Between Fact and Fable: Historical Fiction or Nonfictional Novel?
Clayton Wickham on the Imagined Histories of Danielle Dutton and Benjamin Labatut
What is a lie? Plato thought plays were lies, and though this view might seem laughable now, there is certainly a grain of truth in his assessment: a compelling work of the imagination temporarily disappears the line between what’s real and what’s not.
In historical fiction, we’ve created a genre where fiction and fact can safely fraternize with one another. Thus, the railroad baron Charles Crocker’s bi-racial manservant, Ah Ling, no more than a pair of syllables in historical records, becomes a fully imagined character in Peter Ho Davies’ The Fortunes. In Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, the 19th-century anarchist Emma Goldman gets to loosen the corset of an early sex icon, Evelyn Nesbit, in an intimate exchange about sexual politics and freedom.
But novels of the historical fiction genre reveal themselves by more than just their placement in the bookstore. Inventive as Ragtime is in other ways, Doctorow’s novel operates within the clearly established lines of genre, with all the vivid scenes, dialogue, and narrative elegance we’ve come to expect from realist novels.
Such is the case with both When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, a chilling tour of science in the 20th century, and Margaret The First by Danielle Dutton, a fictional biography of Margaret Cavendish, the 17th-century writer, natural philosopher, fashion icon, and gossip-column favorite. Both When We Cease and Margaret blur their relationship with historical fact, shifting between essayistic writing and vivid flights of imagination, and they derive something of their thrill from this delicate balancing act. Both also, interestingly, explore questions of philosophical and scientific truth.
The first chapter of When We Cease, an essay about the invention of hydrogen cyanide—a gaseous poison that laid waste to millions over the course of the 20th century—is essentially a work of nonfiction. The essay weaves a dense tapestry of historical anecdotes, ranging from an 18th-century alchemist’s search for the elixir of life to Herman Goering’s addiction to painkillers. (After the fall of the Third Reich, he fled Germany with more than 20,000 doses of dihydrocodeine.)
In later sections, however, Labatut’s writing becomes increasingly fictional, relating embellished accounts of great mathematical and scientific breakthroughs. In “The Heart of the Heart,” he fabricates a deathbed encounter between a Japanese mathematician and the great geometrist-turned-mystic Alexander Grothendieck.
The title essay on the invention of quantum mechanics is laced with lurid dreams and hallucinations, all presumably inventions (a deranged Heisenberg fellates the ancient Sufi poet Hafiz, Scroendinger dreams that he is castrated by the Hindu goddess Kali).
And the novel ends with a story about a non-historical character: a lapsed mathematician called the “night gardener” who “speaks of mathematics as a former alcoholic speaks of booze.” It is “not nuclear weapons, computers, biological warfare or our climate Armageddon,” but mathematics, the night gardener says, that is changing our world to a point where we will simply “not be able to grasp what being human really means.”
Like When We Cease, Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton is a novel about history for which the term “historical novel” doesn’t feel quite right. In its lack of conventional scenes, its careful adherence to Cavendish’s biography, and its hypnotic flood of period-specific imagery (a syphilitic man with a black cloth for a nose, linen-wrapped manuscripts and frozen inkpots, French doctors piercing the queen of England’s “abcessed breast”), The First often feels more like an experimental biography than a work of historical fiction. And, unlike most historical novelists, Dutton occasionally references her own source material. Once she even slips into the perspective of Samuel Pepys, a prolific diarist and historical observer, as he jostles for a glimpse of the famous “Mad Mage” on May Day.
Both as a thinker, and as a woman of letters in a patriarchal world, Margaret Cavendish was deeply iconoclastic. She railed against the mechanistic approach to science popular among her counterparts, and brilliantly disposed with entrenched ideas about a rigid “hierarchy of being,” instead rejoicing in the natural world’s extravagant complexity, of which she considered humankind only a small part. (“Man would be a God, if arguments could make him such,” she once quipped.)
In Dutton’s novel, the desire of many influential 17th-century thinkers to control and dominate nature—to “hound nature in her wanderings,” as Francis Bacon put it—provokes a visceral distaste in Margaret. She is mortified by Robert Hooke’s attempt to transfuse blood between a spaniel and a mastiff, and remembers Descartes only as the man who once nailed his wife’s poodle to a board. Of the spiritual or supernatural realm, the historical Cavendish felt, the less said, the better: “When we name God,” she wrote, “we name an Unexpressible, and Incomprehensible Being.”
In some ways, Cavendish’s takedowns of hubristic 17th-century philosophers anticipate the crushing sense of foreboding that permeates When We Cease to Understand the World. The story of science, that “most dangerous of human arts,” is not, in Labatut’s telling, one of progress so much as havoc and incomprehension.
At a time of rapidly accelerating climate change and vaccine denialism, it is easy to venerate science as an unalloyed good—we trust “the science” because we have faith that scientific inquiry provides objective ground on which a stable, shared understanding of the world can be built—but this schematic view denies us a full picture of what science produces and how science itself is produced. As Labatut conveys with lurid, incantatory force, the history of scientific progress is paved with inequality, contingency, madness, and death. We turn to science for answers, he suggests, but are confronted ultimately with what we cannot or do not wish to understand.
While exploring profound questions about scientific truth, both When We Cease and Margaret the First are coy about their relationship with fact. This ambiguity makes their relationship with history feel urgent and unresolved. But is there something untoward about the advantage both novels derive from blurring their relationship with the past?
In her review of When We Cease in The New Yorker, Ruth Franklin admires the “sheer cunning” with which Labatut “embellishes and augments reality,” but remains perturbed by “something questionable, even nightmarish” in Labatut’s semi-historical style. In the era of fake news, she asks, is it responsible for a writer to pay so little attention to the line between fact and fiction?
I sympathize with this concern. As When We Cease became increasingly fictional, burrowing deep into the psyches of historical scientists and mathematicians, I found myself craving footnotes or some kind of explanatory apparatus (even if their inclusion would have weakened the book’s spell). But, before writing off Labatut or Dutton’s style as irresponsible, we should consider the purpose of this unstable mixture of fact and fantasy.
It is tempting in this time of rampant misinformation to pretend fact and fiction are discrete categories, unalike as oil and water, but the truth is they are often hopelessly entangled. As even academic historians acknowledge, the kind of scrupulous fact-based imagination that historians employ exists on a continuum with the freer task of the historical novelist. There is a sense in which Harriet Tubman and Julius Caesar are products of the imagination just like Eliza Bennett or Tony Soprano. If documents reveal Caesar at one time in Italy and later in Gaul, a historian must infer he journeyed from one place to another and make inferences as to why, even if she refrains from wild invention.
Historical labels like “The Renaissance” are themselves imaginary constructs. So are states. And, as the history of American racism shows, the historical archive is shaped by power dynamics and social prejudice. The past is over, its record often glaringly incomplete. Without imagination, it would be impossible to enter into it.
By disrupting our tidy cultural boundary between historical and fictional imagination, books like When We Cease and Margaret the First invite us to think more—not less—about the relationship between truth and fabrication. The peddler of conspiracies, on the other hand, does not explore the line between fact and fiction; he obliterates the difference between the two. By severing suspicion from reason, he somehow alchemizes it into credulity.
In contrast, When We Cease to Understand the World and Margaret the First never ask us to do without facticity or truth. If anything, both novels caution humility, not brazen assumption, in the face of life’s staggering complexity. Faced with the horrors, achievements, and mysteries of modern science, they remind us, we might do well to refrain from congratulating ourselves on what we think we know—not just about scientific inquiry, but about our species and ourselves.