Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fact or Fiction?

I recently came across a wonderful quotation in a book I was reading: " The human craving is for story, not truth. Memory, I believe, embraces its errors, until what is, and what is remembered, become one."

I have been known to exaggerate or embellish "the truth." And why not? I ask. The human craving IS for story. It sounds so much more exciting if there were a hundred people gathered rather than ten; or it it was pouring rain rather than a gentle sprinkle; or that I could barely breathe rather than I got scared. There are some stories that I have been telling for many years, and I absolutely have no idea where the truth ends and the story begins.

I am reminded of the tale of how I got the nickname, Lady Godiva. We were living in a flat in London just after the war. I was about three years old. My parents were having a big cocktail party. My father was manager of the London branch of the Bank of Nova Scotia, so I picture this party being attended by bankers in their grey pinstriped suits and conservative ties, with their well=dressed wives affirming that the war had not taken them down.

My mother had bed my older sister, Carol, and me. Janet, the baby, was asleep in her crib. Carol was helping me take my bath. As my mother went out to join her guests, she left us with a very important task. "Your job is to keep Walter, (the cat) in your room. Under no circumstances can Walter join the party, is that understood?"

"Okay, Mommy," we replied, confidently.

I am not sure of all the details that followed, although I am certain I could make them up to filling any of the gaps. I took my bath, and I was drying off with a towel, when my sister, Carol, opened the door to our room and Walter went bounding through the door and down the hall in the direction of the party. Not hesitating, I bounded after him, running as fast as my small legs could go, trying to get to Walter before he got to the guests. Walter turned the corner into the living room. "Under no circumstances can Walther join the party..." so of course I had to retrieve him. Weaving in and out of a sea of legs, I followed the marmalade fur, determined to fulfill the one task given to me. Finally I cornered the big feline, picked him up and triumphantly marched back through the room with my head held high, Walter splayed out in front of me, and my bare ass displayed for all to see.
It's a cute story; does it really matter how much of it is true? What if you were to ask my sister Carol to tell the story from her point of view? Would it be the same story?
It's interesting, isn't it, that imagination is cherished in a child, but thought to be suspect in an adult. If a young child tells us that she has an imaginary friend, we inquire about this friend and play along with the child. If a teenager told us she had an imaginary friend, we would probably worry about her. An excellent writer almost ruined his career when Oprah featured his memoir about drug addiction. It was later discovered that he had "made up" some parts of his story. He had lied, tried to deceive his public in to thinking some things had happened to him that really didn't. If he had written his story as fiction, he would have been fine. But I can't help wondering how much of anyone's memoirs are really all truth. As the opening quotation reminds us: "Memory, I believe, embraces its errors, until what is, and what is remembered, become one."

Dave Eggers, on of my very favorite people and authors, wrote a moving a riveting story about Valentino, one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan. Because Valentino was such a young boy when his village was decimated and he had to flee, there were some things that he either couldn't remember or didn't know about. Eggers did extensive research, but because the history of the Lost Boys and Valentino's actual experience may not have exactly coincided, Eggers called his book a "fictional" account. When reading the book, What's The What," there is no way I would call it a "fictional" account. Valentino's experience was so real and so powerful, I find it odd to think of it as fiction.

And what about "historical fiction" portrayed in books or movies? How many people, after watching Schindler's List, take those scenes as true portrayals of the Nazi's? Did George Sand really lie down underneath the piano while Chopin played his nocturnes, or is that just a Hollywood twist? I had taught "Inherit The Wind" to my seventh graders for a number of years. It's a wonderful play about the Scopes Trial pitting William Jennings Bryant against Clarence Darrow. Even though it expressly states that it is not meant to be historically correct, readers have few, if any other references for these historic characters. Clarence Darrow will forever be a flamboyant, outspoken advocate for intellectual honesty. In fact, I have no idea what Clarence Darrow was like as a real person. The playwrights had an agenda: to use the historical Scopes' Trial as a metaphor for the then current state of McCarthyism and the threat to American intellectual freedom. Yet for most of us, the play is about the actual historical trial, and as such, inaccurate history is etched in our mind.

One of the foundations of this country is Truth. It used to be that every child was told the story of George Washington, our founding father, and the Cherry Tree. How many parents have said to their children, "You can do anything, but don't EVER lie to me." It used to be that is was very shameful to lie. Now it seems it's only shameful to get caught in a lie.
So, fact or fiction? Wherein lies the difference? Is there always a little fiction in every fact, or a little truth in every fiction? In talking to Loren about this, he came up with what I have to call an epiphany: "History is told by the victors; Truth is told by the survivors."
I'd love to hear your comments. In the meantime, I will continue to tell my stories.

1 comment:

Rodger said...

Nancy, I am glad to see that you have returned after nearly a year. I have never been able to read 'historical fiction.' Or as I prefer to call it 'fictional history.' I am fine with either half, keeping in mind that history is written from a point of view. Rodger