Dubious categories

In Agota Kristof’s wonderful novel The Third Lie, Claus – or is it Lucas, his anagrammatic twin (the two central characters are indissoluble, or aspects of one and the same person) – spends his nights writing in a notebook. One day, his landlady asks:

“What I want to know is whether you write things that are true or things that are made up.”

I answer that I try to write true stories but at a given point the story becomes unbearable because of its very truth, and then I have to change it. I tell her that I try to tell my story but all of a sudden I can’t – I don’t have the courage, it hurts too much. And so I embellish everything and describe things not as they happened but the way I wish they had happened.

After writing a book of creative nonfiction (I love the way a genre is defined by what it is not – as though ‘fiction’ were somehow the default mode of prose writing), one rather smug person of my acquaintance informed me that he had enjoyed the memoir, but had not been so taken by the fictional parts.

Were there fictional parts? I asked. Oh yes, this keen critic observed, of course there were.

Needless to say, this got me wondering. I could have retorted by quoting Joan Didion, who once wrote:

“Not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.”

Or I might have cited Gabriel García Márquez:

“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”

The point is, there is a fine distinction between the literalism of ‘what really happened’ – which is in any case not provable – and the way in which I happen to remember, conjecture and write. Does it simply boil down to a distinction between ‘true things’ and ‘things that are made up’? That seems horribly reductive. What about all the stuff that happens in between?

In the documentary film Patience, Christopher MacLehose tells an anecdote about the publication of Max Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. Sebald was required to state what category of work the book should be shelved under – a standard requirement made by booksellers, and he was dismayed that he had to choose a category: did he want the book filed under biography, history, apocalypse studies, memoir, travel or fiction? – All of them, he said, all of them.






3 Comments on “Dubious categories

  1. Here, dear Richard, you’re dealing with something extremely important. It is not the same the history you read on a historical fiction than the facts of history itself. For instance, in history you just need to know that X crossed an ocean and that’s it. But in historical fiction you maybe will add what X thought during the crossing just for the sake of embellish your narrative. But one thing is the interpretations of facts and another to use them for your own sake.
    Similarly, it is not the same just to read about specific character than to read about a fictional depiction of that character, I’m reading now Geoff Dyer’s But beautiful and even if it is very well written, I’m not sure that as a jazz fan I need the dramatizations that Dyer applies to real characters considering them as mere fiction people.
    Of course you have the right to do so. But I think there is an important difference between private and public history. You can say whatever you want about your own facts but you cannot say the same about things everybody can check by reading other sources.
    And to fake actual facts could has enormous consequences. You know as well as me than Chatwin was a champion in falsifying history. What he wrote about Patagonia, Australia or Russia made a lot of people think that what he wrote is the truth, Of course you have the righ to do so, but I’m not sure how fair it is..


  2. Jorge, thank you for your helpful remarks. I would need a long time to answer this fully, but it boils down, in one respect, to what we mean by truth – or ‘actual facts’. In an objective sense, if we believe something really happened we are going to be offended by someone else’s intentional falsifying. But if – as you seem to be saying – there is a more open-ended version of personal truth-telling, it is another thing entirely, and amounts to the same thing as saying that sometimes fictions can represent a truth better than an apparently factual account.


  3. You are right, Richard. Waterloo is not just the battle told by the soldiers that particpate in it but the whole thing, and nobody could tell the wholte thing without some amount of abstraction. Hence the importance of historians, one of the various kinds of non fiction writers. that could help gifted fiction writers as in the case of Stendhal.

    And of course not all the facts could be judge in the same way. But if I say “X crossed the ocean” (and he did so), this is objetive, so there is a truth.

    My objection is linked to things one adds to the story (and also to the history) without a real meaning or an artistic goal. I don’t care if Charlie Parker was drinking this or that at a certain time of the day if I cannot prove that. To consider that in a narrative is just ornamental. In a way is the same thing you have when you read a biography and the guy goes: “And he stops at the door and thinks blablablabla…”.

    To finish with that (and forgive for explaining that in such a long way, but it is a subject that I find fascinating), it is clear that the concept of truth is arguably in many cases, but not in all of them. And I’m not saying this in a religious way…

    PS: I do apologize to your readers for my horrible written English.


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