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Hitting the Right Note

The first time someone bent my ear on the subject of my author’s note was at the Italian launch of In Love and War in Florence. The reader was a rather strident older lady in something blousy and floral. She fixed me with narrow, sceptical eyes as we spoke. ‘Why,’ she asked, ‘was there no author’s note at the front of the book? I couldn’t tell what was true and what wasn’t. It ’s confusing.’ I told her that Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child had been the model for my approach. I’d been impressed, I said, that in a novel so dense with historical detail, clearly so richly researched, the only words from Hollinghurst which precede the book are of thanks – for the use of Passa Porta writers’ apartment in Brussels.

The author’s note has become an amorphous, baggy thing. It can appear at the beginning or end of the book, can be a single line (my favourite is Danielle Steel’s for Five Days in Paris, which reads, ‘Never give up hope, and, if you can, find the courage to love again. d.s.’) or pages long, like the exculpatory screeds at the back of Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest (why I’m qualified to write about the Holocaust) and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (why I’m qualified to write about Mumbai). They can explain the book’s path to publication (Lionel Shriver’s The New Republic comes with a small essay devoted to the various malign forces that were ranged against her novel) or excuse some perceived political faux pas (the author’s note to Hans Fallada’s Wolf Among Wolves, published in 1937, reminds us apologetically that the events of the book take place in ‘the bad old days’, before the bright dawn of the new regime).

I spoke with Hollinghurst about author’s notes at an event we did together at the University of Kent earlier this year. Why, I asked, hadn’t he included a long list of his sources at the back of The Stranger’s Child, suggestions for further reading, a primer on the sociopolitical currents that flow beneath the novel’s surface? He felt, he said, that we were in the grip of a mania for this kind of superfluous data, that he wanted the novel to exist on its own terms, and that readers were intelligent enough to read a book without nannyish prompting from the author. There seems to be something of the same instinct in Richard Ford’s author’s note in Canada, where he states that ‘Canada is a work of the imagination’ and goes on to pre-empt those who look to reveal the fissures between historical fact and its fictional reimagining. ‘I’ve taken liberties with the townscape of Great Falls, Montana, and also with the prairie landscape and with some particulars of the small towns in the southwest of the Province of Saskatchewan. Highway 32, for instance, was unpaved in 1960, although as I’ve written about it, it is paved.’

In Love and War is set in 1940s Florence and traces the path of a (fictional) young Englishman, Esmond Lowndes, through the real-life events of wartime Tuscany. All of the other characters in the novel actually existed; I changed very little of the historical background and even tried, as much as possible, to put words in the mouths of my characters that they actually said.

This factual framework was a useful constraint on my writing. It meant that Esmond needed to be utterly convincing in order not to feel flat or anachronistic standing next to real historical figures. I was also writing in the shadow of Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which I read just as I was beginning In Love and War, and whose entreaties as to the ethical duty of the historical novelist to his subject rang loud for me as I moved through the world of my novel.

Since then, at festivals and in bookshops from Paris to Beverley, from Chester to Chelsea, and on my virtual literary hangouts, Goodreads and Twitter, I’ve been harangued by angry punters, claiming that they’d have read the book differently (or not at all) had they known that it was straddling the fact–fiction divide (like Francis Spufford’s marvellous Red Plenty, which begins with a warning: ‘This is not a novel. It has too much to explain, to be one of those. But it is not a history either, for it does its explaining in the form of a story’). I even met someone who’d reviewed my book who told me she’d have given it a quite different (read: better) write-up had she known how much truth sat behind my fiction. What’s being exposed here is, first, something particular to the historical novel, perhaps to the way a reader’s mind operates when sifting between fact and fiction. It also turns upon the fissure between the way I wrote the novel, wishing the segue from history to imagination to be seamless and vivifying, and the way readers have read it – as somehow fishy and confusing, a dodgy project.

All this has led me into thinking about the place of the author’s note, in general and in particular, given that it looks like I’ll be writing one for the paperback edition of In Love and War. Should it be at the beginning or at the end – a springboard into the text or a subsequent explication? Should I list the books I used for research and the novels that inspired me, and make a plea on behalf of the woefully neglected Natalia Ginzburg, who is one of In Love and War’s tutelary spirits? Should I let the reader know the few places in the novel where I give what W G Sebald called ‘little nudges’ to history in order to bend it to the shape of my plot?

There’s something about the belatedness of paperback publication, too, that gives the author the chance to respond to what he or she sees as misreadings of the novel by critics or the public. Indeed, the paperback author’s note is often the place to flesh out the habitual (and largely pointless) ‘Any likeness between characters in this novel…’ Evelyn Waugh felt moved to distance himself from those who read Decline and Fall as either a roman à clef or a profound state-of-the-nation novel. ‘I hope that my publishers are wrong when they said that this is a shocking novelette,’ he writes. ‘I apologise heartily to anyone who sees himself in this tarnished little mirror; everything is drawn, without malice, from the vaguest of imaginations.’ Then, underneath, a final entreaty: ‘Please bear in mind throughout that IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY.’ r d e c e m b e r 2 0 1 4 / j a n u a r y 2 0 1 5 | Literary Review 1