Writer Geoff Dyer recounts a lunch where George Orwell’s wife, Sonia, and her husband’s biographer, Bernard Crick, almost came to blows over whether the famous writer did or didn’t shoot an elephant in Burma. (Nothing But,” by Geoff Dyer, Harper’s, May 2018, pgs. 73-74.) At one point, Sonia shouted, “Of course he shot the fucking elephant… Why do you always doubt his fucking word!” (Ibid pg. 73.) Crick’s reply was dagger-like. “Because he was a writer. Not a fucking cub reporter.” (Ibid. pg. 74.)
Well, of course! Artists can’t be trusted. Painters, musicians or writers — they tend to embellish, which is why Plato threw them out of his imaginary Republic. I’d toss out historians too. They are no pillars of objectivity. How they align fact depends upon what they want to prove. Even that cub reporter, to whom Crick snidely refers, chooses questions that slant the story. Truth relies upon perspective.
Susan Sontag, woman writer and intellectual extraordinaire, recounts a dinner party she attended where she complained she was isolated and completely ignored. Meanwhile, the pop-star singer who sat beside her remembers how Sontag spent the evening snubbing him. (Ibid. pg. 73.)
Memory, as well as perspective, plays a part in telling a story where facts are concerned. Working on my memoir about my four years aboard, I was delighted I could recall events so well. Simultaneously, I consoled myself that most of the people I wrote about were dead. I had little fear of contradiction.
Even so, one desires to be accurate. Words that come near to the truth may suffice in fiction. In memoir the standard is higher. If I write I was shaking like a leaf the first time I stepped on to foreign soil, memory demands greater insight into myself. Was I shaking with anxiety or a fear of the unknown?
Well… what I said about memory and truth isn’t true, if I am honest. Crick rightly observes something there is about a writer that wants to enhance a scene and swell a figure or two in the name of some overall verity. So what is honesty, after all? Probably the most slippery word in the English language. I defer to Keats on the subject. All I need to know is beauty.