly Americans--Nick Carter and Nat Pinkerton. No one has satisfactorily answered the question of why the dearth of Russian detectives. What if anything was Russian about these adaptations of detective stories has become a matter of dispute. Jeffrey Brooks has argued that for Russians the detective "can traverse the hitherto impermeable barrier between freedom and order, enabling him to gain 'a new and more Western understanding of freedom and the role of the individual." (21) Louise McReynolds opts more for "ambiguity" as the detective's "hallmark." She suggests that Russian readers sought stability and justice but hesitated to embrace the '"prevailing social order.'" (22)
The plot thickens, as it were, when the detektiv was resurrected after Stalin's death. Its proliferation since that time has rekindled the debate about Russianness in a genre that allegedly departed in significant ways from the Anglo-American murder mystery. But the argument for the special moral and behavioral qualities of the Russian detective does not hold up on closer examination. They do not differ from similar characteristics displayed by Western detectives, the moral ambiguity of crime solving, the often shared social origins of the detective and the criminal; the willingness of the detective to bend or break the law if necessary to solve the crime. (23) What is different about the Russian historical detective novel, as exemplified by the wildly successful invention of Erast Fandorin by Boris Akunin, is the introduction of large historiosophical questions about the meaning of Russia's past, illustrated by sources drawn from works of literature rather than historical evidence. Ambiguity is introduced to illustrate contemporary problems. Akunin's narratives are replete with diversity, cultural eclecticism, and individual meditation on the past." (24)
Writing a Russian Historical Detective Novel
The interconnectedness of Russian literature and history is well established. My own interest in the relationship was kindled as an undergraduate at Colgate University, where I was the first interdisciplinary Russian area major, and then at Columbia's Russian Institute, where Ernest Simmons taught Russian and Soviet literature in historical context. It came to fruition at the University of Pennsylvania, where Saul Morson and I taught a course on History and Literature, engaging each other in a weekly round of dialogics that was for me exhilarating and illuminating. While writing Merchants and Entrepreneurs in Imperial Russia and deploring the dearth of merchants' memoirs, I sought insights into their social mores in works of literature, especially Ostrovskii and Chekhov. (25) Long before I ever heard of Akunin and even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, I became fascinated by the prospect of putting this knowledge to use in fictional form in order to reach a broader audience for imperial Russian history. There was also the desire, awakened, I now see, in my childhood by my grandfather, a master storyteller, to spin a tale over which I had far greater control than my professional work allowed. (26) In my first work on prerevolutionary Russia, I edited the letters of Tsar Alexander II to his boyhood friend and confidante, Prince A. I. Bariatinskii. (27) Yet even in these intimate documents, the tsar did not reveal his deepest motivation for emancipating the serfs. In seeking answers, I felt obliged to rely on circumstantial evidence. My jury of peers split over the verdict. Perhaps this planted the seed.
Like most of my generation, raised before the coming of the hard-boiled American detective and TV, my model was Sherlock Holmes, his complete cases having been the principal gift of my 12th Christmas. Over the years, reading my share of potboilers, I came to the immodest conclusion that I could do better than many. But I also realized that I was better equipped intellectually to select 19th-century Russia than 20th-century America as my setting. In the 1970s, there was the added advantage of there being so little competition. My initial idea of creating a Russian detective engaged in solving murder mysteries quickly evolved into something more. Given my scholarly inclinations, it is understandable why politics began to intrude on and transform the plot. Although I was conditioned against conspiracies in history, it was hard to avoid them in late 19th-century Russia. So I invented another one. Or at least I threaded another skein into the existing pattern. Why not, I asked myself, invent a solution for the greatest political crime of the 19th century: the assassination of Alexander II?
One small detail of the well-documented last hours of the tsar's life had always puzzled me. Why had the imperial coach bearing Alexander not returned from his review at the Mikhailovskii manezh along the planned and, by all indications, the safest route to the Winter Palace? The police had recently discovered and disarmed a mine along the way under Malaia Sadovaia. This appeared to remove the main danger. Moreover, the street was heavily patrolled by plain-clothes detectives. Yet, at the last moment, the coach took off in a different direction down Ital'ianskaia and along the Ekaterinovskii Canal, where there were virtually no detectives. The ranks of the People's Will had recently been depleted by the arrest of their leader Zheliabov. Only a handful remained. Yet the terrorists were posted along the route where the imperial coach had been diverted at the last moment. It was there that Sofia Perovskaia made her dramatic appearance, signaling to the bomb throwers with a white handkerchief. The tsar was a sitting duck.
To create a plausible explanation, I had to invent not only another set of conspirators but also the detective who came close to foiling them. My detective, it turned out without my being fully aware of it when I created him, is a product of the complex social relations of postemancipation Russia. An inspector of the Moscow city police and war veteran, he remains on the margins of society, having been born the illegitimate son of a titled noble and a peasant mother. He is a social boundary crosser. He learns the arts of disguise at the feet of a former serf. He hunts bear with a Komi tribesman. His sidekick, too, was a serf as a child. Yet he is a graduate of the elite Page Corps. Assigned to solve what appears to be a conventional murder, he is drawn deeper into the murky world of high politics. He exposes the conspiracy against the tsar but cannot prevent it from succeeding. My aim here was, in part, to illustrate the dilemma of a righteous man, operating within the rule of law, who can achieve only a partial victory in a duel with men who stand above the law. Does all of this constitute his "Russianness"?
As the novel slowly progressed over the years during summer vacations, it changed from a plot-driven, male-dominated narrative to one in which character took over more space. A romance between the detective hero and the love of his youth, an idealistic member of the populist Land and Liberty Party, added a new dynamic. Although most of the characters are invented, my intention was to make them correspond to social types as portrayed in the work of the great Russian writers. (28) When I wrote the epilogue, which describes the end of the detective's long odyssey in search of his lover and the freedom to fulfill his vision of justice, I realized that I would have to fill in the intervening years. Chronology dictated that a second novel would have to follow hard on the heels of the first. The scenario shifted to Kiev, reflecting in part my growing interest in the imperial borderlands and the interplay of different ethnic and religious groups--Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, and Jews. Here I sought to use the murder of a rabbi to explore larger social themes and resolve another historical mystery. What were the true origins of the pogroms in Ukraine which broke out after the assassination of the tsar? Could the conflicting accounts of eyewitnesses be reconciled in an explanation that took account of the social complexity of the city? I thought so. (29) This novel was written all of a piece over a short period of time, in contrast to the long gestation of the first novel. I began to feel more comfortable inventing female characters, who play a larger role in this novel. A pattern in the psychological evolution of the detective also began to emerge. His reluctant involvement in political crimes was leading to his disillusionment in the possibility of achieving justice in Russia, drawing him spiritually closer to his lover, now in exile in Siberia. She had to be rescued! The logic of that imperative led to the outline for the third novel now in progress, Siberian Secrets, which took me to yet a different imperial frontier. As a fictional companion to George Kennan in his investigation of the Siberian exile system, the detective is once again involved in the politics of crime and punishment in imperial Russia. To add spice to the account, he is confronted with the mystery of a certain Fedor Kuzmich: was this starets really Alexander I seeking to escape the burden of imperial rule? In each of the three novels, I made certain to visit the locations of the action, saving myself on at least several occasions from making mistakes. For example, while spending hours tramping about the hills of Kiev, I discovered that an important incident I had located on the Andreevskii Descent could not have happened the way I described it; it had to be altered to fit the geography of the place. To enhance the visual dimension, I recruited my cousin to draw sketches from contemporary prints and photographs that illustrate the principal sites where the action takes place.
Because I had spent most of my life as a historian of Russia, I had the advantage over most writers of historical fiction, who are not historians but novelists and so have to begin their research from scratch. My years of reading and rummaging in archives and developing my own interpretations of Russian politics and society had provided me with a deep structure for my narrative. As I soon discovered, however, my main problems were the staples of the novelist's tradecraft: acquiring a narrative style, inventing plots and characters, providing tension and suitably dramatic climaxes. I might have drawn some comfort from the historians who had argued that the gap was not so great. But then, most of them had not tried to write fiction.
In retrospect, it is clear to me that my intention was not to use the historical detective as a master revisionist of Russia's past. But neither was it simply to provide another outlet for my own creative urges. What I had in mind was appealing to two audiences. One group of readers would, I hoped, be made up of individuals whose professional lives involved them with Russia and things Russian. In the best outcome, they would take pleasure and perhaps instruction from the shock of recognition, the familiar made unfamiliar, and the small details of everyday life that escape even the practitioners of Alltagsgeschichte. For others, the historical detektiv would provide easy access to the rich and complex world of 19th-century Russia, perhaps encouraging them to read further in the classic works of Russian history or literature, which might have seemed too strange or forbidding beforehand.
It now seems to me that the third volume will complete the series. I had begun another novel with the same detective dating from an earlier period, during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, but the manuscript got lost somewhere between Philadelphia and Budapest. At present, I have no intention of reviving it.
In conclusion, I would have to say that writing these three historical novels not only gave me great pleasure but also led me down side paths of Russian history I would not normally have explored. It enhanced my appreciation of the great works of Russian literature and the complex mental universes created by their authors. It is a humbling experience to cross the genre boundary and seek communion with them.
I would like to thank Stephen Lovell, Carolyn Pouncy, and Marsha Siefert for their various contributions to this essay.
Dept. of History
The Central European University
Nador ut. 9
H-1051 Budapest, Hungary
(1) A. J. P. Taylor, "Fiction in History," Essays in English History (New York: Penguin, 1976), 13.
(2) G. P. Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (Boston: Beacon, 1962), 281.
(3) Thomas Carlyle, "On History," in Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present, ed. Fritz Stern (New York: Vintage, 1973), 95.
(4) Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 44-45.
(5) Aleksandr Dolinin, Istoriia odetaia v roman: Val 'ter Skott i ego chitateli (Moscow: Kniga, 1988); Mark Al'tshuller, Epokha Val'tern Skotta v Rossii: Istoricheskii roman 1830-kh godov (St. Petersburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 1996).
(6) Nikolai Karamzin, Istoriia gosudarstva rossiiskogo, 6th ed. (St. Petersburg: Eduard Prats, 1851), xxviii.
(7) Much of the foregoing is drawn from Jurij Striedter, "Poetic Genre and the Sense of History in Pushkin," New Literary History 8, 2 (1977): 295-309.
(8) This line of descent may be traced through Tolstoi's War and Peace, Dostoevskii's Diary of a Writer, and the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. For the last, see, e.g., the essays in John B. Dunlop et al., eds., Solzhenitsyn in Exile: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1985), especially Susan Richards, "The Gulag Archipelago as 'Literary Documentary,'" 145-63, and Georges Nivat, "Solzhenitsyn's Different Circles: An Interpretive Essay," 211-28.
(9) David Hackett Fischer, Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 88.
(10) Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), ix, 14, 29, 144-49. White does not mention any Russians.
(11) Cited in Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature, new rev. ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1956), 218.
(12) The problem has never been adequately addressed. See, e.g., Gary Saul Morson, ed., Literature and History: Theoretical Problems and Russian Case Studies (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986), in which only one chapter and the epilogue are written by historians and the theory is heavily weighted on the side of the oft-quoted Mikhail Bakhtin and Jacques Derrida.
(13) Gary Saul Morson, The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevskys Diary of a Writer and the Traditions of Literary Utopia (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1981), 48-49. See also Morson, Hidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in War and Peace (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), which takes as one point of departure the dilemma posed by the "falsity of narrative that forces each historian to adopt a specific genre, in the process "sacrific[ing] truth for narratability and simplicity" (102-3).
(14) R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946), 231-49. See also G. S. Course, "Collingwood's Detective Image of the Historian and the Study of Hadrian's Wall," History and Theory 29, 4 (1990): 57-62.
(15) Robin W Winks, The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence (New York: Harper and Row, 1969).
(16) Geoffrey Elton, The Practice of History (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1967), 58-73; and Robert William Fogel and G. R. Elton, Which Road to the Past? Two Views of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 87-92, 100-3.
(17) Ellen O'Gorman, "Detective Fiction and Historical Narrative," Greece and Rome 46, 1 (1999): 19, 25.
(18) Robert van Gulik, trans., Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Tokyo: Toppan Publishing, 1949).
(19) R. Bonnoit, Emile Gaboriau ou la naissance du romanpolicier (Paris: Librairie philosophique, 1985).
(20) Louise McReynolds, Murder Most Russian: True Crime and Punishment in Late Imperial Russia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013), 202.
(21) Jeffrey Brooks, When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861-1917 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 208, 213.
(22) McReynolds, Murder Most Russian, 223. She extends this analysis into the filmmaking era (ibid., 224).
(23) Anthony Olcott, Russian Pulp: The Detektiv and the Russian Way of Crime (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), is the most comprehensive analysis endorsing the distinctive Russianness of the detektiv.
(24) Elena V. Barban, "A Country Resembling Russia: The Use of History in Boris Akunins Detective Novels," Slavic and East European Review 48, 3 (2004): 396-420. This is undoubtedly why the Russian critics disagree so fiercely over what Akunin means to say about the past and the present.
(25) Alfred J. Rieber, Merchants and Entrepreneurs in Imperial Russia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).
(26) In choosing to publish under the pseudonym G. K. George (my grandfathers name), I wished to make clear to readers the difference between my work as a professional historian and as a novelist.
(27) Alfred J. Rieber, ed., The Politics of Autocracy: Letters of Alexander II to Prince A. I. Bariatinskii, 1857-1864 (Paris: Mouton, 1966).
(28) G. K. George, To Kill a Tsar (Washington DC: New Academia Publishing, 2011).
(29) G. K. George, The Kiev Killings (Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing, 2012).
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|Title Annotation:||Forum: Fiction and the Historical Imagination|
|Author:||Rieber, Alfred J.|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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