Sunday, April 11, 2010

Five Wounds: An Anti-Historical Novel

'The Art of Grief' is not the only text quoted in Five Wounds. Part of the novel’s violence consists in its deliberate misrepresentation of historical source material. I began writing it while researching for my doctoral thesis in the Venetian state archive. In the daytime, I faithfully transcribed documents. After dark, I wrote the opening chapters of Five Wounds under a bare light bulb in a rented room on the Lido, while listening to morbid folk songs on a cheap cassette recorder. Everything that had to be repressed in my interminable investigation of ‘Honour and the Culture of Male Venetian Nobles, c. 1500-1650’ bubbled to the surface in Five Wounds.

In the daytime, I tried to produce an original and profound but nonetheless humble contribution to knowledge, in which the relevant authorities were cited respectfully, and the sources itemized rigorously. It was assembled piecemeal and agonizingly slowly, as all theses are, with endless rearrangements, additions and revisions.

At night, I wrote straight through, without hesitating, and more or less without revision. The results were vulgarly derivative, as all fairy tales should be. The only rule I tried to observe was to quote voraciously and indiscriminately – a phrase here and a line there from dozens of different sources – and that the new context should alter the original meaning in some way.

Five Wounds was therefore conceived of as a deliberate insult to the notion of scholarly integrity in much the same way that a dream is an insult to the idea of conventional narrative structure. Its many historical references and quotations from abstruse treatises are systematically unreliable. Each is misleading or garbled in some way and the historical setting has been knowingly contaminated; not only by fantasy, but also by deliberate anachronism.

To put it another way, Five Wounds is set in several different historical periods simultaneously, none of which are represented accurately. Five Wounds is not, therefore, a historical novel. Rather, it is an anti-historical novel. It is the book that my Ph.D. thesis was dreaming when it was asleep.

UPDATE: I have added some further discussion on this theme.

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