Thursday 29 March 2018

Notions of truth in historical fiction by Elise Valmorbida

Our guest for March is Elise Valmorbida. Welcome, Elise!

Photo credit: Geza Singer

Elise Valmorbida grew up Italian in Australia, but fell in love with London. She’s a designer, writer and teacher of creative writing. In recent years, she produced a feature film. Her fiction includes Matilde Waltzing, The TV President and The Winding Stick. Her non-fiction includes Saxon —The Making of a Guerrilla Film, and The Book of Happy Endings, now published in four languages and four continents.

Last year I went to a screening of In Guerra per Amore (At War With Love), the latest feature film written and directed by the Sicilian satirist known as Pif. He also stars in the movie as the sweetly goofy Italian-American who’s prepared to leave USA peace for WW2 Italy—all for love. Renowned for his earlier film The Mafia Only Kills In Summer, Pif is tireless in his pursuit of gangsters, using comedy as his weapon of choice. In Guerra per Amore shows how the American liberators of 1943 not only released—but promoted to positions of real political power—the Mafiosi who’d been languishing in Italian prisons courtesy of the Fascists. This political promotion gave new life to the Mafia, and Italy lives with the consequences today. It’s one of the dark sides of the Liberation, a huge and controversial subject.

But discussion at the London Q&A, like too many of the reviews, was waylaid by the issue of the helicopter.

What helicopter? There’s a pivotal scene in the film, where a navy helicopter delivers innocent Pif into war-torn Sicily. He is already seated on a donkey in a giant sling. It’s like a stork delivering an absurd baby, and a sly cinematic nod towards the Christ-carrying helicopter in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

But, some critics point out, the navy didn’t use helicopters during WW2.

This is an issue of historical accuracy. Never mind all the other fantastical gestures and inventive flourishes that make up a movie I love. What’s more, this is an issue of transport, and there’s nothing like transport—trains, planes, automobiles, buses, timetables, routes, engine types, bogies, you name it—to get historical hackles up.

I’ve never written historical fiction before, although my first novel Matilde Waltzing leans in that direction. I’m a writer of fiction, or non-fiction. I don’t think in terms of genre. But something happens when a storyteller delves into the past. Suddenly the specialists are out in force, alerting us to the fact that the horses should have been smaller, or that the ladies’ dresses shouldn’t have had bustles. I do understand such concerns. A dropped stitch can unravel the immersive weave of the fiction. But do people get this bothered when aliens from another galaxy speak English? Or when a dog narrates an entire novel?

At two Historical Novel Society conferences, years apart, I was struck by how many established writers had become very used to saying, more or less: “I’m not a historian, but I can claim to be a novelist.” Melvyn Bragg noted that Herodotus “made all that up”, that history and fiction have been intermingled from the beginning. Manda Scott talked about hoping to achieve an authentic-sounding, authentic-feeling concept of what might have been, a concept that is “not wholly incorrect”. Eileen Ramsay suggested having a note at the back of your book covering your approach, your fact-and-fiction principles.

In non-fiction, you can always say that scholarship is divided over this or that issue. In historical fiction, you have to make a decision and go with it. This applies to the big stuff (how you choose to interpret famous figures and events) as well as the small stuff (how people spoke to each other in an unrecorded remote community).

In Italian, there are different verbs for ‘knowing’ a person (conoscere) and ‘knowing’ a fact (sapere)—but the word for ‘history’ and ‘story’ are one and the same word. They are both storia. How vital! It is all the telling of tales.

Of course, there is a truth that must attach to some past events—those that are witnessed or documented by a significant number of credible people. And there is concrete evidence, which can be rationally examined and interpreted to create a mosaic of perception. Even so, many voices are unheard, evidence can be lost or misused, and historians do disagree.

Then along comes the novelist, who declares from the outset that s/he is making it all up anyway. If only it were that simple! We know that there are rules, the internal logic of the worlds we create.

When I was researching The Madonna of the Mountains—set in the Veneto region of Italy, from 1923 to 1950—I found myself thinking that history is written by the victors, and the victors are men.

It was easy enough to find out about politicians and campaigns, public figures, mass movements of workers and refugees, the experiences of military men and resistance fighters, the hardware of war… And I certainly didn’t want to get my helicopters wrong. But I wasn’t that interested in helicopters. I wanted to write about the life of a woman. Not one of Mussolini’s lovers, not an aristocrat, not a leader, not a political heroine. An ordinary peasant woman. Finding out about my protagonist’s day-to-day life was not so easy.
Maria Vittoria doesn’t have the education or worldliness to analyse ideology, nor the heroism to overcome pragmatism. And she is of her time. What was important to her? How did she make sense of the violence of her era? How close could she come to self-determination, without taking an implausible redemptive leap into feminism…? This was inviting territory for me, like a landscape of fresh snow.

I had a flying start. I grew up Italian in Australia, and as a child I was spellbound by stories about the Veneto and the World Wars. I moved to London as a young adult and started filling notebooks on my frequent trips to Italy with random personal observations and ideas… landscape, weather, architecture, sayings that fascinated me, unwritten recipes, foraging and growing plants for food or medicine. I had no specific project in mind. Over decades, I listened to the reminiscences of elderly relatives, neighbours, strangers—it was like a haphazard oral history project. I heard stories about ordinary people in a very specific time and place. I was given old letters, prayer books, pressed flowers. Cumulatively, it helped me to know a kind of truth, the sort of truth that is difficult to find in history books.
Once the novel writing was underway, my research became disciplined, even obsessive. I read what I could in English, Italian and dialect. I watched countless films. I scoured the internet. I visited churches, museums, cemeteries, historic sites, places that are nowhere on a map. I studied ephemera, from family hand-me-down trinkets, to items for sale on Ebay. In between all that, I did a lot of imagining. I had to. Despite research, despite fragments of real people’s stories, Maria Vittoria’s story emerged from somewhere deep inside me.

Still, throughout the months of editing and proofing, I’d wake in the middle of the night, with a terror of ‘The Facts’—dates, road surfaces, supplies, hardware… I’m not a historian! I’d make lists of things to check in the forensic light of day. (For the record, I didn’t have this neurotic experience with my other novels, my not-historical-fiction.)
The Madonna of the Mountains was already being printed when I found an antidote to my nightmares about truth and accuracy. Antonio Pennacchi’s preface to his brilliant novel Canale Mussolini has a wry note about his fact-and-fiction principles. Please forgive me for quoting him at length (with credit to Judith Landry for her translation). I think he speaks for many of us who find ourselves writing about not-famous people in our historical fictions…

“Naturally enough, there was no real Peruzzi family in the Pontine Marshes to whom all these things happened. Although this book contains references to historical figures, both the Peruzzi family and the series of events in which they were caught up are pure invention. But there was no family of settlers in the Pontine Marshes—whether from the Veneto, Friuli or around Ferrara—this too is a fact—who did not experience at least some of the events in which the Peruzzi were caught up. In this sense, and in this alone, all the events recounted in this book are to be regarded as true.”

I’d like to borrow that, with a few swapped names, for The Madonna of the Mountains. Meanwhile, there’s all the other truth for which there is no preface.

Elise Valmorbida’s novel The Madonna of the Mountains is published in the UK by Faber & Faber on 29th March 2018. Liberty London Fabrics designed the bespoke jacket and endpapers of this hardcover first edition, launching their new partnership with Faber. You can buy the book from Amazon, all good booksellers, or direct from the publishers. Signed first editions are available from Goldsboro Books.

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