Back to the Present

In his 2011 essay ‘From Progress to Catastrophe’, Perry Anderson writes that ‘in one of the most astonishing transformations in literary history’, the historical novel ‘has become, at the upper ranges of fiction, more widespread than even at the height of its classical period during the early nineteenth century’. This, he observed, was somewhat paradoxical, for this renewed popularity coincided with postmodernism, the aesthetic regime, as Fredric Jameson put it, ‘of an age that has forgotten how to think historically’. Riding roughshod over the ‘classical form’, taxonomized by Georg Lukács in his canonical study of Walter Scott’s Waverly, postmodern- or meta-historical fiction had succeeded in reinvigorating a genre that, for thirty years after the Second World War, had contributed little more than a ‘few antique jewels on a huge mound of trash’. Linear historical necessity was jettisoned for ludic counterfactuals and chronological violations; romantic-nationalist aetiologies for imperial eschatologies; liberal faith that the clash of social forces would lead to progress with the suspicion that this was nothing more than a conspiracy of permanent catastrophe. Yet here was a case of a rising tide that lifted all boats: alongside these innovations in the genre, ‘more traditional forms have proliferated too’.

A decade later, the historical novel has cemented its status as a literary form. It is a matter of debate whether we have remembered how to think historically again, but owing to the contemporary political landscape, we have at least remembered that we ought to. That the genre, in both traditional and postmodern variants, continues to grow in popularity and respectability ­among Anglophone readers, writers, and awards-committees remains paradoxical, but perhaps no longer quite for the reason Anderson gives. Two defining features of today’s Anglophone literary culture are a moral imperative to enable historically marginalized voices to speak of, for, and by themselves, and an extreme scepticism about the ability of language to represent other minds, especially across the differences occasioned by marginalization. Whatever impact this moral-epistemic antinomy may have on narratives set in the present – where, perhaps not unrelatedly, memoir and autofiction increasingly hold sway – it is in principle fatal to the historical novel, a genre in which the possibility of representing ‘lived experience’ is by definition foreclosed. In her collection American Innovations (2014), the Canadian-American writer Rivka Galchen rewrote canonical short fictions as though they were narrated by women; the resulting pastiches provide a sharp commentary on the gendered assumptions baked in to putatively ‘universal’ works of literature written by men. But in her new novel Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, Galchen attempts to transfer this approach to a real historical figure, only to get caught on the horns of this contemporary paradox.

Set largely in Leonberg, a small village in the Duchy of Württemberg, Everyone Knows tells the story of Katharina Kepler, mother of the mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, who, in 1615, was accused of poisoning the wife of a local glazer, Ursula Reinbold, and charged with sorcery. She was tried, arrested, had her property expropriated, and spent fourteen months in prison under the threat of torture before being acquitted in 1621. She died the following April, effectively ostracized from the community. Meanwhile, Johannes (defamiliarized as ‘Hans’ in the novel), who took an active role in his mother’s defence, completed his work on the laws of planetary motion, and three Catholic officials were thrown from the top window of Prague Castle, sparking what would become the Thirty Years War, by far the most destructive conflict, measured in terms of percentage of population loss, in European history.

We are reading about Katharina of course, rather than one of the tens of thousands of other women subject to witch trials in Early Modern Germany, because of her proximity to the world-historical figure of Johannes. In Galchen’s rendering, Katherina is a recognizable figure from small town life: a busybody and a know-it-all with a sharp tongue, a speciality in herbal remedies, and a worldview grounded in stolid, peasant wisdom. In another time and place, her combination of ordinary vices and virtues might have made her merely an endearing or irritating neighbour, but as an old woman in the Holy Roman Empire in the first quarter of the 17th century, it left her vulnerable to the kinds of opportunism, resentment, misunderstanding, and prejudice that led to the ordeal that marred her sunset years, and perhaps hastened her death. What makes her an ‘average hero’, in the sense Lukács extrapolated from Scott, is that by refusing to confess to the sorcery charge, she manages to retain her individual dignity in the face of enormous social pressure. What makes her a good candidate for a protagonist in our contemporary moment is that she is not just marginalized from history, but multiply marginalized: she is female, elderly, a widow, a peasant, and also – perhaps most importantly – illiterate.

Given this last fact, the most straightforward novelistic approach would be to employ third person point of view, which would allow Galchen the greatest purchase on her protagonist’s state of mind, as well as a stable chronological point beyond the action from which to telescope her story; in other words, to dispense with a realism of presentation for a realism of effects. This has been the procedure of a number of other recent historical fictions set in the period between the publication of the 95 Theses and the signing of the Peace of Westphalia – Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy (2009-2020), Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll (2019), Éric Vuillard’s The War of the Poor (2020), as well as John Banville’s earlier Kepler (1981), which treats some of the same events. But as this narrative mode would give peasant Katharina a proto-bourgeois (one is tempted to say proto-novelistic) consciousness, and as it would preclude her from ‘speaking in her own voice’, Galchen chooses, in a somewhat postmodern vein, to foreground the ways in which our access to history is always already mediated, and in doing so paints herself into a narrative corner.

Dramatizing a detail from the historical record, Galchen stages the main part of the novel as Katharina’s first person ‘truest testimony’ to her neighbour, Simon Satler, a reclusive widower who is pressed into service as Katharina’s legal guardian and stenographer. The testimony’s plausibility as legal document is blunted by Katharina’s persistent impolitic comments, but worse than that, in order to convey information to the reader, she must tell Simon many things he already knows. (The text is littered with variations on the qualifying phrase ‘as I don’t need to tell you, Simon.’) Then, in order to account for his presence in the text, Galchen introduces a section from his point of view (‘I thought it would be clarifying if I, Simon, explained myself here’, he says, inaccurately), which further exacerbates the narrative’s ungainliness. When, in another awkward concession to the historical record, Simon bows out from participating in Katharina’s legal defence three-quarters of the way through the book, the narrative falls into the lap of her daughter Greta. Interspersed between these sections is a cache of other fictionalized documents, including duelling petitions from Johannes and the Reinbolds, the prosecutor’s summation, and dozens of transcripts of witness testimony from the villagers of Leonberg.

If Galchen’s intention was to centre Katherina, this cacophony of textual mediation produces the opposite effect. Once the trial concludes, Katharina’s rationale for telling her story disappears, and she more-or-less disappears with it. In an epilogue, which takes place ‘twelve or so years’ after the conclusion of the trial, Katharina’s acquittal – which should be the novel’s climax – is treated as an afterthought. ‘What a fool I am’, Simon writes, ‘to forget that a reader might not know the fate of Katharina’. Being a matter of historical record, Katharina’s fate is never in doubt, nor are we likely to take the charge of witchcraft seriously, which means our sympathies are never in doubt either. Whether our preferred explanation is that the witch craze was a remnant of pagan folk rituals interpreted through the lens of Christian demonology (Ginzburg), a displacement of the scapegoat mechanism from other victims – Jews, heretics – onto older women (Cohn), a femicide motivated by primitive accumulation during the transition from feudalism to capitalism (Federici), or something else entirely, it is likely that nearly all readers will hold the view that there are no such thing as witches, that anyone accused of witchcraft is ipso facto innocent, and that, as a corollary, anyone who accuses someone of witchcraft is motivated by some combination of superstition, misogyny, or malice.

This view is shared by some of the characters in the novel – by Simon, for example – but not, for what it’s worth, by Katharina herself. (For Katharina, witches are indeed real – the titular accusation is first uttered not about her, as one might expect, but by her – only she is not one of them.) In an interview, Galchen also expressed ambivalence about it. In the early stages of writing she thought, ‘The only way for this to be interesting is for [Katharina] to be a witch’. In the end, however, she opted for a more contemporary understanding of the figure, according to which, in the words of the interviewer, those who were accused of witchcraft ‘were often just successful or unpredictable women’. This metonymic substitution of personal qualities for supernatural abilities betrays a longing to preserve something of the witch’s power at a symbolic level while retaining our sympathies for her as a real victim of persecution. But as gruesome as they were, the witch trials were ordinary atrocities during a period that saw war, starvation, cannibalism, the plague, pogroms, mass rape, and the wholesale destruction of cities, most famously, of Magdeburg, where, over four days in 1631, some twenty thousand people were put to the sword. Just as being unsuccessful and predictable was no guarantee of safety, being successful and unpredictable was a liability that was not just limited to women, as the cases of Bruno, Galileo, and Johannes himself would illustrate. The witch trial is what creates the witch; much as we might desire otherwise, we cannot have the latter, even symbolically, without the former.

A further consequence of Galchen’s narrative strategy is that the trial produces not only the pretext, but also the conditions of possibility for Katharina to tell her story at all. With one exception, the speech of all the characters is mediated, directly or indirectly, by the juridical apparatus of the nascent European state system. That exception is Simon, whose narrative, having displaced Katharina’s, is mediated instead by the market. The epilogue takes place at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where Simon has come to hawk the ‘important manuscript’ we have been reading, or at least the bits of it he has access to. (In any event, this narrative device cannot account for even the existence of his sections, since Simon is ultimately unsuccessful in selling the manuscript, in part, because he has ‘not figured out how to describe it’ to potential publishers – a startling admission, coming so close to the end of Everyone Knows.) What the Frankfurt setting provides, however, is a direct, institutional connection from the early stages of capitalism to today’s literary marketplace. This, in turn, provides a glimpse of the moment at which enchanted ontology of the Middle Ages is swallowed whole by the commodity form, where it has been imprisoned ever since. Then as now, the battering ram of the new theological-economic order has been one commodity in particular: the printed book.

At the Fair, Simon runs into Johannes’ widow, Susanna, who has come to find a publisher for an unpublished manuscript from his Nachlaß. When Simon first sees her, she is standing between two stalls selling Luther’s pamphlets and Johannes von Tepl’s poem Death and the Ploughman. ‘So the stalls…sold books from a century ago’, he muses. ‘Why no interest in the awful and dramatic present?’ In the mind of one of the characters this thought is an anachronism, but the question of course is Galchen’s. Galchen has dusted Everyone Knows with allusions to our own ‘awful and dramatic present’ (largely to the pandemic) but these do not map neatly enough onto it to function as prefigurative allegory (the most obvious similarities – to #MeToo and to Donald Trump’s frequent references to investigations into his activities as a businessman, candidate and president as ‘witch hunts’ have the inverse moral valences). The part of the present that comes through instead is a comfortable nostalgia, a longing for what we have lost to progress, whose compensations are inevitably taken for granted and are thus – given the persistence in milder form of some of the real defects of the past (plagues, moral panics, gendered violence) – experienced as insufficient and disappointing.

The novel’s thematic contradictions are symptoms of this nostalgia, which emerges most powerfully in Simon’s final meeting with Susanna. The book she is selling is Somnium, an early work by Johannes which folds a treatise on lunar astronomy into a dream narrative. In the dream, a young astronomer, a student of Tycho Brahe, takes a voyage to the moon, with the help of his mother, a herbalist and healer with magical powers, that is, a witch. It is unclear when the details about Brahe and the mother-character were added to the original text, but in Everyone Knows, Susanna claims that they are ‘prophecy’ of the future rather than biographical details added after Johannes’ own work with Brahe and his involvement with Katharina’s trial. What is important here is the future orientation implied by the word ‘prophecy’, as well as the lunar voyage, which has led Somnium to be categorised as an early instance of science fiction. The presence of a real science fiction text in a contemporary historical novel should come as no surprise: Jameson has argued that historical fiction is really a species of science fiction, since the former is nothing more than the ‘time travel of historical tourism’. Of her rationale for writing Everyone Knows, Galchen has said: ‘I was desperate to escape…Even before the pandemic I was just like, I’ve got to get out of this moment. I’m leaving this year. I’m leaving the century. I’m leaving the US’. But as with spatial tourism, in temporal tourism, we always pack ourselves in our suitcase. Our contemporary science fictions are dominated by visions of apocalyptic catastrophe, whereas in choosing to time travel instead to early 17th century Germany, Galchen has allowed readers to escape to a world in which, despite all of its drawbacks, people could be said to hold out belief in and hope for the future. The catch, of course, is that what their future produces is us.

Read on: Carlo Ginzburg, ‘Witches and Shamans’, NLR I/200.