Now and again you come across a piece of writing that explains something you’ve felt for a long time but lacked the necessary brain power to write down concisely.
In Shop Talk, Philip Roth interviews other (mainly Jewish) authors. One is Aharon Appelfeld (pictured left), whose work, I regret to say, I’ve never read — something I will put right soon. Appelfeld suffered greatly during the war in which he lost both parents to the Nazis and was forced to wander and to survive, often ferally, from the age of eight.
When asked by Roth why he chose to record his experiences only as fiction, he says:
I have never written about things as they happened. All my works are indeed chapters from my most personal experience, but they are not ‘the story of my life.’
The things that happened to me in my life have already happened, they are already formed, and time has kneaded them and given them shape. To write things as they happened means to enslave oneself to memory, which is only a minor element in the process. To my mind, to create means to order, sort out, and choose the words and the pace that fit the work. The materials from one’s life, but ultimately the creation is an independent creature.
I tried several times to write ‘the story of my life’ in the woods after I ran away from the camp. But all my efforts were in vain. I wanted to be faithful to reality and to what really happened. But the chronicle that emerged proved to be a weak scaffolding. The result was rather meagre, an unconvincing imaginary tale. The things that are most true are easily falsified.
Reality, as you know, is always stronger than the human imagination. Not only that, reality can permit itself to be unbelievable, inexplicable, out of all proportion. The created work, to my regret, cannot permit itself all that.
On a much less exalted level, this holds true for me. And it’s encouraging to see it expressed so lucidly.
My own recently finished novel is based in ‘Sixties London’ but it’s also, unavoidably, based on my life since. This is why Appelfeld’s comments are so liberating: without experience of the time since the sixties, the story set in the sixties couldn’t have been written.
An autobiographical story may be way short of ‘true’ in the non-fiction sense and some characters (including narrators) and places may be partly recognisable. But most of them will, more often, be adaptations or inventions. This doesn’t make the story less true. Thanks to Mr Applefeld, I’m more confident in saying so.