‘We want stories; we say they illuminate; and the truer the story, the better we like it. But no one knows how to tell true stories. And yet, we’re made of stories, we’ve been captivated by them since childhood: ‘Listen! Read! Look!’ – our truth be done, may it draw us near and send us far with pictures and words.’
Thus Éric Vuillard, in the closing pages of this slim volume, solves the puzzle this novel presents – which is, is it even a novel?
For, initially at least, The War of the Poor reads as something like popular history. The host of facts and historical details about the life of preacher and rebel, Thomas Müntzer, and his role in the political and social upheaval caused by the Reformation are enlivened by small dramatisations: reading Gutenberg’s Bible ‘he spent long hours down in the kitchen, rubbing his eyes’. A young German prince, the Landgrave of Hesse, fretting about the Protestant revolt in his lands, ‘paced round and round Luther’s room, where the great man had lodged, and through the small window gazed at the rooftops of Wartburg’.
But it is only something like popular history. Whereas even a popular historian would ground their most florid passages with an objective, measured style, Vuillard adopts a more novelistic register, as in his description of the publication of Gutenberg’s Bible:
‘a molten substance had flowed from Mainz over the rest of Europe, flowed between the hills of every town, between the letters of every name, in the gutters, between every twist and turn of thought, and every letter, every fragment of an idea, every punctuation mark had found itself cast in a bit of metal.’
Throughout the book, Vuillard keeps his reader on a string – never allowing them to decide exactly what it is they’re reading. For it is history – Vuillard indicates where something is known, and where it is in doubt; yet it is also a novel, with insights into the psychology of its protagonists, with imaginative acts: creating scenes, assuming the point of view of a character.
Towards the end of the book, during Müntzer’s last stand at the Battle of Frankenhausen, Vuillard steps into the middle of a sentence to show us what he is doing:
‘Müntzer exhorted his men, screamed his confidence in God, tried to grab them by the sleeve, I don’t know what he did, probably he shed tears, rage.’
A historian might describe Müntzer’s exhortations; a novelist would have their character grab someone by the sleeve, a writer exploring what fiction is, how true stories and fictional ones converge, can reveal his own ignorance to his reader, can suggest a character’s probable actions.
Just two pages later, at the opening of the final chapter, in the same way a more conventional piece of fiction might offer its reader a dénouement, Vuillard provides the paragraph at the top of this review. This is a true story, and he has made an attempt at telling it, and in the process has created a fiction. At least, the judges of the International Booker Prize, awarded to works of fiction, are convinced enough that it is fiction to shortlist it this year.
I’m not so convinced it is, but I do think The War of the Poor is all the stronger for the doubt it casts on its own classification.
Reviewed by West Camel
THE WAR OF THE POOR
Written by Éric Vuillard
Translated by Mark Polizzotti
Published by Picador (2021)
May 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, is out now.
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