Monday, 16 March 2009

Hotel, Festivals, Fact and Fiction.

I returned last night from Kings Lynn Fiction Festival, the sun shone, daffodils bounced and the room next to me in the hotel was raided by police in stab vests. This was a large hotel in the centre of the town whose façade looks/is old but like a Hollywood film set behind the façade lurks seventies MDF and concrete. The whole place seemed extremely quiet, the sort of hotel and dining room where elderly nervous aunts would feel comfortable. At breakfast on the first day a lady, who had joined me in the lift on my floor, ordered porridge, for which she produced her own small jar of honey from a voluminous handbag. She then ordered kippers, they arrived and I watched, fascinated, as she proceeded to eat one half and then carefully wrap the other half in a a paper napkin and place it in a small plastic bag she seemed to have about her person. How many people keep a plastic bag up their sleeve? The kipper then went into the handbag. I wondered when she was going to eat this other half, did she have a cat in her handbag, did she have a blender in there which would allow her to make kipper pate for lunch? Did the placement of the kipper in her handbag and leaving the dining room warrant the appearance of policemen in stab vests along my corridor later in the day; had a passing police sniffer dog mistaken the scent of kipper for hard drugs?

I returned on the Saturday afternoon from a reading by three writers, clutching a Marks and Spencer’ prawn sandwich (there seems to be a fishy motif occurring here) and a bottle of orange juice. The police men were blocking the corridor just before my door. There is part of me that twitches at the sight of policemen in a small interior space, they seem to have gadgetry which takes up more cubic footage than the old fashioned truncheon and handcuffs. They were adorned with radios and as I mentioned earlier, stab vests, which only added to their bulk in a narrow corridor. Of course they all appeared to be nineteen which is a result of that rare eye condition atempusfugitism, a bit like astigmatism but it is only triggered by persons in any form of authority, it can trouble you in hospitals and I had a nasty onset in a courtroom once. So the police look at me and I try and walk towards them with some semblance of innocence, what had I done wrong? Part of my brain also tried to suppress the thought that policemen are harbingers of bad news; accidents, the sudden demise of nearest and dearest in traumatic circumstances is part of their remit. I am allowed past, with a brief nod and I resist the temptation not to immediately leap on a glass and put it to the adjoining wall to see if I can hear what is happening in the next room. The only available ‘glass’ is the plastic cup in the bathroom which don’t seem to work as well as glass, if at all.

There is a small flurry of activity, not the sort of activity that would occur if someone had died, that would be slower more measured. How do I know that, because twice I happen to have been in a hotel where someone in the next room has died suddenly. One hotel death was when I was at a conference; it was a middle aged salesman with a heart attack in the middle of the night. The other time was when I was a child in a hotel in Skegness, an elderly lady just succumbed to something that left her dead, it involved quiet neatly suited men with a trolley and a black plastic bag. This didn’t sound like death, it was far too noisy. Having spent the Friday night listening to two crime fiction writers talk I was full of possibilities, something only heard through a door is often far more tantalising than the actual event especially if you have a super heated imagination. What did happen? The hotel receptionist filled me in the next day; three foreign women (her words) offering ‘massages’ (imagine the raising of very well plucked eyebrows) on the hotel premises. Of course in this context ‘foreign’ might mean from Ipswich or Lincoln. It didn’t seem to warrant stab vests but then being aware of some of the darker sides of prostitution and the sort of men that are often involved perhaps stab vests were a wise precaution.

This festival, itself was less dramatic but nonetheless full of things to think about regarding the process of writing novels. The discussion about the ability to side step the self when writing set me thinking and the discussion about the historical novel in which Beryl Bainbridge featured, made me think about the relationship that exists between readers and the author of historical fiction. With such authors we enter into a contract in which we know we are buying their ability to combine history and imagination and offer this synthesis to us in the best way they can, with the best writing they can muster given their talents. The historian examines facts and explores how these meticulously researched facts, from primary sources where possible, fit together to form a cogent and plausible explanation of a flow of events which to all intents and purposes amounts to ‘real’ history. As authors at the debate pointed out, history is always interpretive, we attempt to create a narrative from some fact but these facts in themselves may be partial, biased, or just plain wrong. Subjective history versus objective history is a bit of a fruitless debate and also an old chestnut, people researching in the future could construct a strange view of our times if only the odd DVD, Youtube extracts and tabloid newspaper were the only things to survive and as someone pointed out, will the contemporary novel be used to explain out present in the future much as we could use Dickens or Austen to caste light on their times? Novels set in the here and now are history, not only because there can never be set in the true present (even the gap between writing the novel and publishing the novel can see banks fall, towers topple and wars erupt) but because they are a source for any future historian to see how we lived, how we may have thought. Of course perhaps the memoir, the autobiography would be the most useful to the historian but this again only presents a personal viewpoint and can it only assume cultural importance if verified by fact? During the debate I began to think about the Swiss writer Wilkomirski who wrote a memoir of his time spent as a jewish child in a concentration camp during the Second World War, the book was called Fragments. He wrote from a child’s point of view, the book received many accolades and the writing was highly praised, it was a brilliantly written book many said and then it was discovered that he was not Jewish, had never been in the camps during the holocaust and was writing a total fiction. The man became a pyriah; he had made a contract with his reader that he was telling you a true story and he had broken that contract. No one likes a liar, least of all one who has the timerity to lie about being involved in the Holocaust. Yet the writing had not changed, surely the ability to impress people with the authenticity of his experience still existed. If he had written this book as a novel, would he have received accolades, would the writing have been praised as much. I don’t know, I simply don’t know. The pull of the autobiography is that we can experience something we believe to be real, no matter how skilled the novelist they can never offer the reader that real tear, real drop of blood, real fear. There is always a tension between memory and imagination they shift and blur but people are usually drawn to memory. if you have the time read this article about the Wilkomirski case, it has some interesting thoughts about why we look to memoir as a means of identifying ourselves. However I think that we also look to fiction as a means of finding ourselves but perhaps we believe memoir is the royal road to the mind of another.


Mrs Slocombe said...

Do you mean that someone wrote an historical novel with Beryl Bainbridge in it? How did she take to that?
I don't know why but I thought she was dead: glad she isn't. I would often sit, once upon a time outside the Spreadeagle opposite the Bottle Factory of legend, and she would often ride by on her bike........I disagree about the novel: I can think of several, at least, which are more real than many memoirs: even if more fantastic. Just as a one, Alastair Mcleod's 'No Great Mischief': more real than all that Angela's Ashes paddywhackery.

Writearound said...

No I actually meant Beryl was part of the debate, she is indeed still alive if rather frail now but she is as witty and incisive as ever.
I do agree that some fiction writers can engage you in such a tangible world that they create their own reality but it has to be said that memoirs are huge sellers these days and people seem to want to buy into them. many of course lie or manipulate the truth so as to become a strange work of fiction in some ways. I think it is a question of the quality of the writing and not the fiction versus fact tags we give them. however if something says it is an autobiography I think I approach the book differently, a little less willing to suspend disbelief maybe, but that may be a purely personal thing.