Saturday, November 24, 2012

Biographical fiction, HG Wells and David Lodge

Ultimate biog fiction?

HG Wells
Anthony Beevor - an historian's objections to 'faction.'

Yesterday in Oxford  I met Linda Hart, my Robert Frost guru, for the first time, though I had seen her on stage at the Malvern Coach House Theatre ( for the production on Frost featured in an early blog.)
 We met at the English Faculty Library, St Cross and sat over a long lunch at the cafe on its St Catherine's side - worth finding, in the Politics section - and talked.

Linda seems to have come round to accepting that biographical fiction is not all bad. She told me that David  Lodge recently talked about the 'Year of Henry James' - see last blog- and then more generally about the use of real figures in fiction.
He has a recent novel on HG Wells, 'A Man of Parts' published, which I have just ordered. With that and the Jude Morgan on Shakespeare I'm about to start,  I'm heavily  into biographical fiction.
As the 'Conscious Englishman' is now being printed I'm thinking about reviewers and wondering about David Lodge himself - rather a cheek, but nothing venture...

Anthony Beevor wrote  a Guardian  article - also called  'Author, Author'( 19 February 2011) on  the perils of faction, and Lodge referred to his views.  It's very well worth reading if you are interested in this subject. Beevor  is a historian and his argument is essentially that truth is lost or blurred by these works, even though immaculately researched, like Hilary Mantel's Cromwell.
Mantel says,
'Unlike the historian the novelist doesn't operate through hindsight. She lives inside the consciousness of her characters for whom the future is a blank.'
 Beevor comments that the historian should do both, seeing things as the protagonist did at the time, then analysing.

'But the key fact is that when a novelist uses a major historical character the reader has no idea what he or she has taken from recorded fact  and what has been invented in their re-creation of events.
Restorers of paintings and pottery follow a code of conduct in their work  to distinguish the original material from what they are adding later.'

I believe Lodge added that maybe Beevor wanted  the made-up bits, or else  the 'real' bits,  in bold! (But isn't it rather dated to be adamant that we are sure of 'real'?)

Here Beevor speculates about its popularity:

A blend of fact and fiction has been used in various forms since the dawn of creative writing, starting with sagas and epic poems. Yet the appeal of faction to writers and readers has recently increased in a dramatic way. Is this due to a poverty of imagination, as some critics argue? Is it a marketing-driven phenomenon, perhaps catering to the modern desire in a fast-moving world to learn and to be entertained at the same time? Is it influenced by a curious need for authenticity, even in works of fiction? Is there a prurient compulsion to fill in those gaps in our knowledge about the private lives of great figures, which history has failed to cover? Movies and TV now revel in the speculative biopic.

I think there is some truth  in all those factors if I'm honest - on the first,  like Jean Rhys on writing the Wide Sargasso Sea,  'I cannot invent, but I can imagine.'

Poem of Edward Thomas - because  I feel he is getting lost in  all this

First Known When Lost

I never had noticed it until
'Twas gone,---the narrow copse
Where now the woodman lops
The last of the willows with his bill.

It was not more than a hedge o'ergrown.
One meadow's breadth away
I passed it day by day.
Now the soil is bare as a bone,

And black betwixt two meadows green,
Though fresh-cut faggot ends
Of hazel made some amends
With a gleam as if flowers they had been.

Strange it could have hidden so near!
And now I see as I look
That the small winding brook,
A tributary's tributary rises there.

Has anyone noticed that on copying from Oxford's digital 1st WW site the enjambents are lost? It's like one of those exercises in a poetry writing class where you have to guess where they should be. I quite enjoy putting it right really, and am almost tempted to try it without checking Edna Longley - but no, the capital letters give it away.

'First Known When Lost' is the title of a rather wonderful blog, by the way.

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