FACT OR FICTION?

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Readers often wonder how much of a novel, novella or short story comes from the writer’s own life and how much is made up. Some literary critics (and some biographers) have built an entire career on teasing from literary texts published as fiction what may have really happened and what likely didn’t. Other critics — and probably all writers — maintain the fact-or-fiction question doesn’t matter because after the writing leaves the writer, it must stand on its own.

As a would-be writer, and certainly as a nearly life-long reader, I don’t think the question is worth pursuing.  What did or did not happen in “real life” is irrelevant to the merit,  or lack of it, of the completed literary work. Anyone whose reading of what a writer publishes is driven by prurient interest in the details of the writer’s life is not far removed from the reader of fanzines and other sources of celebrity gossip.  Which is not to say that a taste for gossip isn’t a  widespread human failing, shared by me, but should not be confused with the experience of reading literature.

What’s more, even where the published work bears no apparent surface resemblance to what is known of a writer’s life, you can rest assured that every writer who ever lived has in one way or another cannibalized his (or her) own experience of living for material.  Nothing is safe from the writer, not even the writer!  Sometimes, it’s emotional experience — translated, for example, into science-fiction, or fantasy, or “post-modernism” of some kind, or innovative structure.  Sometimes, apparently more realistically, it’s a character or characters modeled either on the writer, or someone the writer knows or has heard of.  But — and this is the important part — something always happens to that lived experience in the process of putting it on the printed or digital fictional page, and what that something is makes all the difference.

(Parenthetically, I would go further yet and assert that even when writers compose allegedly factual memoir or autobiography, or when non-writers explain to themselves in private the important events in their lives, the accounts can never be fully factual accounts of “real life.”  They are how we see things, how we justify to ourselves what happened. They are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves so that we can keep on living. But did they really happen that way?  Who’s to say?)

Now back to writers. When in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” teen-age Alexander Portnoy comes home from school and twice that day has the liver he finds in the refrigerator:  once,  raw, behind a closed door in the bathroom and again, cooked, on his plate for dinner — does it matter to the gestalt of the book whether Philip Roth ever himself jerked off with raw liver when he was a teen-age boy in Newark, New Jersey?

Roth, of course, is our century’s champion creator of what appear to be fictional alter egos.  “Portnoy” was his fourth book, relatively early in his career.  “Deception,” his eighteenth book, is a series of pre- and post-coital conversations over several years between two adulterous lovers (with a few other conversations interspersed). The man is “Philip,” a writer of novels who spends half the year in London (as did Roth for many years while living with Claire Bloom). The woman in “Deception” is English, and  nameless. The conversations, and the coitus, take place in “Philip’s” London writing studio, on a mat where at other times he does back exercises.

At some point between the earlier conversations and the last one in the book, “Philip” has written and published a novel in which the lover, and then wife, of a man named Zuckerman is an Englishwoman. Non-Roth readers should know that Nathan Zuckerman, who has many of Roth’s characteristics, had already appeared in several Roth novels prior to “The CounterLife,” a novel with many of the characteristics of the novel that “Philip” has just published in “Deception.” “The CounterLife” was Roth’s second book before “Deception.”  If it isn’t already too confusing, I might point out that Peter Tarnopol, another Roth fictional alter ego, wrote two stories about Zuckerman in Roth’s “My Life As A Man” before Zuckerman got to be the central figure in novels apparently written by Roth. (With Tarnopol’s help?)

The Englishwoman in “Deception” is upset that “Philip,” she thinks, has written about her in his recently published novel. I will leave you with their conversation, which is obviously much better than anything I could add at this time to the topic under discussion.  (It’s on the second to last page of “Deception.”)  I love the last line.

“….I object greatly to this taking people’s lives and putting them into fiction.  And then being a famous author who resents critics for saying he doesn’t make things up.”

“Because you had a baby doesn’t mean I didn’t make up a baby; because you’re you doesn’t mean I didn’t make you up.”

“I also exist.”

“Also. You also exist and also I made you up.  ‘Also’ is a good word to remember. You also don’t exist as only you.”

“I certainly don’t anymore.”

“You never did. As I made you up, you never existed.”

“Then who was that in your studio with my legs over your shoulders?”

Res ipsa loquitur.  (The thing speaks for itself.)  Which has nothing — and of course everything — to do with the matter.

OTHER OLD FOLKS AGREE

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[I’ll be away from home and computer for a while, visiting Bill’s new baby granddaughter in Los Angeles. I should be back online with new stuff no later than February 16, and maybe earlier.  In the meanwhile, I ‘m re-running some earlier pieces that newcomers to the blog may not have seen, and others may not mind seeing again.  This one was the second piece I posted, right after “Why Blog About Getting Old?,”  which is now a Page.]

[Re-blogged from November 15, 2013]

OTHER OLD FOLKS AGREE

Bill is entirely supportive of my blogging efforts. Bill is the man I’ve lived with for the past twelve and a half years.  Since you’re probably wondering, I’ll get it over with up front:  our meeting was real geriatric chick-lit.  I advertised, he responded, we met. His apartment was five minutes away from mine. It didn’t take all that many dates….

Anyway.  When I showed Bill the first post of this new blog about getting old — now also a page, if you missed it — he wanted a piece of the action.  (He qualifies; he’s three and a half years older than me.)  He ran — well, walked — to find a selection of excerpts from the last diaries of Bernard Berenson, the renowned art historian.  The excerpts were (you guessed it) about getting old.

“Here,” he said.  ”You need quotations.”  Bill didn’t think my first husband’s ashtray made the point of that first post (now a page) forcefully enough.

I know all about citing to authorities.  During part of my past life, I was a lawyer and, among other things, wrote briefs for a living.  Show me a brief without copious citation to authorities, and I’ll show you a lawyer who loses the case, and the client.

However I am now retired from my earned income stream and no longer need to convince anyone of anything quite so persuasively.  But I do try to please Bill whenever I can, just as he tries to please me (most of the time).  So I looked at what Berenson had to say.  Here he is on August 13, 1956, when he was ninety-one:

I still want to learn.  I still want to understand, and I still want to write.  How shall I get rid of these lusts?  Physical incompetence only will emancipate me from their slavery, but what kind of freedom will it be? The antechamber of the End.  But how I still enjoy sunlight, nature and stormy skies, and sunsets, and trees and flowers, and animals including well-shaped humans, and reading, and conversing!”

Moving along past the lusts and well-shaped humans, we come to him again on December 20, 1957, when he was ninety-two:

I ought to consult an aurist, a urologist, an eye specialist, an up-to-date dentist, etc., in fact spend most of my time and money in an effort to prolong life.  Why?  Living at my age and with all my disabilities is anything but a picnic.  So why cling to it?  Partly out of mere animal instinct.  Partly out of curiosity about tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.  Partly because I am not resigned to giving up, and still am eager to achieve….”

He clung for two more years.

But clinging is not exactly my style, unless we’re talking about Eleanor Roosevelt’s style of clinging:

When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.”

So if we’re doing quotations, I much prefer Henry James.  As in The Ambassadors, Book 5, Chapter 2:

Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to.  It doesn’t matter what you do in particular, so long as you have had your life….The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have….Live!”

Which is not entirely dissimilar to the sentiments of poor Dylan Thomas, who never had the chance to get old, having destroyed himself early on with drink and despair:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

 Old age should burn and rave at close of day:

 Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Or, if that’s too passionate for you, consider Oliver Sacks, younger than me, who wrote in The New York Times on July 6, 2013, on the occasion of his 80th birthday:

I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.  I am looking forward to being 80.”

Free to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.  That sounds about right.  Thank you, Oliver (if I may).

Thank you, Bill, for your helpful suggestion.

And now that we’re all squared away with the quotations, one more thank you — to Alexander Portnoy (and Philip Roth) for lending me the end of this post:

So….Now vee may perhaps to begin.  Yes?

[Note on why I call this my “new” blog:  Not so long ago, I had another blog called “Learning to Blog” — for test-driving this blogging business.  Although it’s now my “old” blog, you’re cordially invited to visit:  http://www.ninamishkin.wordpress.com ]