Though he’s talking about a television show, David Simon has interesting observations about how much truth and fiction overlap.
When I saw that link, the first thing it reminded me of was reading a biography of Jennie Churchill, and realizing how much of Edith Wharton’s fiction arose out of her experience, so muchso that readers recognized specific American “buccaneers” (wealthy New York socialites who went to England looking for titled husbands) in her fictional characters, as well as certain titled individuals from long-famed families.
Were her books romans a clef? A roman a clef usually sets out to satirize real people, right? Wharton’s fiction is too unflinching to be regarded as mere satire; it seems to me that she shared with Daphne du Maurier a conviction that marriage was destined to be unhappy by its very nature. How much of that was based on experience?
Or maybe that is the wrong question. I believe that fiction and experience have been in conversation with one another since before the days of Homer. How they reflect one another is too broad a subject to tackle in weekend posts like this, but here are a couple of ideas.
Like, say, you can take a fantasy such as Lord of the Rings, claim that it is entirely fantasy, and yet after you read a few World War One memoirs, then reread Tolkien’s work, whole segments light up with that frisson of recognized real experience. Lord of the Rings could not have been written by anyone who had not survived the trenches of World War One, with his Roman Catholic faith intact.
Or this idea: so many of the great nineteenth century novels were set during the generation previous to the writer’s time, which he or she may or may not have experienced. The Victorians nearly made a sub-genre of novels set “in simpler times, before the trains tore up the countryside” and you can see the nostalgia mellowing some of the experiences, especially those no longer widely shared.
For example, those novels rhapsodizing about the peace and civilization of carriage travel (assuming one could keep a carriage), in contrast to being crushed in with everyman amid the noise and stink and ruined countryside of train travel.
Compare those to eighteenth century fictional carriage rides, which are full of jolting roads, overturns, highwaymen, being stuck in the mud, broken wheels and axels, lame horses, drunken louts on the roof, and the carriage itself crammed with the people one would least want to be shut up in a box for hours with. But if you wanted to travel, it was either by coach, horseback, ox-cart or walking. Coach travel was as high tech as it got.
The influence of fiction and real experience can go the other way. There are the cases where people take fiction as truth, or try to make it real, too frequently in ugly ways.
But it’s not always another road to horror. Most have at least heard of Baroness Orczy’s unexamined paean to aristocratic noblesse oblige in her single most famous story, The Scarlet Pimpernel, which has inspired numerous stage and screen iterations.
Though most people claim, with reason, that in other instances screen versions are never as good as the book, in this case I think it is safe to say that the better film versions are a vast improvement over the novel.
The most famous Pimpernels arguably are Leslie Howard (1934) and Anthony Andrews (1982).
But I suspect few nowadays know about the sort-of-sequel made by Leslie Howard in 1941, called Pimpernel Smith. In it, he plays a seemingly bumbling archaeology professor who is secretly rescuing artists and intellectuals from the Nazis.
It’s surprisingly watchable, especially when he is dueling by wit with the Nazi commander; it was a big hit in England, but Sweden two years later refused to air it, lest they disturb the balance of power with the German government.
However, the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg was able to see it in a private showing, and was so inspired by this film that when he later was sent to Hungary he organized an underground railroad that was responsible for the saving of thousands of Jews.
A friend of mine died not too long back, having written a memoir over the past couple of decades of her childhood and young womanhood in Germany during and right after WW II. Yep, she was a Hitler Youth—everybody was a Hitler Youth in those days, unless of course you were a Jew, but that cut little ice after the fact, when the heinousness of her government’s crimes became known.
Because German news sure didn’t tell the truth, and the comical figures of Hitler, with his snot-bumper mustache, and “Herr Meier” (Goebbels had once trumpeted in a radio broadcast that if England ever successfully dared to send a bomber over the border of the mighty Third Reich, they could call him Meier, a Jewish name), turned out to be the architects of unimaginable evil.
And she, the lone survivor of her family (she was away at music camp when Hamburg was flattened, among the victims her mother and sister), found herself in 1945 regarded as a teenage minion of evil, which justified her being treated like one for several grim years as Germany struggled to recover from the devastation of defeat. It is no accident that though she worked on her memoir for close to twenty years, no one saw a page of it until she was dead. I sat up all night, unable to stop reading.
What we at our distance can divine from the many personal histories of that time, corroborating as much as we can with any facts we can gather, is that not every German was a villain, and not every ally was a hero. There were individual acts of greatness and pettiness, cruelty and mercy, on both sides during the war years and in the long aftermath while Europe was a shambles. Many kept silent until very recently; for some, like my friend, their experience has only been revealed after their deaths.
All these years later we are still processing the manifold horror that was World War II. Because my life has been bound up in reading and writing fiction I keep thinking that there is a terrific novel in this recording of one person’s truth, the little interactions between human being and human being, some comical, some heart-wrenching, the cruelties and the little acts of faith.
Not everyone reads what to the young now seems ancient history, but I am convinced that one way we can help to insure that the like never happens again is through the power of story, especially those that reflect the truth.