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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Words 2012 Memoir, Fiction and Truth

this post written by

J.M. Coetzee looking faintly like Clint Eastwood

The Tuesday salon continued with the provocation by J M Coetzee (henceforth John). This took a quite different line and rather than looking to define the distinctions between fiction and memoir concentrated on what it is that makes a true life-story. Or rather what it is that might make a 'true-life story'. Or rather on what it is that might make such a story true or untrue. He recalled that the best 19th century novels offered us characters that war both unique yet typical. 

He talked of a project that collected people's life stories. The title suggested six million till recently, now it talks of seven million. What were all these stories, he wondered. What makes them stories and what makes them lives?

In order to demonstrate this he gave us the story of Nancy as an example (it might have been a story he invented, it might have been one he heard). To put it very briefly, Nancy wants to go to art school and be an artist but her father insists that she do something 'sensible' and safe and she finishes up in a miserable and frustrating job. She is so depressed by this that she takes a friend's advice and goes to a recommended therapist who hears her through and finds - or suggests - that the ban on art was not her father's but her mother's. Having understood this as the truth Nancy feels a weight drop off her shoulders, goes away happy and enrols at an art school. 

Where was the truth in this, John asked. Did the mother have a 'story'? Did the father? Was the point of truth to liberate Nancy and improve her life? Was her 'truth' a refutation of her mother's? Or was it a case of one relative truth, or lie, displacing another? Is what we think of as the right kind of story one in which the central figure triumphs over a personal problem?

He wondered whether objective or scientific truth might be allowed to exist. Are our life stories ours to compose? Are we the authors of our own life stories, and if we are, are we also the authors of their truth?

[Again I wondered about frames and conventions. I remembered - and mentioned - a film noir of 1948, later a TV show - Naked City, that began with the tag-line: 'There are eight million stories in the naked city'. 

If Nancy's was an exemplary story of redemption (as she believed it to be) was Naked City a set of exemplary stories about crime. In other words was it not so much a matter of believing what we want to believe about ourselves as redeemable individuals, but of a location where struggles between order and disorder, good and evil, may take place? Could we then think of other such frames or locations where the 'rules' or conventions of the frame inform the nature of both story and truth. The detective's task was to solve an external crime: the therapist's to improve an inward perception of life. 

Was the problem of Nancy's life, in 19th century novel terms, that it was not unique enough, that it was posited as over-typical, and hence false? 

 Might it be - to return to Gillian's idea of the resistant reader - that what we trust in is not the evidential truths related by the teller but the language of telling? That we trust the tellers, as we trust them, at the time?

 Is trust - rather than truth - always provisional]

The discussion moved around ideas of objective truth. Some felt it existed ( i.e. gravity is an objective truth, not a story about things falling), others claimed that what we have are stories about stories that lead to objective truths. The relativisations of the postmodern mind can defer the precise position of objective truth almost indefinitely. Fortunately we did not spend much time arguing the point.


The evening readings by Anna FunderTim Parks and John Coetzee himself crystallised some of the issues so perfectly I want to write a separate post just about that. It will follow this one.


Republished from GEORGE SZIRTES' vital and informative blog, with his permission. You can follow his reports on the World 2012 conference with Gail Jones, Gilliam Beer, George Szirtes, Tim Parks and John Coetzee - at Writers' Centre Norwich: more Festival information HERE

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