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Nicholas Hasluck

'Writing Ouselves: History and Creative Imagination'

Many creative writers have used historical material in their work. Nicholas Hasluck reflects on his own use of such material and on issues which this has raised. How important is historical accuracy to the creative process?

Plays and novels can be used to open up those aspects of the past which are often left out of academic or official works. In a piece published in Harper's Magazine towards the end of last year, the American writer Jonathan Dee observed that imaginative re-creations of the past–works he calls ‘anti-histories’—are by their nature acts of political opposition. The insights they contain can challenge the basic assumptions of right or left; for, unlike historians, who are often reduced to quibbling about details, creators of anti-histories are free to concentrate upon the mood and ‘meaning’ of the story. Let me illustrate my thesis by referring to various literary works including my own recently-published novel Our Man K (Penguin).

The appropriation of historical figures—people who actually lived—as characters in fiction is a mode that readers of contemporary novels have come to take entirely for granted. This may be in response to what Philip Roth sees as the growing challenge for the novelist in simply keeping pace with the shenanigans constantly manufactured by real life at the end of the twentieth century. Parliaments are wrapped in plastic, sheep are cloned, astronauts take golf clubs to the moon, the U.S. Senate picks up the cleaning bill for Monica Lewinsky’s seminal role in the nation’s history. The novelist is eclipsed by actuality. Contemporary culture throws up figures almost daily that loom larger than a wordsmith’s wildest dreams.

The re-creation of historical figures in fiction goes back to Shakespeare. Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Richard III—they were all reinvented by the bard without too many voices being raised in protest. In recent years, there has been an upsurge of ‘anti-histories’: one thinks of Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin in Zurich, Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon, Jay Parini's Walter Benjamin and Don de Lillo's Libra in which real figures associated with the Kennedy assassination are portrayed. The sardonic Gore Vidal, in his sequence of political novels beginning with Burr and concluding with Washington DC, debunks the rhetoric of American politics, revealing the way in which political conduct in a democracy has always fallen far short of the ideals generally associated with revered figures in the history books. By implication, he seeks to persuade us that protestations by present-day ‘statesmen’ should be taken with a grain of salt. (As Carolyn Sandford puts it in Gore Vidal’s Empire: ‘The theory of a man's body and the fact of it must be as unlike as the theory of American government with all its airy platitudes and the sleazy, disagreeable democratic practice’.)

If there is one thing the novel offers that no other form can approach, it is the opportunity to know the apparently larger-than-life figures of history completely, through the fiction writer's omniscient familiarity with his characters' inner lives. As E.M. Forster noted in Aspects of the Novel: ‘We never understand each other, neither complete clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. We know each other approximately, by external signs, and these serve well enough as a basis for society and even for intimacy. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed. And this is why they often seem more definite than characters in history, or even our own friends; we have been told all about them that can be told; even if they are imperfect or unreal they do not contain any secrets, whereas our friends do, and must, mutual secrecy being one of the conditions of life upon this globe.

It seems to follow, then, that persuasive reasons exist for viewing historical figures through the prism of fiction. It is a way of re-imagining, and thus more fully understanding, the vagaries of the past, albeit at the cost of some distortion. This brings me to the central character in my own novel, Egon Erwin Kisch.

Kisch was born in Prague towards the end of the nineteenth century . He won renown as a correspondent after the Great War, pioneering the genre known as ‘reportage’. He was also a friend and confidant of Franz Kafka, that astute critic of the legal system whose allegorical work, The Trial, suggests that the law is an impenetrable labyrinth, a shadowy realm where half-shut doors occasionally afford a glimpse of justice, but more by chance, it seems, than by design.

Known as "the rampaging reporter" Kisch came to Australia in 1934 at the invitation of the World Committee Against War and Fascism. Refused permission to land at Fremantle, he bypassed the ban by leaping ashore at Melbourne, a well-publicised jump that left him on crutches, with a leg in plaster, and hobbled by various Kafkaesque legal proceedings that took him all the way to the High Court. When Justice Evatt threw out the plea against Kisch of ‘subversive activities’, the visitor was subjected to a dictation test of the kind used to enforce the White Australia Policy—in this case a test in Scottish Gaelic as a way around the unwanted visitor's formidable skills as a linguist fluent in 11 languages. Having failed this rather bizarre test, Kisch was then declared a prohibited immigrant.

The ban proved difficult to enforce, for the High Court went on to rule that Scottish Gaelic wasn’t a European language, as required by the Immigration Act. When the Sydney Morning Herald published the opinions of some indignant Scottish patriot’s, disparaging the High Court’s ruling, the newspaper was promptly prosecuted for contempt—another set of legal proceedings to fan the controversy. In the meantime, out on bail pending a further prosecution, Kisch, the ebullient journalist, bustled about from one anti-war rally to another, waving his crutches in the air, attracting huge crowds wherever he went, creating mayhem. The imbroglio was brought to an end eventually when Attorney-General Menzies returned the visitor’s passport, covered his legal costs, and negotiated a return trip to Marseilles, glad to be rid of him.

The Kisch case, the Petrov Affair , the Whitlam dismissal—the ambiguities at the heart of these great disputes were accompanied by unforgettable images: a man on crutches, a tearful woman dragged aboard a plane, a deposed Prime Minister on the steps of Parliament House. Certain stories seem destined to pass into popular mythology from the outset, and thus, in reinventing the Kischean shenanigans down-under, in seeking to add another layer to the Australian legend, I have allowed myself a degree of poetic licence.

According to Gore Vidal—the acerbic connoisseur of American political skulduggery I mentioned earlier—a novelist should try to stay within the framework of ‘agreed facts’. One can explore the motives of the mighty, or elevate real people from historical obscurity by fleshing out scant details, but it has to be done within the bounds of plausibility. In Henry & Clara the author Thomas Mallan portrays the other couple in President Lincoln's box at Fords Theatre the night he was assassinated. One can speculate about the assassin's motives—which, in history, must always remain shadowy to some extent—but one cannot displace the agreed fact that a bullet was fired and the President fell. Nonetheless, Gore Vidal suggests, some truths about a nation's history can only be expressed in a veiled fashion, by exaggeration, by speculating about what happened, by envisaging the motives of those involved. I have adopted this approach in Our Man K.

To this day, it is not known why exactly Kisch was banned. The indications are that although, outwardly, he came to Australia to address an anti-war congress, he was in fact working for Stalin's Comintern. Indeed, in Kisch's own account of his trip, Australian Landfall, he reveals, perhaps inadvertently, that he was a close friend of the Comintern's principal agents in Paris, Willi Munzenberg and Otto Katz. The political passions inflamed by the Kisch affair have long since subsided, but the picaresque quality of the tale remains relevant to contemporary concerns. According to Arthur Koestler, who knew all the leading figures on the left in the 1930s, Egon Kisch was essentially an irrepressible satirist, and something of this is reflected in the rampaging reporter's exploits which, at first sight, seem to dispense with the border between fiction and reality. His misadventures certainly tell us a good deal about the Australian psyche. Fear of the outsider, resistance to change—these issues are still with us today, rich with satirical possibilities. To assess these riches, I have, in addition to mentioning his Marxist leanings, portrayed Kisch in my novel as a writer with long standing literary connections, not only to his former classmate, Franz Kafka, but also to a group of hacks and poets who argue feverishly with each other at the fictional Café Arco.

Centenary celebrations? An Australian republic? Self-determination? Contemporary themes, or wild talk at Café Arco? As Kisch himself observed in Australian Landfall: ‘History repeats itself—first as tragedy, then as farce.’ Was this because his leap ashore at Melbourne coincided with the State of Victoria's Centenary Celebrations, a welcome to the British monarch's son, the Duke of Gloucester, and the arrival of John Masefield, the reigning poet laureate? All history is contemporary history, as Gore Vidal has noted, open to reinterpretation in the light of current concerns. As a prelude, a counterpoint, perhaps, to this theme, and in order to give an extra dimension to Kisch's visit to Australia, I found it useful to begin by recalling Kisch's part in the overthrow of the Habsburg Empire, within whose bosom he had received his schooling. For my book, which covers the first century of Australian Federation, is in part a meditation upon the elegiac mood that accompanies the end of an era. The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there, but what they do may linger in the mind to haunt us.

One can see immediately that, by deflecting the light of history through the prism of fiction, the Kisch case provides a golden opportunity to comment upon various contemporary issues—protracted litigation, denunciations of the High Court, Centenary celebrations, the move towards an Australian republic. It is for this reason that I chose as my fictional narrator the Australian poet Robert Kaub, whose famous poem—One Nation—was supposedly read aloud in Sydney's Centennial Park on 1 January 1901. In the novel, I wonder whether, a hundred years later in Australian history, the present-day powers-that-be will permit the reading aloud of this historic poem at the re-enactment in Centennial Park to mark the centenary of the Commonwealth of Australia. Or will a poem called One Nation be thought too controversial? If so, what does this say about the contrast between Australia in 1901 when the fictional poem first appeared and Australia now?

Put shortly, ‘anti-histories’—plays and novels in which contemporary orthodoxies are tested by stories drawn from a realm of ‘agreed facts’—are a way of illustrating the vagaries of history, of illuminating the past. Inevitably, it seems, the boundaries between truth and fiction are never far apart. The most striking passage of the Starr report, for example, was President Clinton's complaint to one of his aides: ‘I feel like a character in a novel. I feel like someone that is surrounded by an oppressive force that is creating a lie about me and can't get the truth out. I feel like that character in the novel Darkness at Noon.’

In writing Our Man K I had no wish to usurp the process of historians. If readers are interested in the true facts of the matter then they will turn to the texts approved by scholars for enlightenment. What is of constant fascination to the novelist is the mystery of character and the way in which haphazard events in the past resonate in the future. This is a realm into which the historian or biographer may sometimes decline to enter.

The end of an era. It isn’t just a phrase. Perhaps, at this point in our history, Australians should make a special effort to appreciate the drama of such a moment. Let me illustrate my remarks by referring to a scene early in my novel. It is March 1919 and the Treaty of Versailles is still being negotiated in the aftermath of the First World War. A group of Kisch's fictional friends from Café Arco (who have been following the negotiations) have made a quick trip to Feldkirch on the Austrian border in order to catch a glimpse of history in the making, a glimpse that may have a resonance for Australians at the end of the 20th century as we edge towards a new republican regime. Kisch’s friends in this scene include the Australian-born poet Robert Kaub, a Swiss artist called Ludwig Aschel, and a Bohemian poet named Milada Mynkova who was supposedly well-known in Europe at that time as a clairvoyant with an uncanny power to read the future. I will come back to Milada Mynkova and the nature of her relationship with our man Kisch, the investigative reporter, in a moment, but first: the scene at Feldkirch in the aftermath of the Great War.

Once on the platform, it struck me instantly that we weren't wasting our time. Milada's premonition had become a reality. It was evident in the murmuring around us and in the anxious looks. Yes, the train from Kopfstettin was undoubtedly expected, it was on its way, although we who were presently in advance of it—thanks to Milada—would soon have to give up our tiny moment in the future as the train and its human freight swept onwards into history. Splashes of purple prose by Milada and our man K couldn't change that. Don't stint, Kisch had said, there was no such risk. Agitation was in the air. The porters under the platform clock, like a swarm of fidgeting grasshoppers, were pacing too and from, rubbing shoulders, whispering, moving their trolleys around The police and customs officers scuttled in and out of their tiny booths, appearing and disappearing at random intervals, paying scant attention to the civilians on the platform, eyes fixed on the signal box near the overpass, and the curve of the incoming track. They were all consulting their watches; checking the hands of the big station clock.

" So now it's happening", Mildada whispered, "We are witnesses. " Serenely, steadily, even majestically, it seemed, the train drew near. The first carriage was flying the Union Jack, but further back I saw suddenly the double-headed eagle of the Habsburg coat of arms, an image reproduced on the carriage panels. The train rolled to a halt, slowing down, window by window, until, at last, one could make out the figures of those within. Something like a sigh rippled through the crowd on the platform, an uneasy tremor, a gasp. But no one spoke. Not one word; not even when the train finally stopped. Milada gripped my hand. Pointed. What she had foreseen was now being enacted. Behind the window of the nearest carriage, in full military uniform, I caught a glimpse of Karl, the last of the Austro-Hungarian Emperors, and beside him the Empress, Zita. In a few minutes time, seven hundred years of Habsburg rule would come to an end as they crossed the border into exile, refugees bent to the will of the new republic in Vienna.

Someone in the crowd must have waved, conveyed to the royal couple that some of their compatriots would be thinking of them, for Karl suddenly stepped close to the window and leaned forward to acknowledge the salutation; a small, rather frail man of less than middle age. He flapped the pair of leather gloves he was holding. His wife—such a beautiful face framed by the misted glass—placed one hand on his shoulder protectively, as if she feared he might lean too far. That was all. The royal pair looked at the crowd for a moment longer, and the crowd stared back. It was terrible. No one knew what to do. Sensing the uncertainty, and as if to spare the feelings of his former subjects, Karl retreated, his shadowy figure behind the glass melted, and a moment later both he and his wife had vanished.

Perhaps it was the lack of ceremony, the unreal quality of this final appearance by the royal couple, that had upset Milada. She was certainly in a mood I had never seen before. Tearful, her face drained of colour she spoke not to us but to the space in front of her, 'When it comes about . . ." she paused and had to begin again. "When it actually happens, although everyone has seen it coming, you can't believe it. Their last look. Their homeland disappearing." Aschel and I exchanged glances of concern. "Not necessarily." My companion adjusted his metal-rimmed glasses, trying to say something that might ease her pain. He hasn't abdicated He agreed to leave, That's all. Who knows what the future holds?"

This brought Milada's tears to an end, "How can you a Swiss gadabout, understand what is happening here ? The Swiss know nothing! My first song in the classroom was in honour of his family. I once saw Franz Josef on the great staircase of the Schonbrunn Palace, surrounded by his generals, receiving the homage of 80,000 school children—of which I was one! And now I see a kinsman of Franz Josef the last Emperor in a long line, thrown out of his own country. Banished! Exiled! Do you understand? Can you grasp it?"

In the passage I have quoted, one immediately notices an interaction between the fictional characters—principally the narrator Robert Kaub and his close friend the clairvoyant Milada Mynkova—and the real figures of history: Karl and Zita, the last Habsburg royal couple. The novel offers an extra dimension that authentic history cannot approach, not only by providing opportunities to know the larger-than-life figures of history through their imagined thoughts and acts but by using fictional characters to reflect the mood of the times.

So, in closing, let me tell you something more about this imagined friend of our man Kisch, the Prague-born poet I have called Milada Mynkova. Her adventures reflect the tumult of the pre-war and post-war period in middle Europe, a period leading to the rise of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. The nature of Milada’s friendship with Egon Kisch is a mystery central to the novel’s plot and it is therefore not surprising that early on in the story, the narrator, Robert Kaub, pauses briefly to reflect upon the life and times of a woman he admires deeply, but finds difficult to fathom.

There can be few poets whose lives were so single mindedly devoted to the pursuit of literature as was the life of Milada Mynkova. Her male admirers, the women whose friendships she cherished, the aristocratic protectors she entranced with her stories, the charlatans she may or may not have slept with, the diverse talents from Cafe Arco she fostered, the gatherings of gurus and theosophists she arranged—these formed a network of intimate relationships stretching throughout the whole of middle Europe; but, ultimately in her own mind, her, escapades, all her sorties, were undertaken in the service of the "muse".

Milada, and her indefatigable muse. When I think of her life—another epic in its own way—I would prefer to overlook the ornate inscription ‘K’ upon her watch and wind back the timepiece to those golden summers before the war when our lady was perennially surrounded by friends and picnic baskets and bright ideas, an interlude when I didn't know her well enough to worry about the inconsistencies in her anecdotes, or to notice the occasional traces of sadness in her wit. But there's the rub. Now that I know more about her and have a clearer sense of what should be saved, I am inevitably brought back to certain crucial questions. Why did she serve the Hapsburg cause? What was the nature of her debt to Our Man K? When I eventually obtained access to her papers, I sometimes wondered whether her work in the Habsburg library had convinced her that for every letter proving one thing, there was bound to be a diary entry somewhere else supporting an opinion to the contrary. And thus, pursuant to the unscientific principle of serendipity, as the answer one came up with initially was almost certain to be discarded in due course, it didn't really matter if one's own papers were left in a mess. The value of the fragments lay in illustrating the disorder of the past.

At other times, sifting through the jumble of notes and jottings and little sketches, it seemed to me that the questions I kept coming back to could be posed in another way. What portion of her story was a fantasy? What was undisputed fact? This much is clear: Milada Mynkova was born in Prague in 1860, close to the heart of the Hapsburg monarchy, the daughter of a bohemian diplomat.

W hat next? From there we must enter a guesswork world centred on the old Austro-Hungarian Empire whose decay, collapse, attempted resurrection, and aftermath she witnessed. Do not look for Milada 's empire in the atlas, for it has been swallowed up, and just as dragons on old maps prefigure alien realms, no one knows what spirit reigns in its place.

Copyright to:

Nicholas Hasluck , Our Man K (Penguin,1999)