I recently finished writing a short story which centred around a murder committed by a surgeon who wants to get rid of a woman who is threatening to spill the beans about their affair. I asked myself if this is a plausible motive for murder in this day and age, and decided that given the conservative nature of the medical profession and the fact that it happened thirty years ago, it was fine. So imagine my interest when I opened a newspaper the other week and read about a hospital consultant who spiked his mistress’s coffee in order to induce an abortion and ended up jailed for six years. I guess most writers have had the slightly eerie feeling of writing about something and finding that something similar has happened in real life.
On the other hand events that occur in real life aren’t necessarily plausible in a work of fiction. All writers use real events in their own lives or in other people’s as starting points, but the closer you stay to that real event, the less convincing it is. The story has to take on a life of its own, and it won’t do that if you stick slavishly to the facts. And then, too, sometimes real life has to be toned down. Things happen that in a novel would have the reader throwing their hands up in disbelief: bizarre coincidences, solutions to problems coming completely out of the blue, freak accidents. So, yes, it’s a cliché, but truth often is stranger than fiction and the novelist walks a fine line, the crime novelist perhaps more than most.
Marilynne Robinson’s fine novel explores a question that I’ve sometimes pondered. After all the excitement of the return of the Prodigal Son, what happened next? Once they’d eaten the fatted calf and ordinary life resumed, what then? How did the good brother, the dutiful one who had stayed at home, come to terms with the situation? Did the prodigal one really manage to give up his wandering life and settle down? Could the father really fully forgive?
HOME begins with the thirty-eight year old, Glory, one of eight children, arriving home to take care of her elderly father, a retired Presbyterian minister. She is wounded by romantic betrayal and the knowledge that she has lost the chance of children and a home of her own. The scene is set for the arrival of the true prodigal, her brother Jack, always the black sheep of the family, who has been gone twenty years. This is a quiet novel about quiet people. There is no huge drama, and sometimes violent emotions produce little more than eddies on the surface, but how brilliantly Robinson depicts the ebb and flow of emotion, the importance of what people don’t say, the pain that well-meaning people can inflict on one another. It’s the 1950s and the TV news shows civil unrest. The anti-segregation protests seem a world away from the little town of Gilead in rural Iowa, but we come to understand that it isn’t. As for home, I think it was Robert Frost who defined it as the place where when you have to go, they have to take you in. But is it also the place that you can never escape from? There is something Checkhovian about this subtle, compassionate novel.
I was about 200 pages into this 700 page novel by Simone de Beauvoir, when I paused and considered: was I going to finish it or not? It was the choice of my reading group. But was I prepared to devote that much time to it? I decided to push on. I’m glad I did. Though it isn’t in my view a great novel, it has an interest all its own. It’s the kind of great big baggy novel that would never get published now: pages and pages of unrealistic dialogue about politics and philosophy, clunky exposition, far too many characters who aren’t sufficiently distinguished from each other, most of them with names beginning with L or S. But as a portrait of post-war French intelligensia I imagine it is unsurpassed. I wish I had read in my twenties when I read Sartre’s novels.
It is told from the alternating views of Henri Perron, novelist and journalist (third person), and Anne Dubreuilh, psychiatrist (first person) and we explore through them the dilemmas of politically aware intellectuals in a fractured society still reeling from the trauma of occupation: how those who collaborated should be dealt with; how far to compromise one’s ideals for the sake of political expediency; how to find meaning in what for de Beauvoir was a post-Christian world.
There is a strong autobiographical element: too strong, I feel, in the account of Anne’s affair with an American novelist, Lewis Brogan, a thinly disguised portrait of de Beauvoir’s actual lover, Nelson Algren, to whom the book is dedicated. He objected – and no wonder. It reads very much as if it was a straight transcription of what had really happened, and I kept thinking: enough, I don’t need to know this. The question of how far the writer is justified in pillaging the lives of the people around them is one that’s often debated. Faulkner thought that ‘the writer’s only responsibility is to his art . . . if a writer has to rob his mother he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.’ I think this is bunk. Writers are human beings and moral agents before they are writers. Lionel Shriver wrote recently about the havoc caused in her family by a novel which they regarded as being too autobiographical. Some prices are too high to pay.