Colm Tóibín on the ‘Real’ and the ‘Imagined’

Colm Tóibín writes of the intimate relationship between facts and fiction (‘What Is Real Is Imagined’, New York Times, July 14 2012), about how the story-teller’s primary responsibility is to the story, about how the novelist may, in creating fiction, embroider the facts, embellishing and enhancing, for being stuck just with the facts is not a good place to be:

If I had to stick to the facts, the bare truth of things, that would be no use….It would be thin and strange, as yesterday seems thin and strange, or indeed today.

But the facts that the writer dresses up and ‘alters’ should only be those that he knows intimately:

If I tried to write about a lighthouse and used one that I had never seen and did not know, it would show in the sentences. Nothing would work; it would have no resonance for me, or for anyone else.

No man can give that which is not his, I suppose.

So the writer may draw freely and creatively upon the ‘known real,’ while not being too fastidious about offending the living:

I feel that I have only rights, and that my sole responsibility is to the reader, and is to make things work for someone I will never meet. I feel just fine about ignoring or bypassing the rights of people I have known and loved to be rendered faithfully, or to be left in peace, and out of novels. It is odd that the right these people have to be left alone, not transformed, seems so ludicrous.

These are all good observations on the art and ethics of writing fiction.

But Tóibín starts off by trying to make a distinction that should have struck him as untenable:

The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known. It persists because it is based on the power of cadence and rhythm in language and these are mysterious and hard to defeat and keep in their place. The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water.

Tóibín imagines here the distinction to be a clear one, between the hardness of land and the ‘softness’ of water, between the tangible, graspable solidity of land, and the quicksilver, through-your-fingers elusiveness of water. But the ‘universe of what is clear and visible and known’ is a universe infected with the ‘fictions’ of our theories about it. What is ‘clear and visible and known’ springs sharply into focus because of those fictions. And land? Land is shot through and through with water. Dig a little, you hit water. Pick up a handful of dirt – it’ll have moisture. From these admittedly crude imaginings one can arrive at the recognition that ‘fact’ is suffused with ‘fiction,’ just as the bare, solid, visible land is, that what we imagine solid is all to easily revealed to be  squishy and permeable.

The ‘bare truth of things’ that Tóibín speaks of is visible to us because of the stories we have told ourselves about it.  He knows this, surely. Why else would he say that ‘what is real is imagined’?

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