‘A neighbourhood of ghosts’

Visitation Street is billed as a book about teenagers June and Val, who take a pink inflatable raft out into the bay from Red Hook, a deprived Brooklyn neighbourhood, one humid summer evening. Val washes ashore later that night; June’s body cannot be found. Nevertheless, despite the weight of this tragedy, the novel is more about Red Hook itself, following a group of characters through its streets, bodegas, projects and ruins. Ivy Pochoda lived in the neighbourhood for several years herself, and while I’m in no position to judge, this novel feels authentic, down to the details of what the better-off white girls from the local Catholic school drink at parties (‘red and blue Solo cups half filled with brown and pink drinks and the pummelled skins of lemons and limes’) to the look of a black teenager’s decrepit bedroom in the Houses, the local housing project (‘the water map on the ceiling, the brown and yellow bubbles tracing the pathways of his upstairs neighbour’s leaky plumbing’).

Inevitably, in this ensemble cast, some stories are more engaging than others; I was gripped by Val’s difficulty in coming to terms with what has happened to June, and the way that June also haunts the slightly older Monique, who has felt guilty ever since she refused to let the girls hang out with her on the night of June’s death. In contrast, Fadi, a Lebanese bodega owner who runs an unofficial neighbourhood newspaper, feels like more of a plot device to draw the various threads together, and I found it difficult to warm to Jonathan, a music teacher who spends most nights drinking in the bar under his flat, and who becomes unhealthily fascinated by Val.

It is Cree, however, the occupant of the water-damaged bedroom in the Houses, who stood out for me; in many ways this novel is really about his struggle to come to terms with his father’s random shooting some years ago, and the way that his mother has struggled to cope ever since. Cree finds his own abandoned hideouts throughout the neighbourhood, spending time with his father’s old boat, but also claiming ‘a sliver of garden wedged between two tenements, a bird’s-eye lookout over the water from a towering warehouse’ and ‘a secret lair in an abandoned longshoreman’s bar’, where he ‘cleared the trash from the empty bar, sanded the splintering wooden mermaid figurehead, and pretended he was visiting Bermuda.’ There’s a minor thread about gentrification, and the appropriation of neighbourhood culture, here. When Cree turns up at his bar one day to find a couple sanding and polishing to reopen it as a business: ‘He wonders if this couple knows how the late-afternoon light plummets in narrow columns through two holes in the roof of the porch out back, how the wooden figurehead casts a scary shadow if you sneak up on her the wrong way.’ Similarly, the New York Post uses a picture of a Red Hook teenager jumping from a pier into the bay, without any attribution; the boy reclaims his leap by graffiting it across a tunnel. When illuminated by the lights of a passing bus, ‘it’s a flipbook, a perfect moving image, taking the jumper higher off the ground.’

This sort of social commentary, however, is ultimately subsumed by Cree’s increasing awareness of the weight of the past, the sense that owning one’s own history can be too much of a weight to bear. After losing his hideout in the longshoreman’s bar, he thinks that the whole of Red Hook is a series of layers: ‘A neighbourhood of ghosts. It’s not such a bad place.’ Later, however, Cree’s mysterious friend, Ren, tells him that he has to get away: ‘Stay here long enough, you’ll become one of them – another ghost haunting the Hook.’ Cree’s arc, therefore, has a complicated relationship to the past; he both needs to reclaim it and move on from it if he’s to live his life. This talk of ghosts becomes more dominant in the last section of Visitation Street, which takes on a more mystical feel as Cree’s grandmother and aunt, with their firm beliefs in a spirit world, take a larger role in the narrative. This, for me, felt like a bit of a cop-out, an easy way out for a book that is otherwise so sharply observant and atmospheric. Nevertheless, Visitation Street is far more than just another book about a missing girl.

The time is then

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Spoilers for Suffragette throughout!

Since watching one of the trailers for Suffragette, which proclaimed ‘Before women had a voice…’ I’ve felt profoundly uneasy about this film, which threatened to simply reiterate the myth that the suffragettes were the founders of modern feminism and it was their militant activism alone that won women the vote. I’m afraid that the film itself did little to allay my fears. While it is noted at the beginning that suffrage campaigning has had a much longer history, the film is determined to tell us that peaceful arguments got women nowhere, in defiance of what I would say is a current historiographical consensus, most recently expressed by Martin Pugh, that suffrage was a slow-won victory via the efforts of a huge range of women’s organisations, not simply the WSPU. However, Helen McCarthy has already written a superb review of Suffragette that effectively summarises many of the historical issues with the film (I’d add only two complaints; firstly, adoption was not legal in Britain until 1926, and while informal adoption was practiced, a scene where a child is ‘adopted’ is profoundly misleading to a modern audience, given the lack of rights that ‘adoptive’ parents would have over a child in 1912. Secondly, Maud is shown paying somebody to look after her child, even though he seems to be of school age (5+) and eligible for free education). Therefore, I’m going to focus on the other side of this debate; does Suffragette work as a piece of historical fiction, despite its numerous inaccuracies? Is it a good film?

Maud Watts earns thirteen shillings a week as a forewoman in a laundry, supplementing the income of her husband who works in the same place. As we learn, despite a history of sexual abuse and the health risks posed by her work, she has never considered doing anything but what her mother had done before her. However, when she encounters a suffragette who asks her and her friend, Violet, to give their testimonies to a parliamentary committee, she realises for the first time that her experience might be worth something. Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George’s failure to put forward a suffrage amendment leaves Maud with a sense of personal betrayal; was she not listened to at all? As Maud moves toward greater militancy, tensions grow between her and her husband, who eventually kicks her out of the house after she is imprisoned for a second time, and bans her from seeing her son, George. The suffragettes themselves begin to lose heart as their efforts seem increasingly futile, but Maud becomes one of the most steadfast, proclaiming: ‘We will win.’

The lack of real conflict in this film was a fundamental problem for me; it poses few interesting questions, and seems uninterested in trying to empathise with positions that do not align with our modern instincts about votes for women. The female characters are allowed a certain complexity – I loved the moment when Violet drops out of the fight, exhausted by years of labour and childbearing – but this privilege is not extended to our antagonists. Despite the occasional moment when you feel that Maud’s husband, Sonny, portrayed sensitively by Ben Wishaw, may be about to become more human, the film shatters these hopes by ultimately making him a villain. How much more compelling would it have been had Sonny been a trade union activist, ready to question Maud’s priorities and to point out that a third of men in England and Wales still didn’t have the vote in this period? Helen McCarthy points out that this is a film about a working-class woman campaigner with the working-class politics taken out, and this would be an easy way to dramatise the conflict between ‘gender’ and ‘class’, as well as allowing Sonny to have his own story and his own voice. Structurally, the film drops the ball somewhat as well; this is clearly Maud’s story, but the climax is not about Maud.

I found Suffragette especially frustrating because it had potential. The decision to focus on a working-class woman was clearly the right one, and it pulled off a difficult trick by making Maud’s commitment to winning the vote seem plausible by linking it to her experience of workplace abuse and her lack of rights over her son. It’s been rightly praised for its attention to concrete historical detail – the use of archived footage at the end blends in perfectly with the feel of the film so far – and every so often, it will start to ask interesting questions that are immediately squashed by the filmmakers’ apparent desire to make this a simple story. Police violence towards the suffragettes outside Westminster parallels the suppression of present-day demonstrations, yet this thread is swiftly dismissed; Maud is asked to question the risk to life that her militant activities pose, yet she retaliates with seeming ease. In the end, I find this sort of historical fiction poor not because it is inaccurate or misleading – although these are problems – but because it encourages the dangerous myth that debates like this were much more clear-cut in the past. As Catherine Sloan pointed out on Twitter, rather than finishing with a statistic that emphasises how far feminist campaigns still have to go, like the percentage of female MPs, Suffragette tells us instead when various countries across the world granted women’s suffrage – ending inevitably with ‘Saudi Arabia (2015)’, a fact that encourages smug British self-satisfaction. If historical fiction is to justify its existence, it must make us think differently about the present, not simply teach us about the past.

The black Mercedes

hhhh-by-laurent-binetThis will be less a review of Laurent Binet’s HHhH than some musings on what Binet is trying to say about writing historical fiction, many of which have been inspired by the recent Twitter discussion organised by the #storypast reading group, which has been collected into a Storify. (I felt this book had much less to say on writing history, so I say little about that in this post.) HHhH deals with Operation Anthropoid, the codename for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by the Slovak Jozef Gabčík and the Czech Jan Kubiš in 1942. I’m not an historian of the Third Reich (indeed, my only formal encounter with this period of German history throughout my entire educational career was at GCSE, when we studied ‘Hitler’s Rise to Power’ but stopped abruptly in 1939, leaving the entirety of the war a blank) so this post will absolutely not be devoted to assessing whether HHhH is ‘accurate’ or not. Indeed, it will be much more concerned with a question that Binet himself seems to think is more interesting; what do we mean by ‘accuracy’, in history or in fiction, and why do we value it?

The first thing to get your head around in HHhH is that Binet-in-the-book and Binet-the-author are two distinct people. Of course, without this distinction we’d struggle to read HHhH as anything approaching a novel (I’m not sure this is the most fruitful way to read it anyway). Book Binet begins his narrative obsessed with historical accuracy, and likes to tell us how much better he’s doing than other writers who have tackled this topic. He’s not happy with much of Alan Burgess’s Seven Men at Daybreak, which he thinks is ‘fanciful’ because it’s too fictionalised: ‘It’s a shame that Burgess wasted his time with cliches like this, because his book is undoubtedly well-researched. I found two glaring errors – concerning Heydrich’s wife, whom he called Inga rather than Lina, and the colour of his Mercedes, which he insists is dark green rather than black.’ Later, he has to retreat a little when the dark green Mercedes turns up in another novel; ‘But this Mercedes – it was black, I’m sure… But I really see it black, that Mercedes! Maybe my imagination is playing games with me?’ This is important because there is one sentence that Book Binet tells us at the start that he is aching to write: ‘The black Mercedes slid along the road like a snake.’ The colour of the car has already become so integral to Book Binet’s imagined re-creation of Heydrich’s assassination that he is tempted to violate his own rules.

Breaking rules is something that Book Binet does a lot. He sets out very clear views on dialogue early in HHhH. ‘There is nothing more artificial in a historical narrative than this kind of dialogue – reconstructed from more or less firsthand accounts with the idea of breathing life into the dead pages of history… There are only three ways you can faithfully reconstruct a dialogue: from an audio recording, from a video recording, or from shorthand notes… If my dialogues can’t be based on precise, faithful, word-perfect sources, they will be invented… And just so there’s no confusion, all the dialogues I invent (there won’t be many) will be written like scenes from a play.’ However fervently irritating Book Binet seems in his dismissal of historical invention, this isn’t a rule that he even tries to keep to (he admits to having ‘practically made up’ the first meeting between Gabčík and Kubiš, for example). He breaks other rules, too. When Himmler hears that Heydrich’s Messerschmitt 109 has been shot down in 1941, Book Binet writes ‘The blood rises to his cheeks and he feels his brain swell inside his skull.’ Natacha, Book Binet’s girlfriend, objects: ‘You’re making it up!’ Book Binet finds it hard to disagree: ‘I have been boring her for years with my theories about the puerile, ridiculous nature of novelistic invention, and she’s right.’ But he can’t bring himself to remove the sentence.

‘Puerile and ridiculous’ is a fair summary of Book Binet’s attack on Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (interestingly, this was redacted in the first edition, and, judging from the extract given on the page linked above, partially redacted in my edition as well). ‘The problem with this type of historical novel is that it shamelessly mixes the true with the plausible’ , Book Binet complains. ‘This is what I think: inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence.’ But Book Binet, of ‘The blood rises to his cheeks…’ fame, can’t help being a little jealous of Littell’s literary skill. ‘All I will say is that there’s a description of Heydrich at the beginning of the book, from which I will quote only one line: “His hands seemed too long, like nervous algae attached to his arms.” I don’t know why, but I really like that image.’ Book Binet gets what historical novels do, why they have value, and firmly rejects the lot of it; but he feels the attraction of the craft, all the same.

My initial judgment of HHhH was that it had little new to say about historical fiction, despite being an engrossing and beautifully-written work of popular history (kudos to the translator, Sam Taylor, who has done a fantastic job). I now feel that this was a little harsh. In creating Book Binet, Binet offers a vehicle for us to engage with some common objections to historical fiction; and in so subtly depicting Book Binet’s seduction by the very novelistic devices he so scorned at the beginning of his journey, he underlines what fiction has to offer us. (‘My story has as many holes in it as a novel. But in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where those holes should occur.’)  If we want to know which side of the argument Book Binet eventually comes down on – well, we need only check out the colour of the Mercedes in his final rendering of Heydrich’s assassination. Heydrich starts off in a ‘black (or dark green) Mercedes’. After that, its colour is not mentioned for several chapters. But in the end, Book Binet cannot resist: ‘I had to start up the black Mercedes.’ Book Binet is not trying to write historical fiction out of existence; he is the proof of its power.