I don’t mean to sound like Pontius Pilate, here.
Instead, I’m inspired by Allen Esterson’s comments on several posts (see A Possible Frame for the Novel, The Mileva Maric Controversy, and Regarding Lieserl) to think about the possible similarities and differences between writing a novel and doing scholarly research. While I am committed to presenting as accurate a picture as I can–this is historical fiction, after all–and, in the Darwin novel, have not consciously fictionalized anywhere I’m aware that the record speaks, novels require the selection of detail to shape a narrative. Narrative is a construct that cannot report every detail, but must lift some higher than others to suggest a meaning that life itself might not readily offer up. I discuss this in detail in the initial essay on my website at www.nancypinard.com, how literature becomes art by its structured repetition in the form of tropes. So, when I’m reading the Einstein materials, I’m looking for tropes, repeated patterns in the people’s behavior. When I suggested in one post, for example, that Einstein abandoned his student to move to Bern, Mr. Esterson takes exception to my use of the word abandoned, suggesting that there were other factors in Einstein’s departure. My response is, yes, of course there were other factors. I’m aware of at least some of them. What I’m looking at, however, is that Einstein shows a pattern of abandonment including his German citizenship, his wife, his sons, and his second wife in acts of infidelity. I’m asking myself if this is a pattern I can use to shape the novel. That is not to say that the complexities of these abandonments wouldn’t be explored.
I would further suggest that biographies are also narratives and, as such, are not strictly true. The biographer isn’t splatting all his research on the page. He is choosing a viewpoint–dictated by his own issues and obsessions–and shaping a story about a person’s life. In this sense, a biography is as much a blueprint of the biographer’s psyche as it is a story of the chosen subject’s life.
Which leads me to ask, is there any history that is not revisionist? Every historian is selecting details. Every textbook has a point of view.
This thought also informs the debate about truth in memoir. I’m not talking about the outright fictionalizing in James Frey’s Million Little Pieces, (which was originally written as a novel, but then, when it didn’t sell, was falsely presented as a memoir.) I’m asking if there is such a thing as 100% truth. Is truth not affected by what one leaves out? So, assuming there’s no deliberate falsehood, what percentage of fact must be on the page for us to declare a document true? Is 95% enough? At what point does the absence of some fact begin to mislead? Can one even give an accurate account of him or herself? In fiction, we like to say that all first-person narrators are unreliable. They are interpreting the events they are reporting from behind their own peculiar lens.
Here’s the fact that remains: We are all stuck in our own particular point of view. I think that statement might be true.