Koestler on Writing Historical Novels


In researching my next novel, Ella, I have been reading the second volume of Arthur Koestler’s autobiography, The Invisible Writing. Koestler wrote, among many other books, Darkness at Noon, a novel about the Moscow show trials in the late 1930s, which is one of the best of the 20th century.

I should have put The Invisible Writing down by now, having read past the time period of interest, but it is so engaging I keep on reading. It covers, among many other things, Koestler’s thoughts on writing historical novels.

His only historical novel, as far as I know, is The Gladiator, a story about Spartacus and the Gladiators’ War, 73-71 BC. It amuses me that he came to the topic because the German Communist Party grew out of an organization calling itself SpartakusBund, and Koestler, not knowing anything about Spartacus, looked him up and became intrigued. I can sympathize with Koestler being swept up in an historical event, and discovering similarities between a previous time and the current events.

Koestler talks about the weeks he spent researching the novel. He dug into the condition of slaves in antiquity, the rules governing gladiator fights, the folktales of Trace and Gaul, and on and on. This sounds like my research of Hungarian history, the legends about Hungary’s founding, the diet of the Hungarian laborers, the social structure of the country.

The materials available to Koestler on the slaves were minimal, but the information at hand about their opponents, the generals and senators of Rome, was abundant. He found this an advantage, being able to use his imagination about Spartacus and his army. At the same time, the information available about the times, gave him a foundation upon which he could build his story. He found that “filling in the details became a problem of intuitive geometry, the piecing together of a jigsaw puzzle.” Koestler, Arthur. The Invisible Writing (Arthur Koestler’s Autobiography – Part 2) (p. 325). PFD Books. Kindle Edition.

I hope to feel similarly when I start filling in the characters that my grandparents inspire.

But the following passage made me pause:

This led me into a study of such far-fetched subjects as the nature and shape of Roman underwear, and their complicated ways of fastening clothes by buckles, belts and sashes. In the end, not a word of all this found its way into the novel, and clothes are hardly even mentioned in the text; but I found it impossible to write a scene if I could not visualize how the characters were dressed, and how their garments were held together.

Koestler, Arthur. The Invisible Writing (Arthur Koestler’s Autobiography – Part 2) (p. 325). PFD Books. Kindle Edition.

I laughed out loud. Clothing is not my sticking point, but plumbing is. For some reason I cannot write a scene without understanding whether my characters had to fetch water from a well or whether they used chamber pots and outhouses.

As much as I enjoyed this passage, it was immediately followed by:

I decided half-way through the book never again to write a historical novel. There is a basic inertia to imagination which sets limits to one’s capacity for projecting oneself into worlds distant in space and time. Every culture is an island. It communicates with other islands, but ultimately it can only experience tragedy and laughter in its own climate…There are, it seems, only two possible techniques for the novelist to bring these shadows of history into focus. One is to turn them into silhouettes with sharp profiles, into character-types as entertaining as the shadow-plays of childhood, but without the depth and warmth and luminosity needed to make emotional identification possible. The alternative technique is to cheat; to bring the shadows alive by projecting into them the feelings and ideas of the writer’s own period.

Koestler, Arthur. The Invisible Writing (Arthur Koestler’s Autobiography – Part 2) (pp. 325-326). PFD Books. Kindle Edition.

I hope Koestler is wrong. Of course it is difficult to understand a time and culture well enough to be able to write realistically about characters’ actions and feelings. And, of course, some writers overcome these obstacles better than others. But well written historical fiction explicates the times and the culture. And that is what I hope to do with Ella.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s