Monday, October 01, 2007

Different Kinds of Truth

The contentious issue of memoir versus autobiographical fiction has broken out over the papers like a rash in the past days. Last week Robert Harris commented that the reception to his recent novel The Ghost - which people have read as a roman a clef, taking it as factual truth and his characters as real-life political figures - means that 'you can't get the book airborne ... as a work of fiction.'

Saturday's Guardian review carries two more relevant articles. Blake Morrison writes of the experience of having his memoir, When Did You Last See Your Father? made into a film, and makes clear that the process has involved a certain fictionalization:
The real-life basis for [a certain] scene was a modest poetry award I'd won in 1985... The dowdy poetry gathering ... was sumptuously transformed: it looked as though I was collecting the Booker prize. For my wife Kathy, watching from the next table while Gina McKee played her, it was a stiff test of her capacity to suspend disbelief: in the film, she asks to be mentioned in Colin/Blake's acceptance speech, a request the real her would never make... Blake throws a wobbly when his father refuses to say "Well done". In reality, my father was effusive in praise of whatever small successes I enjoyed.
It's hard to know how Morrison must truly feel about these changes, because naturally enough he will be both emotionally and pragmatically caught up in the need to promote this film, and it's no surprise that he endorses them:
In terms of the film, though, there was a logic to these changes from the life. ...the film's narrative arc demands tension between father and son at that point.
This, however, expresses a crucial point, and shows why it is a mistake to read even memoirs - which also, as James Frey has pointed out, require narrative arcs - as totally factual rather than emotional truth.

The second Guardian article is an examination by Christopher Tayler of the relationship between Philip Roth and his alter ego, the Jewish author Nathan Zuckerman of his novels. Tayler makes some attempt to tease out the parallels and differences between the life of Zuckerman and Roth's own, but only to show ultimately the mistaken enterprise of doing so, ending with Roth's own take on the matter:
"To label books like mine 'autobiographical' or 'confessional'", he once told the French writer Alain Finkielkraut, "is not only to falsify their suppositional nature but, if I may say so, to slight whatever artfulness leads some readers to think that they must be autobiographical." In other words, he's happy to exploit confusion between Roth and Zuckerman for illusionistic purposes, but equally keen to pour cold water on readers drawn by a supposed voyeuristic appeal. As he told Hermione Lee in 1984: "Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that's it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade."
I should confess that I've only recently begun reading Roth, but for these playful yet serious concerns he's already one of my favourite writers.
Post a Comment