One of the crucial insight of Greek historiography was that different accounts of a past event might be truthful and sincere, and yet untrue and misleading. Herodotus clearly recognised this, as seen in the way that he often offers several different versions of an event (different not only in their interpretations but even in their selection of key information) and then goes on to offer his own judgement of where the truth lies, or the real story that none of these partial perspectives has been able to grasp. Thucydides went further, not only noting the inconsistency of his informants and the fallibility of human memory, but also listing the various factors that might also lead would-be chroniclers of the past astray (failure to be critical, wish to please audience etc.).
Both these writers present this as one of the great challenges they faced – and thus bolster the authority of their accounts, as they have recognised the problem and sought to address it, unlike their rivals. This insight informs their underlying historical methods, as it does the methods of all subsequent versions of critical historiography, but it also raises questions about the appropriate means of representing such divergence and disagreement – if it is to be mentioned at all. The default position in modern historiography is that the historian can arbitrate between different versions and discern the underlying truth, and hence is in a position to offer a seamless narrative or analytical account of the reality of the past; the existence of divergent interpretations is revealed only in the footnotes or in occasional explicit discussions in the text (just as Herodotus offers arguably the first example of ‘teaching the controversy’), always firmly subordinated to the authority of the historian.
Thucydides’ account is, depending on your perspective, either more complicated or more muddled. On the one hand, he offers a gods’-eye perspective of the course of events, with no discussion at all of the process whereby he has evaluated, edited and combined different accounts in order to produce his own; arguably, the convolutions of his syntax in certain battle scenes, and the juxtaposition of different episodes in the overall narrative (see Tim Rood’s book on Narrative and Explanation) serve partly to highlight the confusion and uncertainty of those caught up in events, but this is always underpinned by the implied authority of the narrator. On the other hand, the inclusion of speeches from different actors does clearly highlight the existence of radically different perspectives on events; generally, this is read in terms of the subsequent narrative offering ironic commentary on the limited and distorted nature of these perspectives – the absurd optimism and lamentable ignorance of Alcibiades and the Athenians in planning the expedition to Sicily, for example – but perhaps this might also encourage us to reflect on the fact that the events could be understood in quite different ways, without it ever being clear (not least because of Thucydides’ almost complete refusal to offer authorial commentary) how we should interpret them. Even within Thucydides’ apparently unilinear and absolutely controlled account, we can hear different voices and perspectives, if we listen for them.
For a more radical approach, that foregrounds the contested and constructed nature of the past, I think we have to turn to novels; questions of narration and the authority of the narrator (and of the writer) are central to much twentieth-century fiction (there’s probably also lots that can be said about film – L’Annee derniere a Marienbad, anyone?). A couple of examples come immediately to mind, just because I happen to love them. One is Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which works through the shift of perspective between different books. In the first, the un-named narrator (called Darley in later books) offers an account of his circle of friend and acquaintances in Alexandria around the second world war, focusing in particular on his secret affair with Justine, the wife of his friend Nessim, a wealthy Copt; many events are unexplained, including the suicide of the novelist Pursewarden who worked for the British embassy. In the second, every aspect of this account is thrown into doubt through the ‘intertext’ written by another friend of the narrator, forcing the latter to re-examine his own memories and assumptions; the character of Pursewarden and his suicide, the nature of the affair (in fact, Justine was using Darley to throw Nessim off the scent of her affair with Pursewarden), the critical events of carnival night and an unexplained murder. The third volume, predictably by now, turns the kaleidoscope once again; this time, everything is revealed to be driven by a secret plot against the British, driven by Nessim and Justine, with the latter’s affairs based not on passion but on strategy. The final volume takes the narrative forwards in time, rather than simply offering a different perspective on the same set of events, but still has some unexpected revelations.
There is a tendency to assume that the sequence of novels offers a progressive uncovering of the real truth, showing that the heat and froth of sexual passion was secretly driven by the cold intrigues of politics and money. I’m not so sure; not only because there’s still plenty of sexual passion in the later books (this is Durrell, after all) but because there is scope for ambiguity and debate – we are offered new perspectives on events, sometimes by characters with greater claim to authority when it comes to their own motives (assuming that we can believe them; Pursewarden, gradually revealed to be a secret service agent, is just the most obvious case of someone presented as a professional deceiver), but these remain perspectives rather than truths. We re-read Justine in the light of Balthazar and Mountolive, because that’s what the sequence demands of us; it’s only the assumption that the author intended us to perceive this as an ongoing revelation that prevents us from critiquing Mountolive through Justine. We are tempted to believe in the possibility of uncovering the true, real meaning and causes of events, because this is the drive of some of the central characters. Perhaps the lesson is rather to beware of any such quixotic drive to grasp the truth, which can come only at the expense of all sorts of things that were important to other people (if the affair of Justine and Darley is really a cold-hearted betrayal for political ends, this interpretation depends on discarding his own feelings as less significant). It could be a matter of both/and rather than either/or, like the cross-dressing sailor Scobie who gets lynched down at the docks but is then commemorated as a local saint…
For a much, much shorter exploration of similar issues, I’d like to recommend Stille Zeile Sechs by Monika Maron (which may unfortunately be unavailable in English). Here we have a single narrator, Rosalind, a forty-something historian in East Berlin in the 1980s, with liberal and bohemian sympathies of a fairly wishy-washy nature, who takes on a job transcribing the memoirs of Beerenbaum, a retired Party functionary. This gradually leads to overt conflict: Beerenbaum’s reminiscences seek to justify the system which he’s served, through his role in opposition to the Nazis and the need to defend socialism against its enemies, while Rosalind first silently and then openly protests about the consequences of this state control for individual freedom. Simultaneously, the slow revelation of the characters of these two antagonists serves to undermine their credibility: Beerenbaum is undoubtedly manipulative and rather cruel while at the same time seeming genuinely to wish to win Rosalind’s acceptance of his case, while her apparently principled stance is seen increasingly as a reflection of personal discontent and disappointment and a lot of unresolved paternal issues. The reader of such a novel, especially when first published in 1991, would surely have expected to identify with its first-person narrator; by the end, Beerenbaum is dead, but there’s a clear sense that Rosalind has failed to win the argument, and that this dilemma – the opposition between a repressive state that seeks the good of its people (at least in theory) and chaotic, solipsistic individualism – will persist.
In The Alexandria Quartet, at least half the characters are lying or dissimulating. The novels invite a traditional historical reading, in which different accounts are to be analysed, weighed, edited and combined into a single straightforward account of what really happened; but, unlike most conventional histories, the reader has to go through the experience of contradictions and inconsistencies, sudden changes of perspective and a pervasive sense of uncertainty and suspicion. Stille Zeile Sechs goes further: both main characters are telling the truth, for the most part, at least as they understand it – and neither is completely wrong. The reader can decide in favour of one version or the other, or seek to establish some underlying, in-between truth, but it is clear that this is their own construction rather than an attribute of the narrative or of reality.
It’s a truism of discussions of historiography that historians should confront doubt and uncertainty rather than pretend it doesn’t exist; the historical novelist can make stuff up to fill in the spaces where the record is inadequate, but historians should be honest about the patchwork nature and occasionally shaky credentials of their accounts. This is true – but it’s also quite a safe confrontation: the uncertainty is located in the evidence rather than in the past itself, carefully delimited (indeed, focusing on a specific area of doubt and debate can serve to bolster the supposed veracity of everything around it), and underpinned by the reassuring authority of the historian, who shows that such areas of uncertainty are only a minor impediment to the onwards march of knowledge, or should even be welcomed as an exciting challenge. Readers are not generally confronted with the idea that all our ideas about the past are provisional and contested – or certainly not in a way that makes them actually experience this as they read.
Modern fiction (and, as noted, quite possibly films as well, but I know less about that) offers a range of techniques for creating such an experience: polyvocality, temporal shifts, short cuts and juxtapositions, striking figures of speech. How far are historians willing to admit to the limits of their authority, and write as the unreliable narrators that they clearly are?
Idea of unreliable narrator in historiography? Built on elevating the historian as the absolutely reliable narrator, who can be counted on to tell you if something is uncertain.