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«We Search the Past … for Our Own Lost Selves.»

Representations of Historical Experience in Recent American Fiction


Marta Koval

The book is a study of the most recent American fiction, published at the turn of the 21th century, which demonstrates a renewed interest in the matters of history. Using the concepts of memory and experience, the author points at the ways in which subjective history has been created in the new «novel about history», written by such authors as William Gass, Richard Powers, Marilynne Robinson, Nicholson Baker, Aleksandar Hemon, and Jeffrey Eugenides. Theoretically, the study has been inspired by the works of Aleida Assmann, Hayden White, Reinhart Koselleck, Frank Ankersmit, and Dominick LaCapra.


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Over the last thirty-five years or so American fiction has become so diverse that mapping it, making any generalizations regarding its development, or introducing any kind of typology would certainly be reductive. The analysis of the novels included in this study is an attempt to outline a tendency that seems to have appeared at the turn of the twenty-first century. The texts that are considered part of this tendency share a range of narrative and discursive features that allow us to view them as a set. The seven novels analyzed in the book (and there can be more of this kind) demonstrate a renewed and growing interest in matters of history. Obviously, fiction has always demonstrated an interest in historical themes. Even the postmodernist rejection of history as one of the world-organizing metanarratives does not altogether exclude historical topics. The two approaches to the historical past that dominate postmodernist fiction focus on (1) micro-histories and forgotten, subdued, or neglected episodes from the past that come to the foreground with the emergence of “new voices” (ethnic, but not only), or (2) the intentional highlighting of the dubious nature of historical truth, its dispersion, the fusing of historical facts and fiction, and the manipulation of historical figures and events in order to show the unimportance of their real existence and reduce any meaning the past could have to verbal experimentation and play. The latter tendency is best exemplified by historiographic metafiction which radically (and irreversibly) changed the model of the historical novel...

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