The relationship between Wagner's operas and Nazism, though fascinating, has been analysed to death by novelists and historians. A new fictionalised treatment sheds little fresh light on the topicby Vernon Bogdanor / October 27, 2007 / Leave a comment
Winnie and Wolf, by AN Wilson Hutchinson, £17.99
Faction, the writing of fiction about real historical figures, is a difficult art, particularly when the main characters are figures from recent history. Twenty years ago, AN Wilson published a novel, The Gentlemen in England, in which two of the characters were thinly disguised portraits of Alastair Forbes and Peter Quennell. To criticisms that his characterisations were not true to life, Wilson replied that he was writing a work of fiction, not biography. Evelyn Waugh used fiction to get his own back on CRMF Cruttwell, his much disliked Oxford history tutor, who after finals had told him, “I cannot say that your 3rd does you anything but discredit, especially as it was not even a good one.” In Decline and Fall, Cruttwell was portrayed as a brutal burglar who castrates a Harley street abortionist. Has a novelist the right to use his imagination in this way? Perhaps not, and if the likeness is sufficiently apparent, the victim may have recourse to the law. JB Priestley threatened Graham Greene with a libel action unless he altered the portrayal of Quin Savory, a hack novelist, in Stamboul Train which, Priestley felt, would be easily identifiable as himself.
The novelist Allan Massie has offered two useful guidelines for the writer of faction. The first is that “the more distant in time, the more liberties the novelist may fairly take.” Mozart is in no position to take legal action against Peter Schaffer for Amadeus, and Vermeer cannot complain to Tracy Chevalier about Girl with a Pearl Earring. Connoisseurs of music and painting may be annoyed at these novels’ distortions, but their resentment is of a different kind from that of contemporaries whose reputations have been traduced.
Massie’s second guideline is: “If you wish to introduce recent historical figures into a novel, then it is best to have them seen through the eyes of fictional characters. In this way you set them at a distance. They are presented to the reader as they present themselves to characters of the author’s devising. There is no pretence that you are giving the ‘real Churchill or de Gaulle,’ for example; only Churchill or de Gaulle as he might have seemed to an invented character.” Anthony Powell shows himself to be a master at this subtle kind of distancing in his portraits of Montgomery and de Gaulle in the Dance…