Arguing for the primacy of history writing to the effort of human beings to understand themselves, the great historian of western culture Jacques Barzun writes: "The use of history is for the person. History is formative. Its spectacle of continuity in chaos, of attainment in the heart of disorder, of purpose in the world is what nothing else provides: science denies it, art only invents it."
This is an ingenious argument. But can we let it pass before considering what the novel form, which comes under Barzun's rubric of "art", might have to say in reply? After all, novelists often imagine the private lives of individuals from past eras, or reprise well-known historical events allegorically. Can such work be dismissed simply as "invention"?
Might it not be more true to say that at least in the best instances - Tolstoy in War and Peace, Rushdie in his comic linking of national and personal histories in Midnight's Children, the Indian novelist Yashpal in his epic novel about the partition of colonial India This Is Not That Dawn - the novelist is not just as much an agent and an adept of history as the historian? Such books might be said not to be history in the formal sense, but they are doubly so in a more informal way. They show us how "the use of history is for the person" not just at the level of writerly conception, but also inside the story, through the spectacle of protagonists being pressured by history, by past and present matrices.
A particularly revealing consideration of this question in the context of Arabic history and Arabic art might be found in the history-obsessed books of the Egyptian novelist Gamal al-Ghitani. Al-Ghitani is one of modern Arabic literature's most prominent voices - founder and longtime editor-in-chief of the Arabic literary weekly Akhbar Al-Adab, recipient of a Zayed Book Award and the Lettre Ulysses Award, and briefly jailed in the 1960s for his criticism of Gamal Abdel Nasser's repressive state. Hs books include Pyramid Texts, set in the Pharaonic Egypt before the advent of Islam, the great novel Zayni Barakat, set in the Mamluk era but also an allegory of Egypt under Nasser, and now the newly translated The Book of Epiphanies, which roves freely across a thousand years of Arab and Egyptian history.
Across these works, al-Ghitani makes a collage of the multifarious roots of Egyptian identity more complex than the nationalist identities asserted by the repressive Egyptian regimes of the 20th, or the new Egyptian identity asserted by the recent revolution and culminating in the victory for the Muslim Brotherhood in last year's elections. And stylistically, al-Ghitani draws on the indigenous traditions of Arabic narrative - works of history and philosophy by Islamic historians, Sufi parables and poems - to produce novels that might be thought of as Arabic not just in content but also in form.
This endeavour might be thought of as the shared project of the second generation of great Arabic novelists - writers from the 1960s onward like al-Ghitani, Sonallah Ibrahim, Elias Khoury and Emile Habibi - moving on from earlier pioneering works, such as Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, that adapted the form of the western realist novel more or less wholesale to life in Egypt and the Arab world. (It is a tribute to Mahfouz's narrative agility that his work represents the concerns of this second generation just as surely as he embodied the first.)