Sunday, 24 June 2012

Worlds 2012: Memoir, Fiction & Truth (4)

Anna Funder

The idea of invention in Anna Funder, Tim Parks and J M Coetzee's Readings

In the readings that evening Anna Funder gave us part of a book - Stasiland - based on research, almost a kind of legal research, in which it was very important that truth - a truth that we assume may be verified by evidence - should not be invented, followed by a passage from her new novel, All That I Am, (the book won the Miles Franklin Prize the next morning) in which characters we know to be real, Audenesque Auden for example, enter a realm in which we do not expect truth to be evidential.

Tim Parks gave us an excellent example of truth as both memoir and fiction. In his memoir, Teach Us To Sit Still (about which we had privately corresponded at the time of its publication) he rendered his experience of a meditation cure in persona himself, that self anxious, vain, comical, human, the genuine Tim Parks version of a Tim Parks who, confusingly but hilariously, merged with a parallel figure Tom Pax. In the other, The Server, (the excerpt he read is here) he invented a female figure in the same setting, inventing experiences for her that required less interiority and more observation in order, perhaps, to understand the same dramatic situation, which consisted of a specific place where specific people went to undergo specific experiences. The memoir and the fiction are parts of a triangulation of both truth and self

John Coetzee then read an absolutely gripping fully chronological story from a forthcoming novel in which step followed step as minute follows minute, to make a full ladder of minutes with countable and fully counted rungs (counted because so much depends on them). The story itself was related from a height, as observed by a member of the heavenly Stasi or one of WimWenders’s angels, who takes no particular account of story-as-character but gathers evidence, a little like Anna Funder, almost as an act of pity for humankind.  For me there was something of classical tragedy in the story, an inevitability that one wants to resist as a reader, but which one recognizes as a sum of truths we have to face. It was, if you like, the opposite of the story of Nancy. Salvation was not going to be offered by the provision of a different gangplank, a smarter ladder.

Tim Parks

The three readings succeeded in questioning notions of both truth and story. Stasiland would be nothing without evidential or objective truth of the kind John might have meant in his provocation. Either someone was arrested on a particular date or they weren't. Either agent X put in a report on date Y or he didn't. These facts are legally binding. Albeit retrospectively, actual laws are being broken.

On the other hand the narrative that contains the facts might well shift into the realms of story, and in so doing shift from the unique to the typical. One might imagine a German Nancy, really followed, really arrested and interrogated, who might at the same time order these facts into a type of story.

Form, one might argue, is type. (I want to follow this up at some point later)

In Teach Us to Sit Still the evidential facts are not legally binding. This version of truthfulness requires a truth to states of mind.  Its essential truths are objective reports on the subjective. We don't need to be assured that a conversation took place at the stated time in a stated place. We would prefer it to have happened verbatim, exactly as the writer relates, but even that assurance is secondary to the idea of truth as revelation of condition. The truth lies closer to the 19th century ideal as John formulated it: the character should be recognisably unique, but the truth we are directed to should be typical. Why Tim's description of his encounter with the guru seems so funny is because it performs a common level of embarrassment about the reader's own vanity. It is, what we might call, 'close to the bone' - both our bone and the writer's. In effect, the memoir is presented as a formed, perfected, anecdote of truth. The writer must know this, of course, so the skill in writing it lies in balancing evidential external truth with evidential subjective truths.

In All That I Am, we meet characters that have had real evidential lives. W H Auden might or might not have been at the places the fiction suggests but he certainly appears and speaks in the book. Proving assertions about place and time should be possible in a memoir but since we know we are dealing with fiction we understand that such criteria are essentially devices of realism-feeling, a kind of background hum to which we may refer for level not for focus.

It might however be troubling if the fictional Auden turned out to be too typical, too Audenesque, too much the received Auden. What would trouble us here is the potential duplicity of uniqueness. In fiction we understand figures to be inventions: to invent something that already has an external evidential existence seems to appropriate uniqueness. How far is Funder's Auden fiction? How far is Tim Parks's memoir Tom Pax a fiction?

Not that this is necessarily a central question about any of the books. All four books present us with a complex accumulation of forms and conventions.

J M Coetzee

John Coetzee's reading was narratively the simplest, but in many ways the most complex. Time and place were unfixed, the people, as I recall, unnamed. Certain key elements of what Barthes called informants, had been removed. The father and his young son might have been from any immigrant groups, the harbour town where they fetched up might have been anywhere that was Spanish speaking. This suggests the idea of fable, in effect an exemplary tale. See, this is how the penniless immigrant is treated.

In other respects however it was almost photo-realism. All details were concrete detail, and time - the mysterious unspecified time in which the man and his son were suddenly marooned - was counted as strictly as if a metronome were ticking in the background. The rungs of the ladder, the width of the gangplank were of the utmost importance. In the Book of Revelations, St John of Patmos gives us the precise proportions of everything in much the same way. Kafka too is precise about the terrors of the existential-diurnal. He too counts minutes in a chronological void.

Listening to the episode one couldn't help but feel the sense of haunted inevitability. I associated it less with visionary work, more with classical tragedy, where we know - and understand it matters vitally to know - that events are marching towards loss and annihilation, and that the only consolation we are allowed is our ability to count precisely and to articulate our panic into a form. That form is our consolation. Only a formal consolation, true, but where nothing else seems to be on offer, it seems to be an ennobling form.

So Nancy's redemptive story(recall John's provocation) errs not so much in attempting to find a redemptive form - we all try to find that - but in that its understanding of redemption seems too limited. It lacks the depth of tragedy or even an understanding that tragedy might exist while missing the comedy of confusions whereby the uncertainty about what mum and dad seem to have said can determine a career.

Here's an interesting formulation to play with:

exper- (trag- (comedy) - edy) - ience. 

All copyright protected, trademark exclusively GS, God help his soul.


Andrew Shields said...

Did Coetzee say anything about when the novel might be coming out? Says the Coetzee fan!

George S said...

I asked him over one of the dinners and I think he said, soon. He is very nice but not one of nature's chatterboxes.

Andrew Shields said...

Not like you and me, right? :-)