I’m thinking today about representing historical wars in fiction—in the last few weeks I’ve read both Francine Prose’s Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 and Leona Francombe’s The Sage of Waterloo. Prose’s novel examines a slice of WWII on both a personal and global scale; partially epistolary and related by multiple narrators, it jumps between aggressors and their victims, sometimes blurring and complicating that distinction. There are wholly fictional characters at all levels of celebrity within the novel’s world, but figures like Picasso and Hitler also make extended appearances. This put me strongly in mind of War and Peace, in which Napoleon and Alexander I, along with many other historical figures, cross the pages along with Tolstoy’s own characters. Napoleon stalks the margins of The Sage of Waterloo, of course, though the novel is in all other ways about as far from War and Peace as possible—being a slim volume narrated by a rabbit, a descendant of those who inhabited the battlefield. These fictional works about some of humanity’s greatest conflicts present hugely varied mediations on the same questions—were those conflicts inevitable? What causes a person to commit a heinous act? How should we think about them now? Each work presents its own answer, or partial answer, and swirls the conversation in a few new eddies. The three novels I’ve mentioned have in common the philosophy that history is determined by chance, by countless cumulative actions and reactions—that free will, even for emperors, is mostly an illusion, and we are all caught in the web of greater force(s).
This is interesting to consider in light of two other works I’ve experienced recently that dramatize the battlefield—back to Napoleon in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and the American Revolution in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. In Hamilton, a repeated refrain observes that “you have no control / who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Again, we are at the mercy of history, an invisible force that seems to be briefly embodied in Hamilton and other characters at moments of great transition before slipping away—or at least elsewhere—again. In Jonathan Strange and The Sage of Waterloo, the vaguely supernatural forces alluded to by Prose, Tolstoy, and Miranda are made literal—here we have ghosts, zombies, “resonance,” and other magic of all kinds, as if Francombe and Susanna Clarke are suggesting there can be no earthly explanation for Napoleon’s ambition or the events at Waterloo.
I rarely work at the scope of literal warfare, but I pull elements of fictional biography into my work quite often. It’s fascinating, and often sobering, to collect these narratives of semi-historical battles, authors and artists tackling mass conflict and making sense—or else claiming that there is no sense to be made—of our bloody history though fiction.