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Spring 2017

On Historical Fiction

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Stephen Greenblatt

Alongside the unfamiliar scent in the air of teargas and eucalyptus, one of the things that particularly startled me in 1969, the year I arrived in Berkeley as a twenty-five-year-old assistant professor, was the enormously heavy drinking of my senior colleagues in the English Department. It was a time in which many of these colleagues, whether from motives of pure generosity toward the young or a sly desire to scout out which among the large cohort of untenured faculty might be worth keeping, invited the new arrivals to an endless round of dinner parties, generally held in implausibly beautiful, redwood-clad houses in the hills.

I grew up in a household entirely innocent of wine, apart from the treacly Robitussin-like drink consumed for liturgical purposes at the Passover Seder. On rare occasions, in the company of their friends, my parents would sip small glasses of rye whiskey, but always consumed with a peculiar air of caution, as if they were handling TNT. At university I managed to get drunk once or twice, but I hated the experience—the muddled thinking, the spinning room, the nausea—and, having no desire to repeat it, I learned when to stop after a cocktail or a few glasses of wine. Hence I was astonished to find myself in the company of highly distinguished academics who seemed already sodden when we arrived for dinner and who became progressively more sloshed as the evening wore on. Notable among these was the celebrated critic and writer Mark Schorer, whose short stories I had avidly read in The New Yorker and who somehow managed to convey that his inebriation was stylish, in the manner of William Powell in The Thin Man, or even that it was a literary achievement. It wasn’t, I observed, that alcohol sparked in him any great flights of poetic inspiration, but rather that it seemed to keep at bay the melancholy that has always haunted creative minds.

By far the most memorable of the tipplers was Thomas Flanagan. The endless tumblers of Irish whiskey that he downed only sharpened his wit, even as they slurred his speech. His flashes of merriment, as Hamlet says of Yorick, would set the table on a roar. His humor was so apt that on several occasions I thought he must be faking intoxication, keeping his head by secretly pouring the booze in a flowerpot. But I sat next to him once at a dinner table when he followed a particularly inspired witticism by slipping off his chair and onto the floor, and I can testify that the collapse was not feigned.

In Flanagan’s drunkenness, there seemed to be no undertone of melancholy. That did not prevent me from inventing a hidden sorrow for him. Why, I asked myself, had this supremely intelligent and learned man accomplished so little? A full professor at Berkeley, he had but a single, slim book to his name, published back in 1959, and that a warmed-over version of his doctoral dissertation. I imagined that he was struggling to write a successor to The Irish Novelists: 1800–1850, but that he was blocked. I did not think that drink was keeping him from writing literary criticism, but rather that it somehow transmuted whatever must be inhibiting his writing into his reckless, mad—and, sadly, evanescent—wit.

But as it turned out, Flanagan did have a secret work gestating within him. In 1979 he surprised all of his friends by publishing a brilliant historical novel, The Year of the French. An enormous critical and popular success, and deservedly so, it seemed at the time to have come from nowhere, though he must have been working on it quietly after the endless meetings and protests and marches that occupied so many hours of our days during the 1970s, or at nights after I watched his wonderful wife Jean help him stumble to the car and drive him home. (It was a mercy for all of us, we thought, that he had never learned to drive.)

In Flanagan’s own account, the inspiration for the novel came to him in a single flash. He was sitting in his office in Wheeler Hall, waiting for Jean to pick him up at the end of the day, when he had a vision. The vision was of a man, a poet, walking down a road in Ireland. It was simple and spare, but it was enough: out of it, Flanagan spun a cunningly plotted, richly detailed, and moving story of Ireland’s failed uprising against the British in 1798. The novel—and two other immense historical novels that he published in its wake—drew upon massive scholarly erudition amassed over decades, but that erudition would never have issued into fiction without the image that suddenly, uninvited, came into Flanagan’s head. I do not know if it would have come to him anyway, without the course of heavy drinking. Had he been drinking already on that particular afternoon? I doubt it, or rather, if he had, I imagine it was only enough to make him light-headed. “MacCarthy was light-headed that night when he set out from Judy Conlon’s cabin in the Acres of Killala,” the novel begins. “Not drunk at all, but light-headed.”

Stephen Greenblatt's forthcoming book is The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.

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