A short extract from an ongoing essay
By Helen Barnes-Bulley
Introduction: about the essay excerpt
I’m always interested in those divisions we make in literature between “real” and “true” stories and those we call “fiction”, and what kind of impact the labelling of stories has upon the potential reader. Good writing, some would say, is what really matters, and the genre or subject matter is merely the vehicle for an individual’s voice to compel the reader to travel with the text. Charlotte Wood recently wrote a fine essay about the difficulties of transforming the “real” into the “fictional”, which appeared in Meanjin.
This is a question that has been much discussed, much written about. We talk a lot about these things with writers at Varuna, naturally, and about our experience of literature – what it means, how it informs us, how we take it with us through our lives. The following excerpt from an essay I’m working on picks up some of the threads of Peter Bishop’s on-going on-line essay, and hopes to contribute to that conversation between readers and writers on the Varuna Blog.
HOW DO WE KNOW WHAT TO BELIEVE? (and does it really matter?)
I have heard people say that in their dreams they’ve written a concerto or a short story or painted a picture, yet when they’ve woken they can’t recall a note or a line or an image. I suppose physicists construct new theories about the universe and film-makers direct fabulous epic films which are also lost as soon as they open their eyes. We remember the unfolding narrative of dreams but perhaps not the intricate details of a creation. Bits and pieces. I woke this morning with a sentence in my head that went something like “All night it rained and in the morning when she woke the air was smoky with cold and the birds had stopped singing and flown before the sun began to shine.”
It has a kind of elegiac tone about it, doesn’t it? Maybe because it’s autumn. Keats and Pushkin come to mind – the light changes; “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”; the air is charged with a peculiar anticipation: of bareness, of pale skies and those early evenings, of winter.
(If we add commas and more boldly, semi-colons, and even colons, to this sentence, it will slow down, and sound rather different in our heads)
“All night it rained, and in the morning the air was smoky with cold; the birds had stopped singing: flown, before the sun began to shine.”
If you’ve ever been a teacher or tutor of any kind in the finer points of the English language then the punctuation point most students will be troubled by is the semi-colon. I know many writers have written about the use of the semi-colon; Jane Austen is often trotted out as the star practitioner of its use in her various novels.
But my dream hadn’t been Australian, or even English, I knew…
Well, I wondered as I peered into the half-dark of my room, did I think I was back in Russia somewhere? Had I been nursing some strangely imagined Slavic melancholy, poised to reveal itself in my dreams? Was it Pushkin’s poem about autumn that had somehow invaded my unconscious? Or was I just having a kind of literary anxiety about putting one word after the other?
Pushkin writes about autumn:
“Dejected season! Enchantment to the eyes!
Your elegiac beauty and your mourning
Colours are dear to me: the sumptuous
Fading of the woods in purple and gold,
The wind and the fresh breeze in tree-tops; skies
Covered with rolling mists,
The tentative sun-ray, the first frost,
The grey winter’s distant warnings.”
There’s a whole essay there alone in that last line – how winter informs so much of the way we might imagine Russia; Napoleon, Siberia, the long dark nights of winter, the eternal cold, the freezing fields that might never again be green. The revolution of 1917 that took place in the coldest winter for a century; the desperate people who marched in that icy weather upon the Winter Palace hoping that Nicholas the Second might make a personal appearance and listen to their demands. And later, the next war, the Great Patriotic War, as it is called in Russia. Stalingrad. The long terrible siege of Leningrad. The appalling costs of war, and the climate.
Pushkin could have known nothing of these specific events. And so we imagine them for him when we read. And in reading we bring so much of our own personal reading and understanding, our historical hindsight, to bear upon literature; we bring something into existence that is entirely dependant on our knowledge and interpretation of history, and yet more excitingly, upon our own imagination.
We read backwards, in one sense, into past events, into the strange uncertainty and richness of history; and yet we read the writers themselves, from earlier eras, forwards, into our own time and place, and we imagine writers like Pushkin into our own era, and hear his voice echoing both the past and the possible present. We might try to place him now in our own society and wonder where he might fit, where Onegin and Tatiana might be found, and whether anyone at present could write a poem about such individuals and make their story so funny and compelling and sad.
I have to say that mostly when I was in Russia the last time the autumn weather was fabulous and the air was not cold; in Moscow it was certainly a bit smoky, but St Petersburg was blue and creamy, and rather beautiful. Much more beautiful than Dostoyevsky’s version of it with its filth and squalor and seething streets of misfortunates and monomaniacs…
I’ve been re-reading – apart from Pushkin – Crime and Punishment over the past few days, as perhaps you can tell. (It’s been my lunch-time treat, although the trouble with Dostoyevsky is he’s hard to put down. It’s a bit like being on a mad sleigh-ride and feeling alarmed but also excited about the end of the ride. It’s hard to jump off. So my lunchtimes have stretched.) I have read it many times since I was first mesmerised by it at high school – and one of the most enriching experiences of reading a novel many times over a period of years is just how it grows and changes in your consciousness, and the realisation of how you have grown and changed to deepen your appreciation of its qualities. I was just now reading a few pages in which Raskolnikov has met up with his mother and sister after a period of separation since he arrived as a student in St Petersburg; he has already committed his crime; he is in an alarming state of mania; sometimes it abates a little and at other times he is overwhelmed by it. His behaviour disturbs his friends and terrifies his family.
In this particular scene the conversation with his mother and sister veers between normalcy and madness; there is an acute tension between them for all kinds of complex reasons, not least of which is Dunya’s imminent marriage to the predatory Luzhin. The contradictory emotions swell in the claustrophobic little room; they love each other and at the same time their irritation and disappointment and frustration with each other are palpable. The crazily irrational behaviour of Raskolnikov throws all those around him off balance;
nobody knows what to expect; at any moment things may split wide open and we as readers fear the blackness of his deed will be revealed.
And why do we fear it? For his sake, or for theirs?
Only a couple of times does Dostoyevsky actually articulate the dread chill that comes over Raskolnikov at moments during this conversation; it is that chill of recognition that what he has done hasn’t only been done to himself but to his mother and sister, the people who love him and whom he loves most in the world. He has destroyed his life, and theirs; it is unbearable and yet on he goes, and we watch and listen as he surges and crashes like a drunken swimmer in the waves of the sea, one moment apparently lucid, the next alarmingly distracted and mean, and cruel. We as readers are as bewildered and edgy as the characters and have no idea what will happen from one minute to the next.
Of course later Raskolnikov won’t be able to overcome this sense of dread; he will eventually obey that impulse we get flashes of to confess his crime and be punished. When I first read the novel all those years ago I couldn’t stop reading it; I would put it down and feel absolutely compelled to go back and read just the next chapter, and the next, until my mother discovered me still reading at four in the morning with only two hours left before I had to get up and prepare for school next day and without my Latin and French homework done.
Now, without the pressure of French and Latin comprehensions I can read it in a leisurely way and just be carried along on that tide of energy and the astonishing range and depth of Dostoyevsky’s insights and the way in which he presents them. There isn’t another novelist I can think of who, in quite that same polyphonic way, gives us the voices of all the characters and a profound sense of each one’s inner life and thought. None of them is privileged over another; each one’s point of view has an authority of its own, whether we find it monstrous or endearing. The sheer energy of his thoughts and ideas and emotional engagement with his characters are rarely matched in literature; he exhibits a fertility of thought and complexity and immense fascination with human life in all its facets that lend his novels an astonishing veracity about human psychology and behaviour; they provoke that apprehension of the diversity of individual consciousness only dramatic fiction can. Because he writes in a kind of delirium himself he makes the reader feel as unstable as his characters. We know he thought his writing was most effective when he was gripped with a kind of fever. A literary influenza, you might say. The translation I’m reading by David McDuff seems to capture the breathless unpredictability produced by this fever. The jerky and rambling conversations as well as the internal monologues with all their stops and starts and circularities are rendered through the layout and punctuation. We are able to get as close as is possible in fiction to being totally inside the characters’ heads.
Did Dostoyevsky draw on ‘real’ people for his novels, as he drew on actual political ideas and movements of his time? How much is Raskolnikov a creature of Dostoyevsky’s imagination and how much a kind of “case study” of a real murderer?
I have been thinking about that conversation that goes on in our literary culture about “true stories” and “truthfulness” and then the great “human truths” we might find in the books that have lasted, that we go back to for that very reason, even as far back as David Malouf has done with his novel Ransom, which focuses on that section of The Iliad about Priam and his journey to claim the body of Hector from the Greek hero Achilles. The Iliad, presented sometimes as a history of the Greco-Trojan wars, could also be seen as poetic fiction; we don’t know whether any of it is true at all, yet it has informed much of our literature over the past two or three thousand years. And I’ve been wondering whether the divisions we make between “true stories” and fiction are really very valid or useful at all. (Take the Bible, for instance – it’s quite rich pickings for metaphor and symbol; most historians see it as a messianic text not an historical one; but Christians believe in its “truth”. What kind of “truth”?) And I know this is a discussion that continues to be conducted in essays and critical reviews and literary journals round the world. Helen Garner’s recent book The Spare Room seemed to cause some problems for some critics and readers: it seemed to be presented as a novel and yet the main character was also Helen; the story “sounded” like a memoir. How should the reader take this?
So what is it that makes a difference to a reader about how a book is marketed? If Crime and Punishment had been marketed as a “true story” about a killer in St Petersburg in the second half of the nineteenth century would we read it differently? And what would be the difference?
Did Dostoyevsky, like Tolstoy and Hugo, Dickens and George Eliot, to name a few others writing at the same time, choose fiction even though they were writing about “real” events, because it gave them greater imaginative scope? Is that what a novel can afford a writer that memoir or essays cannot? One simply cannot imagine many of those writers around today who write “true crime” being able to demonstrate the range and complexity of any of Dostoyevsky’s major novels. And yet in some ways novels like these have more in common with essays or memoirs because they are motivated by intellectual and psychological interests. They are not just writing a good yarn; they are thinkers, philosophers, intellectuals; they are exploring ideas about human consciousness, not just conveying experiences. They are providing a deeply-informed analysis in many ways of their own societies at all levels. George Orwell’s 1984 comes to mind. It can be read equally as an extended essay as it can a novel. But whatever form we decide it is, the ideas and the driving concern with which it is written are as engrossing as War and Peace or The Magic Mountain or The Golden Notebook.
Helen Garner’s book The Spare Room doesn’t attempt anything so grand. She may not bother about whether readers regard it as a novel or a “true story”. It is a small book in comparison to Crime and Punishment; it doesn’t try and give us the whole social world. But what it does give us in a very succinct way is the personal world itself: of life, and death. It is the very intimate world of two women: one who is dying and the other her old friend who helps her through her last desperate weeks as she futilely seeks a miracle cure. It is finely-observed, and extremely economic; you can read it in one sitting; it is powerful, emotionally charged, and it captures, as do the big novels referred to above, something we recognize to be fundamental to all human experience of living and dying. Certainly we are aware of the values of the world in which the two women exist, and the context is vividly, if sparely, evoked.
So what I’m interested in is whether it matters that The Spare Room could be a memoir or a novel. Or a long personal essay. Would it have a different effect if we read it as one kind of book and discovered it had been designated another?
Garner reminds me in that way of W.G Sebald, the German writer whose books are indefinable: a mix of imagined events, internal reflection, historical facts and personal experiences. They are meditations and arguments and reveries. They are, in a word, “uncategorisable”.
In a period when Hilary Mantel has won the Booker Prize with her novel Wolf Hall, which focuses on the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell, (the sequel Mantel is presently writing will no doubt chart his downfall) and when Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s trilogy headed up by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been mesmerizing readers around the world in all kinds of languages, it’s interesting to reflect on that ongoing conversation readers have with writers about their work – just how real is this story? How truthful is it about the period in which it’s set? The people it’s writing about? Is this what Thomas Cromwell was really like? Is Larsson’s version of Swedish politics and society the real one? And how much do these things matter?
Helen Barnes-Bulley © 2010