In the June 2022 edition of Literary Review, Emma Park reviewed Laura Beatty’s new book, Looking for Theophrastus: Travels in Search of a Lost Philosopher (Atlantic Books).
I think it’s unlikely I’ll ever get round to reading this book, although I enjoy cross-genre writing of the travel-cum-history variety. So many books; so little time. When it comes to reading material, an element of triage is a regrettable necessary.
Park’s review concludes:
One of [Beatty’s] more Sebaldian passages, and one of the more successful, is a discussion of Louis Daguerre’s 1838 photograph of a Paris street. Owing to the long exposure time, all but two of the figures on the street have vanished because they were moving too fast. Beatty uses this as a metaphor for the difficulty of bringing the fleeting past to life without falsifying it.
In other words, in attempting to be a ‘ghost-raiser’, the biographer risks becoming a historical novelist. But then, as this ambiguous book suggests, between myth and history, fact and fiction, there have always been shades of grey.
I really like the daguerreotype analogy. Despite photography’s undeserved reputation for veracity, we know there are important details missing from the image: the crowds and the traffic. Without intending to give a false impression, the limitations of the technology mean Daguerre has done just that, presenting a hauntingly empty street-scape reminiscent of W. G. Sebald’s thinly populated landscapes and city-scapes. The limitations of the technology have presented other, more subtle, unintentional deceptions: there is no colour in the image—a limitation so familiar from old photographs that we don’t even pause to consider it; and, as with all daguerrotypes, the photograph is an inverted mirror image.
People can—and often do—use photographs to create deliberate deceptions. But even photographers who intend to make as accurate a reproduction as possible can mislead due to limitations in their technology, or due to choices they make when composing, capturing or processing their images. But I think there’s an important distinction to be made between photographs which deliberately mislead, and those which at least attempt to give an honest impression, albeit one filtered by the photographer’s technical and compositional choices, aesthetic preferences, and personal biases.
Sebald was wonderfully talented at obfuscating the divide between fact and fiction. In this, he was aided and abetted by images interspersed throughout his text. As a reader, you know, or naively assume, many of the details he gives are, or must be, based on things that actually happened. But Sebald freely admitted deceiving for artistic effect, merging or conflating details, manipulating and repurposing images, and even fabricating documents.
The unreliability of images—and of memories, which are a form of image—was a recurring theme in Sebald’s work. In The Rings of Saturn, he writes of Rembrandt’s celebrated painting of a 17th-century postmortem, The Anatomy Lesson, in which the left hand of the corpse of an executed criminal has been depicted the wrong way round. An innocent mistake, perhaps—and one I certainly didn’t spot when I saw the painting in the Mauritshuis in The Hague many years ago. But Sebald—or, rather, his unnamed narrator, who bears an uncanny resemblance to W.G. Sebald—thinks otherwise:
[W]hat we are faced with is a transposition taken from the anatomical atlas, evidently without further reflection, that turns this otherwise true-to-life painting (if one may so express it) into a crass misrepresentation at the exact centre point of its meaning, where the incisions are made. It seems inconceivable that we are faced here with an unfortunate blunder. Rather, I believe that there was deliberate intent behind this flaw in the composition. That unshapely hand signifies the violence that has been done to Aris Kindt [the executed criminal]. It is with him, the victim, and not the Guild that gave Rembrandt his commission, that the painter identifies.
Sebald’s narrator claims Rembrandt is deliberately manipulating our emotions through this misrepresentation. Elsewhere in The Rings of Saturn, he claims unequivocally that ‘the pictorial representations of great naval engagements are without exception figments of the imagination’. Later, on viewing a three-dimensional panoramic recreation of the Battle of Waterloo, he states:
This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective.
Which brings us to the subject of biography, historical novels, and writing in general.
Obviously, people are perfectly entitled to write whatever they damn well please. But I disagree with the implication in the final paragraph of Park’s review—and, I presume, in Beatty’s book—that there is some sort of continuum, albeit in different ‘shades of grey’, between myth and history, and between fact and fiction.
While it’s true the amount of factual material in a work of fiction can vary, and that some factual writing contains more speculation than others, I maintain there’s still a huge gulf between fiction—stuff that’s been made up by the author to entertain us, or to make us think—and factual writing—stuff the author believes to be true, albeit often filtered by their personal viewpoints. That’s not to say that factual writing is better than fiction, or vice versa; simply that they are—and should be seen as—discrete things, not parts of some monochromatic spectrum.
Sebald’s wonderful books The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo and The Emigrants all freely mix fact with fabrication. Sebald was perfectly entitled to do this—and I’m glad he did. But this amalgam of the factual and the fictitious makes these books undeniably novels. They reside firmly on the fictional side of the gaping void between fact and fiction.
Buried deep, but not deep enough, in my library of Darwinalia is one of many biographical books about my hero. I’m not going to give the title of the book as it’s not at all good, being filled with all manner of unsubstantiated details and unreferenced claims. I later learnt (I’m not at liberty to say how, so by all means treat this as an unreferenced claim of my own) that at least one of the details in this supposed biographical work had been invented by the author because they thought it made a nice story. This would be entirely acceptable in a work of fiction, but this book was marketed as factual. It is no such thing. You can’t invent stuff like that and retain the (admittedly awkward) label of nonfiction. This is a black and white thing, not a shade of grey.
This is not to say that all supposedly factual writing must be totally accurate. A chance would be a fine thing! Nor that factual writing must never be speculative. While the speculative must never masquerade as the actual, an amount of speculation is fine, provided the author makes it clear when they’re speculating—preferably with some supporting evidence. That said, if factual writing becomes too speculative, what’s the point? Write a novel instead!
I will never buy the Albert Camus soundbite that fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. Most fiction is primarily there to entertain, which is all the justification it needs. Some fiction makes us consider real and important issues in a new light, which is often admirable. Some fiction, such as Sebald’s, satiates my liking for cross-genre writing of the travel-cum-history variety, but with some made-up stuff thrown in for good (or bad) measure. But one thing all these and the many other types of fiction have in common is that they are exactly that: fiction.
In an era of ‘post-truth’ politics in which objective facts have taken a back seat, and in which downright lies are routinely rewarded, it seems to me more important than ever to maintain a clear distinction between fact and fiction, rather than talking postmodernist shades of grey.