Truth and Fiction

German girls

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.

WW I and Mordor

WW I and Mordor

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.

pimpernel smith

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.

AA as pimpernel

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.

Raoul Wallenberg, Swedish Pimpernel

Raoul Wallenberg, Swedish Pimpernel

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.





Truth and Fiction — 30 Comments

    • They didn’t try, they DID it! While the war was going on, too. It’s worth a watch. Leslie Howard even manages to make his initial misogyny charming, and the screenplay is full of wit.

  1. I served an LDS mission to Germany from 89 – 91. It was rare, practically unheard of, for older Germans to discuss WWII–particularly with a young American. I’m pretty sure I didn’t realize what I treasure I’d been granted the handful of times my genuine interest in people’s history and stories drew out heartfelt, heart rending, recountings of someone’s activities during the war. Our distance, both in time and place, allows us to view Nazis as irredeemably evil (and certainly the evil perpetrated by that organization is heinous). But that changes when the woman whose job it was to scan aerial photos looking for bombing targets is a genuinely kind, loving lady with tears in her eyes as she tells you how it was her job and she didn’t know. Or when the man who speaks of sneaking up on an enemy soldier to kill him so he can get back to his unit has a far-away stare full of hopeless guilt when he gets to the part where he realizes the Finnish sentry he killed can’t have been more than 15.

    These experiences changed me, fundamentally, and my relationship with that war. Many look back at WWII and paint Hitler and Nazis as inhuman monsters with the lesson that any like them must be stopped. Me? I try to teach my kids (and anyone who will listen) that Hitler and Nazis were all-too human and that if we aren’t careful we, ourselves, can be like them if we let ourselves believe the same lies of innate superiority or follow others uncritically or selfishly focus on our own welfare no matter who else is hurt around us. Nazis are scary monsters, it’s true. But they’re scarier, still, when you understand that they aren’t really that different from you or me.

    So yes, stories have meaning and are important. And, like you, I think there’s a real need and vital importance for those stories that reflect the truth. We cannot afford to set Nazis apart and divorce them comfortably from humanity. If we ever forget that the vast majority of them were normal, everyday humans just like you and me, we run the risk of allowing the power-obsessed to remake those atrocities and let ourselves in for the horror of trying to tell our children that we didn’t know (even as they can see in our eyes that we might have suspected and cannot forgive ourselves for going along).

    • We cannot afford to set Nazis apart and divorce them comfortably from humanity. Well said.

      I was in Austria 1971-2, attending the university in Vienna, and while the older generation would talk bitterly about what the Russians did (and a few hassled me bitterly for the American bombings) nobody talked, at all, about WW II. It was like history skipped over the mid thirties to 1945. Weirdest thing.

      Another thing I noticed was that many of my German friends were Marxists, and when they discussed politics it occurred to me as a young twenty-something that some of the motivation was a kind of reaction against their elder generation.

      • Another thing I noticed was that many of my German friends were Marxists, and when they discussed politics it occurred to me as a young twenty-something that some of the motivation was a kind of reaction against their elder generation.

        Interesting. Most of the young people I met 20 years later were strongly socialist but not so much actively Marxist (Marxism was for the Russians and that system was busy falling apart rather spectacularly at the time). And heavily, heavily anti-war–I always felt that the younger generation in Germany had learnt from WWII that war was evil and as long as they eschewed all hint of condoning war of any kind they were “safe” from the sins of their ancestors. Gross generalization, of course, but broadly speaking it was pretty reflexive to condemn any and all military action, no exceptions.

        • Yes! Anti-war, too, most definitely. I took a certain amount of grief for America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict, and its self-appointed attitude as world’s watchdog–as if I had any iota of control over that! I couldn’t even vote yet! (Being twenty at the time.)

          • Yeah, I took that grief, too, though there weren’t any active conflicts at the time. I sometimes wished that I was free to pursue such discussions as there are some interesting moral/philosophical pivot points buried there. I was, however, a direct representative of my church and didn’t have the luxury, and settled, instead, for leading that kind of accusation into more spiritual, rather than political, directions.

            • Understood. I have several LDS friends/former colleagues (the school I taught at was, until they hired me, primarily LDS owned and run) who were sent to problematical areas, and what they say about treading that fine line between politics and compassion, service and social activism, to name just a few, is interesting stuff.

        • A long fiasco like Vietnam, the Boer War turned a generation of English against war. Young men would take an oath never to fight for king and country.

    • We cannot afford to set Nazis apart and divorce them comfortably from humanity.

      Amen to that–you’re so right. Anybody, and any group of people, has the capability to behave that way.

  2. Someone has written a book about Tolkien and his WW1 stuff.

    I am reading about Victorian medical practices, which would curl your hair.

      • In one of Judith Fleming’s book I found a recipe for bread jelly. You take a slice of bread and toast it. Then you boil it in water until it collapses into a jelly. You strain off the fluid and feed the fluid (not the solids!) by the spoonful, to the invalid. It must have been something like library paste, although Mrs. Beeton alleges it was more healthy than any other kind of jelly. No wonder people died so often!

  3. Speaking of treating Nazis and the like as all too human, you might want to check out a book by Todd Strasser called The Wave (and they made a movie of it too). This is based on a class experiment from the late 60’s,where the teacher creates a movement, in response to the query “How could any of those people go along with Nazis when they were so obviously evil?” Even the teacher was startled (and probably scared near to death) with how these supposedly intelligent students fell for and did not at all question what was going on. It is a chilling portrait of what can happen when we don’t think hard about what the people around us are extolling, and how one thing can lead to another before we realize what is going on.

    • Yeah, I’ve heard of The Wave. It has the weakness, though, that it was done with children (or, at least, non-adults) and thus allows us adults the out that we aren’t like that because we’re older and presumably wiser. Oh, and that it amounts to human experimentation, which is morally questionable in itself. The message of The Wave can easily be read “look how gullible and indoctrinatable children are, we’d better look after them so that they don’t do that.” rather than the much more important (and universal) message that all evil needs to succeed is for good people to stand idly by.

  4. Which is why, before the railroads, water was the main means of transportation.

    However, if there are flat lands that are so broad they aren’t reliably interrupted by fall lines on either side, they won’t have a riverrine system that can be so used — the U.S. Great Plains and the Mongolian steppes, for two instances. So we in the U.S. got ourselves some railroad robber barons and reliable connection between east and west coasts, north and south borders. Fortunately we had the gold and other mineral strikes after 1848 to help fund those very expensive undertakings.

    It’s very telling that Cornelius Vanderbilt, not only was a waterway monopolist and a railroad monopolist, but before the railways began he also owned and had his wife operate a tavern at the most strategic spot on the Hudson, where the Erie Canal traffic, coach traffic and river boat traffic converged.

  5. Perhaps the German youth of that period were somewhat influenced in their admiration for Marx because he was one of them, so to speak? Born in Prussia, educated in Bonn and Berlin, and gaining his first writing, newspaper and activist experience in Germany?

    Love, C.

    • Not from anything they said. They were far more radical than that. I think they were Marxists in spite of the historical Marx, so to speak.

      Also, being Prussian would cut no ice with Austrians.

  6. Wharton’s personal experience – witness to these matters was broad in scope.

    But when it came to writing – writing, she likely was more influenced by her older friend, Henry James.

    Love, C.

    • According to their letters, she wasn’t . . . he seems to have disapproved of her fiction more and more as the years went by, though he loved her as a person, and they had great times traveling around Europe together.

  7. As the war generation passes away and Western and Eastern Germany are becoming more truly integrated, more open interest in the Nazis and the War are now common among Germans. There’s certain distance making easier to face, I believe. But all countries and peoples have participated at some point in inhumanity.

  8. For the Nazi experience, I recommend They Thought They Were Free by Milton Sanford Mayer, the author having gone to Germany shortly after the war and befriended some small-scale Nazis to learn what their experiences were like. At one extreme, one had been justly convicted of having participiated in a synagogue burning on Kristallnacht. At the other, a teacher had joined to help hide his Social Democrat past, which meant certainly losing his job if it were found out.

    (Detailed review here)

  9. Fiction can give good guidance without our having to think it’s real–and without the fiction being particularly didactic. Just seeing people work out problems in fiction can help (depending on the novel, the readers, and the characters, of course…).

    • I think that there is a lot more of that working out going on than one assumes, especially in older fiction. I think we don’t see how extrapolative so much of it is.

  10. I had not heard of Pimpernel Smith, but have now gone to get myself a copy. 🙂

    (This on the heels of recently re-watching Jack Benny’s To Be or Not To Be.)