Truth in Fiction

Fiction is better at “the truth” than a factual record. Why this should be so is a very large subject and one I don’t begin to understand. Doris Lessing

I would be less inclined to read fiction were it not for the truths I find there. These are truths that, as others have said, one rarely finds elsewhere. (Fiction, at least some fiction, can also confront us with truths we might otherwise never have encountered--Elliot Perlman). In trying to unravel Lessing’s puzzlement about the nature of literary truths, I have looked more closely at those truths I found in my Commonplace Book. These truths are for the most part propositions that fall into one of four general categories:

Conceptual Truth: A passage that reinforces a belief, value or moral conviction that I hold, often one that is not widely held and so its literary expression makes it especially noteworthy or is one that I have not thought about but calls for consideration.

Ian McEwan’s Saturday contains a great many passages of this kind. Throughout, McEwan speculates about the origins of human behavior and difficulties of identifying them with any precision. Here is one:

It’s a commonplace of parenting and modern genetics that parents have little or no influence on the characters of their children. You never know who you are going to get. Opportunities, health, prospects, accent, table manners—these might lie within your power to shape. But what really determines the sort of person who’s coming to live with you is which sperm finds which egg, how the cards in the two packs are chosen, then how they are shuffled, halved and spliced at the moment of recombination.

Personal Truth: A passage that reveals something about myself (or one that I had not recognized before), as well as a correspondence between some aspect of my life and a character in a story, most likely one that I identify with in some respect. Colm Toibin writes in The Master.

Everyone he knew carried with them the aura of another life which was half-secret and half-open, to be known about but not mentioned.….He remembered the shock when he first came to know Paris, the culture of easy duplicity, the sense he got of these men and women, watched over by the novelists, casually withholding what mattered to them most.

Hypothetical Truth: The passages in this group pose a question or put forward a hypothesis that seems original or usual in some respect, one that warrants inquiry or confirms a finding that I have read about before. In The Black Violin Maxence Fermine writes,

There is nothing worse than having been truly happy once in your life. From that moment on, everything makes you sad, even the most insignificant things.

Aesthetic Truth: A passage that has captured my attention or moved me deeply or is so well written that it has a certain quality that one can only call beautiful. Its truth consists in being true to real life or, as Seilmann & Larsen have pointed out, has the character of verisimilitude—the semblance of real life. Here is an example by Andre Aciman from Pensione Eolo,

That winter, when it was all over, I would walk or ride a bus past her building. Sometimes I’d think how lucky I’d been to have spent a year with her there and how gladly I would give everything I now had to be back with the same woman, staring out those windows whenever she went sulking into the other room, imagining and envying those strolling outside, never once suspecting that one day soon I might be a stroller, too, looking in envying the man I’d been there once, knowing all along, though that if I had to do it over again, I’d still end where I was, yearning for those days when I was living with a woman I had never loved and would never love but in whose home I had…invented a woman who, like me was neither here nor there.

The truths that I find in these passages, as in most of those in my Commonplace Book, may be uniquely true for me. That is the wonderful thing about literature: it makes no claims of universality, it does not intend to be not true or false in the way an empirical proposition is.

Rather we read ourselves into literature without concern, as we are in science, for whether or not the passage is true for others, and if so, for how many and to what degree. Instead, the truth of any given passage is immediately true for the reader because it corresponds to his or her experience or provides a language for it in a way that had not been available before. “Yes,” we say, “that is true for me. This is my story. That’s exactly the way I felt. Or I had not realized its truth until I saw it on the page.”