History and Erasure

Reviewed by Maude Lapierre

Eva Stachniak’s Empress of the Night and Harry Karlinsky’s The Stonehenge Letters are historical novels that examine how narratives can not only be easily erased but can also unveil unexpected surprises. These two novels also present radically different ways to explore historical figures, suggesting once more that history is shaped by those who choose to tell it.

Empress of the Night, a follow-up to Stachniak’s earlier novel on Catherine the Great The Winter Palace, explores Catherine’s life and rise to power in a way that questions the narrative Varvara presented in the first novel. Focalized through Catherine’s perspective, Empress initially retells the events that occurred in Winter, but mostly focuses on the later years of her reign. Yet, because the novel opens with the events that immediately followed Catherine’s death, wherein the “thirty-four glorious years of Catherine’s reign have been erased with a wave of her son’s hand,” readers are constantly aware that the world Catherine is building is precarious. Stachniak returns several times to Catherine’s final moments, as a stroke which has left her paralyzed and seemingly unconscious leads her to recall her past. In this novel, Catherine is not the innocent and unskilled German princess Varvara perceived her to be in Winter. She is rather a calculating and deceitful aristocrat skilled at manipulating the Empress and her husband, who knows that “a game of chess is a game of choices. Sacrifice a pawn to capture a knight. . . . Or let your opponent cheat and think himself invincible.” While a novel that takes such a powerful historical figure as its subject might focus on politics and power, Stachniak’s text dedicates most of its energies to the personal, such as Catherine’s relationships with her lovers and family. By doing so, it showcases the extent to which political strategies and victories are shaped by the private sphere: both Russia’s military victories and its great political humiliation are caused by her lovers. In this novel, power and love are intertwined, but the lesson Catherine must learn throughout the narrative is that she cannot have both at once.

The Stonehenge Letters takes a completely different form, as it is presented as research rather than as a conventional narrative. Its unnamed first-person narrator, a psychiatrist, begins by explaining his research into the reasons why Freud never won a Nobel Prize despite having been nominated thirty-three times. This area of research soon proves unfruitful, and the rest of the narrative focuses instead on the so-called “Crackpot file” the narrator consulted while doing his research. This file, which he retrieved from the Nobel Archive, contains every unsolicited nomination for a Nobel Prize the Foundation has received in the course of its history, as well as five letters, four of which were written by Nobel Prize laureates, concerned with solving the mystery of Stonehenge. This unexpected discovery leads the narrator to fully investigate the origins of the secret Stonehenge Prize that was opened to Nobel laureates from 1901-1910. In this novel, Karlinsky weaves facts and fiction in such a skillful way that the line between the two continuously blurs. Since the narrative is supported by archival material, such as photographs, extracts from correspondence, and numerous footnotes, the information it contains always seems real, especially the well-documented entries submitted to the Stonehenge Prize. At the same time, Karlinsky’s novel offers a thoughtful reflection on the nature of scientific research and the Nobel Prize, suggesting that with hindsight, research and narratives that seem flawed can “be recognized as the significant achievements they were.” This observation is initially applied to the five entries submitted to the Stonehenge Prize and then banished to the Crackpot file because they were deemed unworthy, but his argument can also be extended to Freud, whose research was “too advanced” for its time. The irony at the heart of Stonehenge is that despite having declared his prior research into Freud’s Nobel Prize history a failure and focussing instead on an unrelated subject, the narrator’s entire investigation is filtered through Freudian thoughts which allow him to ultimately answer his initial question.

Despite the fact that Stachniak’s conventional novel and Karlinsky’s experimental multi-genre work choose extremely different ways to investigate the past, both texts contend that fictional narratives can provide valuable insights into history’s unanswered questions. While Karlinsky’s novel proposes that we should be open to “crackpot” solutions, the dialogue Stachniak creates between her two Catherine the Great novels emphasizes that single, limited perspectives can shape historical facts into radically different narratives.

This review “History and Erasure” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 190-92.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.