There is a certain kind of novel which makes one think to oneself ‘Oh, you mentioned that before, but in a different context: how clever.’ And, of course, one’s rather pleased to have noticed it, and words like ‘interwoven’ and ‘controlled’ spring to mind. Whether this says rather more about me than it does about Daisy Hildyard’s debut Hunters in the Snow, I’m not sure. The other thought that tends to run alongside this response is ‘Goodness, haven’t they jotted down a lot of quotations that would look great in a novel.’ Again, this might just be me: I definitely have a tendency to highlight passages that would make great epigraphs. Hildyard addresses this issue rather neatly by prefacing the novel with both an Asterix cartoon and some Laurence Sterne.
My grandfather’s name was Thomas James Thompson, but he was known to everyone as Jimmy, and we still called the room in the porch Jimmy’s study, despite the fact that a year had passed since his death.
The heart of Hunters in the Snow is the nature of recollection and the shaping of a narrative by the choices of inclusion and omission made by any contemporary observer or supposedly abstracted historian. As she clears out his study, Jimmy’s granddaughter looks through the old historian’s notes and drafts assembled for his final histories: Edward IV, Peter the Great, former slave Olaudah Equiano, Herbert Kitchener. These narratives provide the framework for the nameless granddaughter’s reflections and memories of Jimmy and his many lectures on history and historiography. As one might expect in a novel about the nature of narrative, analysis, and the assembly of sources, the writing, which is always measured and precise, twists in and around itself, ending rather fittingly with portraiture, the loss of detachment, and the relationship between foreground and background in Virginia Woolf.
History is not like fiction, in which someone has to hang on every knotted noose.
In one sense, Hildyard makes more manifest the submerged structure of a Sebald piece as microscopy, archaeology, memoir, place, and personal narrative flow into one another across the histories. This might mean that the artifice hanging behind, say, The Rings of Saturn or Austerlitz, is more apparent in Hunters in the Snow than it might be; but I don’t think this becomes a problem, because Hildyard’s aims are different from Sebald’s, despite the martialling of historical moments, of convergence and divergence in time that they share. Sebald’s is an interior journey magnified and structured by historical, literary, and geographical experience, whereas Hildyard’s narrator looks to mirror her grandfather’s advice on sifting the accounts and omissions of sources to find the truth beneath in her bid to understand: she turns the historian’s eye onto the historian, but in doing so reveals much about herself by omitting her name, her childhood in the village beyond Jimmy’s farm, her life.
In the same year the Oxford English Dictionary credits the translation of the term ‘autobiography’, meaning self/life/writing, into English from Greek. Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, then, must have been one of the very first of these personal histories. Before that time, writers could only deal in memoirs, which came from the inside of their minds; or accounts, which kept outside of them. They had no particular words for recording themselves, as historians do, over time.
Hildyard’s novel is at its most interesting when reflecting on the way in which we can come to know far more about a period than its inhabitants or their immediate descendants, whether that be by scientific analysis or the dynamics which only emerge when one can view decades at a glance. And yet, the manner in which the observer’s eye is guided by the mind is repeatedly emphasised by both the subjects of Jimmy’s histories and the practice of the historian who chose them. He writes of the pioneering microscopist Leeuwenhoek’ whose otherwise outstanding observations are complicated by his certainty that he can see in a single sperm a tiny human waiting to grow.
Jimmy reiterated, three-quarters of a century later, his historiographical credo: ‘A feeling for and a joy in the particular in and by itself is necessary for the historian, as one takes joy in flowers without thinking to which of Linne’s classes or of Oken’s families they belong.’
‘Is that you, or is that a quote?’
‘I’m not sure,’ he said uncharacteristically. ‘It might be me, or it might be von Ranke. But the point is this: the particular always stands for the universal.’
Whether that concluding thought is quite true or whether it follows from von Ranke’s joy in the particular is an interesting question; and it is one which Jimmy seems, in his resistance to the validity of personal experience or the particularity of present experience, to hold in tension with his impulse for abstraction. He always removes himself from the present moment into history; he allows his farm to decay, hates conservation, because in that decay will the passage of time, of history, be made manifest.
History, said Jimmy, is quite different from what happened.
History is an assemblage, a collage of found objects glued together to create something of some meaning and, we hope, something of value. ‘Leeuwenhoek was the first person to see the sperm cell, but he changed it when he looked at it.’ When Picasso produced the first collages proper in 1912 he knew precisely what he was doing in this assembly. He was taking real things and, in a manner, preserving them by creating something neither wholly new nor old. Or so I’ve chosen to write.
Hunters in the Snow is a very assured assemblage held together by the questions of narrative, integration, and preservation which run through it. In language whose precision mirrors the call to the particular whilst holding the universal in mind, Hildyard navigates the twin pitfalls of overgeneralisation and wallowing in the historical very neatly. The external and internal, the observer and the observed, the writer and the written constantly question one another as the snow melts around Jimmy’s frigid study and his granddaughter’s interrogation. In Hildyard’s mingling of the historical and fictional she aptly mirrors the historical method she wants to analyse. The snowy fields of the title through which the hunters move are the pages waiting to be written, hiding life and decay beneath the slush, but from which they were never really separate in the first place.
Hunters in the Snow is out now from Jonathan Cape.
My thanks to Jonathan Cape for this review copy.