Heroes of the Story: Individuality in History and Literature

In the novel Saturday, Ian McEwan rests an assessment of the state of the British nation upon a single man. During the course of one day, the reader bears witness to the story of Henry Perowne, a successful surgeon, a good man, whose experience becomes suddenly less secure and less detached through a deceptively minor incident on the road. Private dramas intermingle with national ones, and the whole book is shot through with a dramatic sense of place and time, beginning with what is perhaps the most visceral symbol of the fragility of the post-9/11 world order: a flaming aeroplane. (As is later elaborated, ‘everyone agrees, airliners look different in the skies’; they seem either ‘predatory or doomed’.) And unlike many novels of the same theme, which fictionalise events and float within a vaguely contemporary setting, McEwan’s effort is entirely rooted, nailed to the ground; it takes place explicitly on Saturday, February 15, 2003 – and its entire edifice is supported and contained within the context of the anti-war protests which took place on that day, as well as the prospect of war which animated them.

In a way Perowne – with his probing, analytical mind and genuine willingness to consider both sides of the argument – serves not only as a proxy for McEwan (whose own perceptiveness and genuine spirit of intellectual enquiry is demonstrated in the same novel by his inclusion of both passionate opponents of the war to come and those whose suffering could be seen to justify such action) but as a kind of national conscience at large. He is caught between the new-found toughness and enthusiasm for the war personified by his colleague Jay Strauss (‘Whenever he talks to Jay, Henry finds himself tending towards the anti-war camp.’) and the jaunty, celebratory aspect of the anti-war protestors themselves, whose apparent lack of solemnity strikes Perowne as being in rather poor taste considering the stakes.

In my view this novel succeeds at capturing the essence of that time better than, say, Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December in that it has a single focus; the pressure contained within, and the emotional sympathy of the reader, is not dispersed between a cast of characters. The individuality of the narrative, which holds fast despite the invocation of other dramas and struggles and wider features of society, gives it a sort of empathetic strength.

The same logic, and the same narrative power, can be communicated in other media and in other vocies. History especially – be it local or national or imperial – would do well to emulate the form. After all, in many instances, some of them decidedly contemporary in nature, the individual has done more than simply provide a frame of reference with which to observe the past.

With the bias expected of a student of history, the best immediate example at my disposal is that of Lord William Bentinck, who effectively ruled the Kingdom of Sicily during his time as the British envoy in Palermo. His power was fundamentally individual in nature as it was largely divorced of the machinery of the state; instead, he moulded state offices and state customs to his own ends, backing the constitutionalist party within Sicilian politics, for example, and conspiring with her domestic enemies to remove the Queen – Maria Carolina – from her position of influence and eventually from the island entirely. His intervention has been written off by many – especially, it seems, those who have studied his tenure as Governor-General of India – as a doomed exercise fraught with personal failures. But the impact Bentinck had on Sicily remains distinctive; in this case his personal story is both an enlightening and a compelling one.

Bentinck represents an example of how a single person in high office can change things – moulding the political landscape around him, dispensing support and patronage to those deemed worthy, and dismissing those whose influence appeared to him malign.

There is perhaps space for the story of an individual who, despite possessing little in terms of practical power, achieved prominence and effected change. I have written before about Abdelbasset al-Sarout, and the fact that he does, in many ways, represent a kind of idealised view of the Syrian revolution. New media undoubtedly helps in this; and it is unlikely that Sarout could have risen to the relative prominence he has without the emotive force of his speeches and songs achieving the fame they have online.

Another example of the same can perhaps be seen in the story of the villagers of Montaillou, as chronicled (and even memorialised) by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in the book of the same name. In that work it is the very fact of the villagers’ ordinariness which makes their lives all the more fascinating; added to the quotidian is the fact that they, unlike their near neighbours and unlike the powers that be, subscribed to a peculiar heresy. The artful construction of Montaillou as a work of history allows for the generation of a kind of protagonist; and Pierre Maury, a seemingly good-natured and gentle shepherd, is more than sufficient in that regard. Though he did not live a grand life – and indeed he appears to have relished the freedom which his lack of material possessions allowed – his story, in which he was eventually captured by the Inquisition, contains the raw material to simulate more than academic curiosity.

There is an essential difference between the Maury of Montaillou and the Perowne of Saturday. In McEwan’s telling, the latter is a one of a race of ‘lucky gods blessed by supermarket cornucopias, torrents of accessible information, warm clothes that weigh nothing, extended life spans, wondrous machines’, while the former was an impoverished sheep-herder, one who was effectively forced into hiding as a consequence of holding a transgressive view of the world. But in both cases, the empathy associated with the portrayal of individuality brings it all into focus. And this can also be a source of great hope and optimism; all of us, it seems, can – and should – aspire to be the hero of our own story.