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Freedom in Fabrication

The Japanese writer Tanizaki complained that he could not read his contemporaries. Every time he picked up a novel and read the first page he thought, ‘But this is just about him!’ (It usually was a him). This is an interesting complaint, particularly given the Japanese tradition of ‘I novels‘ – novels that were lightly adapted versions of the author’s direct lived experience. I can see nothing wrong with writing fiction that works a line very close to the author’s life. Novels such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, or Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, or Genet’s The Miracle of the Rose, or Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore are all, to one degree or another, ‘I novels’. This is not, of course, to be confused with writing in the first person. The I in ‘I saw, I went’, could be anyone.

Penelope Fitzgerald is an interesting writer in this regard. Her early fiction can be easily pegged to her biography. Later novels are quite different. Her last novel – her best? – concerns the life of the young German poet Novalis, in the latter part of the 18th Century. She was writing as a woman in her late seventies about the life and loves of a young man who died young. There is, in these ‘second-phase’ books of hers, a sense of adventurousness, a new artistic freedom that the earlier work (wonderful as it is) does not, in my view, possess to the same degree. Another writer who made this switch from the biographical to the ‘out there’ is Beryl Bainbridge, and I think with a similar sense of renewal and excitement.

A final thought on this – some people worry that too much invention means that what they write will not be true, or be less so. Staying close to lived experience is a way of guaranteeing the authenticity of what they put down. Here’s the great Werner Herzog’s nicely concise view on the matter (a quote I have pinned above my desk): ‘What is truth? I believe you can discover a very deep ecstatic truth by fabricating. My films find deeper truth by trying to be inventive.’

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