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Thursday 22 March 2012

The Circumlocutions of History.

Henry James is famously on record as saying that historical fiction is impossible. He always did have great respect for the dead and thought, probably accurately, that it was not possible to do justice to the motives and feelings of people quite as intelligent and limited as we are.

I thought I had solved some of the problem for my books by sticking to the edges of living memory. Now I’m not so sure. Recently, by accident, I came across a documentary film called Without Gorky. I needed a moment to work out that the film was not about Maxim Gorky, the writer. This was more recent. It involved the artist Ashile Gorky who hanged himself in 1948. The documentary was made by Cosima Spender, the artist’s grand-daughter. Her other grandfather was Sir Stephen Spender, the poet.

The star of the piece was Gorky’s widow, born Agnes Magruder in 1921. Gorky called her Mougouch and she is now known as Mougouch Fielding, having had, as third husband, the late Xan Fielding, friend of Patrick Leigh-Fermor from their days in Crete during WW2.

At age ninety, Mougouch rolled her own cigarettes and talked of the last terrible weeks of Gorky’s life. He had had colon cancer, the barn where he worked had been burnt down, he had been in a car accident that temporarily disabled his painting arm, he was drinking and violent and Mougouch had, for two days, sought solace with the Chilean painter Roberto Matta.

I certainly don’t feel able to make any judgement whatsoever on a painful story that caused long-term distress. But I do feel able to talk about something else. I’ll call it fiction. In the documentary it became clear that the painter’s name was not actually Gorky. He was probably an Armenian called Ardoyan and he had spent his life in America making up an entirely fictional person who painted what he did. His wife did not know this until long after he died, had no idea that his accounts of his past were, possibly, an effort to enable the painter he became.

It’s a good, curiously old-fashioned documentary. I don’t mean that the technique is old-fashioned, but the people who appear in it. The maker’s parents, Matt Spender and one of Gorky’s two daughters with Mougouch, have lived in Tuscany for many years and apparently provided some inspiration for Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1996 film called Stealing Beauty. Matt Spender provided the terracotta sculptures shown in the film.

I mean that it is perfectly easy for the past not so much to take on the air of fiction but to provoke disbelief in the viewer. You don’t actually need a powerful story or an unlikely one, you just need to be aware of the time elapsed.

I have also recently seen TV interviews from the fifties. Nancy Astor was asked if women had the mental capacity to be MPs. She had been one, but replied with considerable forbearance. Edith Sitwell spoke in praise of Marilyn Monroe, saying that her nude calendar was no moral stain. Had her critics ever really been hungry? As it happens I agree, but Miss Sitwell was also most dismissive of people she considered her social and moral inferiors.

I could go on, but in interview after interview long forgotten people spoke with invincible aplomb and self-importance.
There were two things of interest. The interviewers behaved with enormous pomposity and deference. And the most unsuitable people made pronouncements on what they wished. Nowadays Gilbert Harding’s views on women – he liked ‘unassertive’ flowers – might elicit the question ‘why do you lump all women together?’ or just get booed.

The problem with fiction, however, is that if you use direct quotes from the 1940s say, the reader now may find them incredible. History, even still living history, has to take second place to fiction – or a version of history.

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