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The final words of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable—“I can’t go on. I’ll go on”—serve as a fitting description for the concept of “modernist historiography” that Seamus O’Malley describes in his new book, Making History New: Modernism and Historical Narrative. He seems to have it in mind, in fact, when he argues in the first chapter that Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (1904) “simultaneously says that one can’t go on narrating history, and then goes on narrating history” because “while the novel may tempt us to focus on the failures of writing history, it also maintains the necessity of historical narratives” (50–51). This notion of historical narrative [End Page 922] as problematic yet necessary shows up in some capacity in each of the exemplary novels that O’Malley explores, which, in addition to Nostromo, include Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) and Some Do Not . . . (1924), and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918) and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941). Although this notion may not seem notably innovative in itself, O’Malley’s nuanced and systematic analysis of each of these novels in fact broadens out into a finely crafted and convincing assertion of modernism’s role in shaping the historiographic process in the twentieth century. As such, Making History New gives us a valuable new way of conceptualizing the modernist historical novel that will assuredly prove useful in the discipline’s continuing reexamination of modernism’s relationship to history.
The essential problem that Making History New sets out to address is that “many critics of the historical novel presume that the modernist historical novel is either an idiosyncrasy or simply does not exist” (5). O’Malley accordingly seeks to “adjust this lineage . . . and reinscribe modernism into the historical novel’s own history” (6). What makes him so successful in doing so is the way in which he deftly balances his sharply focused readings of a handful of representative British modernist novels with a more broad-minded historical and theoretical framework. His framing begins with a preface entitled “History and the Holocaust Test,” which centers on Lubomír Doležel’s observation that “when confronted with humanity’s greatest crime, doubting the validity of historical representation comes dangerously close to doubting the Holocaust itself” (ix). O’Malley’s central argument is that modernist fiction writers, namely Conrad, Ford, and West, “struggled with representations of history in much the same way that subsequent historians would after the Holocaust—skeptical of narrative’s abilities to represent historical objects, but simultaneously driven by the need to narrate past human experience” (ix). In other words, while the conventional historical novel was unique simply in its investment in “historical forces,” the modernist historical novel deconstructed the historiographic process itself and, in doing so, developed a new way of envisioning historical narrative that profoundly influenced evolving approaches to historiography since the Second World War, particularly those with more theoretical, experimental, and creative orientations (9).
O’Malley’s research is meticulous and he expertly synthesizes the major debates among the prominent twentieth-century historians who inform his work. While the sources he draws upon are manifold, his major influences are Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative (1983) and Memory, History, and Forgetting (2004), while Hayden White and Fredric Jameson factor in significantly as well. O’Malley’s introduction is sprawling, yet lucid, as it contextualizes the modernist historical novel in relation to the conventional historical novel, the general modernist view of history, and historiographic innovation. Because the individual chapters are dominated by just a handful of case studies, O’Malley also does a convincing job early on of showing that, while relatively few modernist writers were producing what might fit the category of historical novel, in fact many “were in self-conscious rebellion against historiographic orthodoxies, and their use of historical fragments was their means of distinguishing themselves from professional historians” (35). Ultimately, O’Malley maintains that although “mainstream history reads more like realism than it does any other mode...