Edinburgh Book Festival: Revisionism of history is a novelist's prerogative

Being a novelist, one could revisit the past and maybe improve on it in fiction, says author Simon Mawer
Simon Mawer rewrites regrets in Prague Spring, a blend of the personal and the political. Picture: ContributedSimon Mawer rewrites regrets in Prague Spring, a blend of the personal and the political. Picture: Contributed
Simon Mawer rewrites regrets in Prague Spring, a blend of the personal and the political. Picture: Contributed

We may have forgotten about the Iron Curtain, but the red deer herds in the south Bavarian forests haven’t. After minefields and electric fences marked out the frontier, they learnt the hard way about the inadvisability of crossing into the forests of Czechoslovakia. So they stay and graze on their own side.

The story came from Simon Mawer, talking about the Prague Spring (also the title of his new novel) – that brief flurry of optimism in 1968 that socialism really could have a human face, before half-million-strong Warsaw Pact Armies rolled into Czechoslovakia to insist that, despite the dreams of the rioting Paris students and the raging anti-Vietnam demos on US campuses, it couldn’t. Or at least not then and there.

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Back in 1968, Mawer was an Oxford zoology student hitch-hiking across Europe with a male friend. When rumours of what sounded like the shattering of the Czech outpost of the Soviet empire reached them, he suggested that they give up on their plans to go to Greece and aim for Prague instead. His friend couldn’t be dissuaded. “I’ve regretted that ever since,” he said.

But the great thing about being a novelist, he continued, was that one could revisit the past and maybe improve on it in fiction – in his case, by giving himself a hitch-hiking girlfriend who couldn’t wait to see what the Prague Spring was all about. As narrators, those two could capture the uprising’s idealism, but he realised he needed more than that to tell the story properly.

To give added political depth, he explained to an engrossed Spiegeltent audience, he created another central narrator – a First Secretary of the British Embassy. In the extract he read, the man had been summoned to a meeting at the Czech Foreign Office in the Czernin Palace. As he wandered past the window from which its head, Jan Masaryck, fell – or more likely, was pushed – in 1948 when the Soviets first invaded, history is repeating itself. The Red Army is on the move and Czech civil servants are running round in a flap – like, he notes, “a beehive threatened by a bear”.

If the point about the historical novel is to give the past all the immediacy of the present and to dissolve the predictability of the future, Patrick McGrath’s take on 1947 London in his novel The Wardrobe Mistress, fitted the bill just as neatly. Those immediate postwar years, he said, with their drabness, filth and bombed-out squalor, have all but slipped out of our collective memory.

He might have a point too – at least when it comes to the accompanying (small-scale, surely) revival of British fascism. Who, with the Third Reich in ashes and Europe still in ruins, could ever possibly fall for the lies the newly released members of the British Union of Fascists shamelessly spouted, unchanged by their time in prison? Quite a few, apparently. As anyone knows who has read his Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell, owner of Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop in Wigton, has an engaging line in grumpiness and entertaining moans about the rudeness of his customers.

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This goes down well with book festival audiences, even though they can also identify with Australian philosopher and former bookseller Damon Young’s insistence that – no matter how odd it must look to your dog – reading is emphatically not a solitary activity, and is best enjoyed through recommendations and, well, book festival events like this.

The Muriel Spark event on Sex and Shopping with Louise Welsh and Zoe Strachan, ably chaired by Alan Taylor, managed to make the same point without sounding quite as happy-clappy. In fact, as the wide-ranging conversation moved back towards the 1940s, one was forever reminded how death-haunted Spark’s life had been, what with the murder of her friend in Rhodesia, the U-boat menace on the voyage back, and the perils of wartime London life. Sex and shopping would surely have been a quite understandable reaction to such a dangerous, drab, decade.

Maybe that’s too neat, though, because there’s evidence of Spark picking up on both those things much earlier on, whether in her mother’s flirtatiousness and style or the allure Muriel saw in Christina Kay, the model for Jean Brodie. Back to the books, I guess. And that’s no hardship.