Those Who Bother With the Past

In a lecture delivered in 2009, the late historical novelists Barry Unsworth spoke about the “unbroken continuity” of the past – unbroken, but not undisrupted.

Unsworth first explains how his father, born to a mining village and a mining life, took up the trade at 12 years old. Seven years later, he broke away and left for the U.S. When he returned, he went into the insurance business. His father’s choice, Unsworth relates, “rescued my brother and me from that long chain of continuity, which was what happened in mining villages.”

In the same way, Arnold Bennett’s father Enoch rebuffed another multi-generational family industry (pottery) and qualified as a lawyer. Enoch, it turned out, blazed a trail for himself alone. Arnold, his eldest son, broke the chain of continuity once more when he failed his law exam and moved to London. The accelerating pace of innovation made the 20th Century ripe for such frequent disruptions. (To paraphrase another recently deceased author, one might call the immediate past continuing into the present an age of “wild rumpus.”)

Unsworth and Bennett each felt moved to meditate on the enigma of their own trajectories. Unsworth’s father died when he was young, leaving his son ignorant as to why he acted as he did. Bennett puzzled over whether or not he purposely failed the law exam, thus liberating himself from a career he didn’t want.

Hardly an idle question, why people do what they do, and Unsworth and Bennett both looked to the world beyond for answers – Bennett to the future for some justification and Unsworth to the past for reasonable explanations.

If there is any true, fixed border between the past and the future, it is marked by that transition between the young man casting his gaze forward and the older man looking back.

The Rage of the Vulture, Unsworth’s second novel set in 1908 Istanbul, presents both figures as natural observers: a young boy and his father, Henry and Robert Markham, the one with unglimpsed catastrophe in his future and the other, his character distorted by disaster already come and gone.

The novel’s title refers to the opening few lines of a poem penned by Lord Byron in 1813:

Know ye the land where the cypress and myrtle
Are emblems of deeds that are done in their clime,
Where the rage of the culture, the love of the turtle
Now melt into sorrow, now madden to crime?

No character entirely escapes comparison with the eponymous vulture – the brutal, desiccated Caliph, the last of the Ottomans; the encroaching powers waiting for the “sick man of Europe” to collapse; the Turks who massacred the Armenians in the mid-1890s; the protagonist who preys on his son’s governess; the son who spies on his parents; the visiting reporter more interested in the city’s exotic, superficial perfume than the stench of its enduring past; and so on.

The vultures of history interest Unsworth to a far greater degree than they do Bennett, who devotes the bulk of his pages to chronicling ordinary lives and the telling interactions within a particular social group, that of the Five Towns (actually six) where he grew up. Both authors spent much of their adult lives abroad, but Unsworth traveled more widely and Bennett seems to have felt the mental pull of home more strongly.

For Unsworth, individuals’ actions reflect and are shaped by the great forces of history. For Bennett, history is a backdrop, against which the same human drama plays out again and again even as the parade of ordinary occurrences takes on a contemporary hue.

One night, shortly after one of Bennett’s protagonists Constance marries, she makes a far deeper criticism of her husband than she intended and he responds with hurt and anger that “surprised him unawares.” The ensuing scene belongs to the perennial present:

Both of them suddenly saw that they were standing on the edge of a chasm and drew back. They had imagined themselves to be wandering safely in a flowered meadow and here was this bottomless chasm!

Bennett takes care to remind us that his characters are “not angels,” but the sins they’re capable of committing are, with a couple of exceptions, venial sins. Unsworth’s characters in The Rage of the Vulture, in contrast, are complicit in genuine horrors, and he wants to explore what it is that makes them so.

Nations, like institutions, have no true physical form beyond borders, buildings – themselves mere envelopes. The machinations of states emerge, in one way or another,from the inciting actions of smaller groups of “influencers,” vanguards that conflict and collude with one another; they either lead the charge or are pushed forward by the insurgent masses, depending on one’s perspective.

These vanguards consist of people for whom history has some tangible weight, such as Robert Markham, made sensitive to the currents of change by his profession (as an agent of the British crown) and his personal life, specifically, the murder of his Armenian fiancée 12 years earlier:

Change was in the air, he had felt it himself. Some sense of final impotence in the vast unwieldy bulk of the Ottoman state, or perhaps simply the undisguisable whiff of decay, was bringing dissident elements of all kinds back into the city. . . Vultures of democracy, Markham thought – he had little faith in the liberal principles they brought with them, not, at least, applied to a medieval theocracy like Turkey. But they were coming back, so much was certain; coming with false identities after years of exile in remote corners of the Sultan’s possessions; coming by train, tourist boat, tramp steamer, fishing caique; coming in a variety of disguises, the turban of the priest, the leather apron of the stevedore, the Albanian fustanella, or the rags of the wandering dervishes. And the word ‘Constitution,’ banned for thirty years by the palace censors, was in circulation among them, slogan and political programme in one . . .

Bennett’s characters not only do not sense this change in the air – change they are decidedly part of – they mostly shut their eyes to it. Sometimes they actively rebel against it.

The two visions are ultimately complementary. In reality, we go back and forth between these two roles, actively participating in one kind of progress even as we dig in our heels at another. Outside of our individual capacity for evolution, the sensibilities of our own time are at once the lifeline to which we cling and the shackles that even Houdini couldn’t break.

The Rage of the Vulture, London: Granada (now Harper Collins), 1982


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