- History in the Making: Metafiktion im neueren anglokanadischen historischen Roman
'Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.' John Berger's (1972) observation provides a fitting epigraph to Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion – one of the five exemplary texts discussed in Gordon Bölling's study – but it might as well set the tone for the overall approach of History in the Making. The gist of Bölling's analysis of 'Metafiktion im neueren anglokanadischen historischen Roman' ('Metafiction in the Contemporary Anglo-Canadian Historical Novel') can indeed be described as an argument for the plurality of history/histories, which goes hand in hand with the recovery and revaluation of formerly silenced or marginalized perspectives.
Bölling's choice of novels, all of which were published in the 1980s or 1990s, aims at a representative variety: Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (1996) reviews the dramatic case of historical figure Grace Marks, [End Page 425] tried for double murder in the 1840s; a completely different kind of female perspective is offered in Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries (1993) on the seemingly unassuming life of a white middle-class wife and mother; Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion (1987) gives voice to the immigrant experience of his working-class heroes who built Toronto's monumental Bloor Street Viaduct in the 1910s; Timothy Findley's Famous Last Words (1981) and Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces (1996) transcend the Canadian setting for an international historical context, engaging, respectively, with literary modernism under the spell of European fascism and with the memory of the Holocaust in the lives of a survivor and a Canadian-born second-generation character.
What ties these heterogeneous examples together in Bölling's line of argument is, first, their partaking in the longstanding genre of the historical novel, and second, their transformation of the genre through a pronounced staging of metafictionality, i.e., the use of literary techniques that underscore the fictional status of a given text. Bölling thus classifies the metafictional historical novel as a subgenre of the historical novel (in fact tracing metafictional aspects all the way to the genre's invention in the writings of Sir Walter Scott) and shows how metafiction works to problematize the representation of historical events, particularly if this representation lays claim to being authoritative. In the introductory chapters, which establish the study's theoretical, methodological, and terminological premises, Bölling – drawing on concepts developed by Werner Wolf (1993) and Ansgar Nünning (1995) – is quick to assert his deviation from the seminal work of Linda Hutcheon on 'historiographic metafiction.' He finds the term of little use for his purposes, as it is embedded in the specific discourse of Hutcheon's 'poetics of postmodernism' and inextricably linked to the flourishing of metafictional strategies during the heydays of postmodernism in the 1960s and 1970s. In view of the wide spectrum of contemporary novels – from experimental to more traditionally mimetic, (neo)realist texts – in which metafiction reveals the constructedness of historical narratives, the step beyond Hutcheon is only reasonable. It is interesting, and certainly also convenient, to argue, as Bölling does, for a return to the much more encompassing concept of the historical novel instead. However, the question remains whether this broad term and the concomitant expansion of subsumable literary texts can be sufficiently backed up by Bölling's recurring observation that there is a great variety in form, content, and function among contemporary Anglo-Canadian novels with a historical focus of varying degrees. Atwood, Ondaatje, Findley, and Michaels – with their fusion of historical and fictional characters and their focus on well-established historical events – seem to fulfill tacitly the genre's somewhat hazy requirements. But the inclusion of Shields's fictional [End Page 426] autobiography – as engaging and innovative as this reading may be – warranted a more refined functional definition of the historical novel and also the elaboration of a firmer methodological stance in the introductory chapters, in order to make a fully convincing case...