Thursday, December 27, 2012

Nonfiction, Fact, and Truth

Recently I read LISTENING TO MADELEINE, by Leonard S. Marcus, a collection of interviews with protegees, friends, colleagues, and family members of one of my favorite authors, Madeleine L’Engle. This book and a 2004 in-depth NEW YORKER magazine profile of her referred to in the introduction (the author of that article, Cynthia Zarin, supplies the final interview in the book) jolted me with information about L’Engle’s life and writings that I’d never encountered before. I’m an ardent fan of A WRINKLE IN TIME and its sequels and related books, and I’ve also read the Austin family novels (non-fantasy) with pleasure. In nonfiction, I admire the richness of her theological writings and poetry. While I knew the Austins and the Murrys (from the “Time” books) reflected autobiographical elements from L’Engle’s own family life, I didn’t imagine them to be factual; what sensible reader would? I hadn’t known, though, that her children sometimes resented having their lives adapted (and idealized) into fiction. Her son, Bion, apparently the model for both Rob Austin and Charles Wallace Murry, is said to have hated the Austin books.

What shocked me, however, were revelations (to me, at least) about the nonfiction memoirs collectively known as the Crosswicks Journals. L’Engle’s daughter Josephine discusses how her mother altered the past in her writing to fit her vision of how events should have happened. When readers mentioned events in the Crosswicks books to her, Josephine would often reply that it hadn’t happened that way: “You have to remember that my mother is a fiction writer.” According to the testimony in these interviews, her children felt the memoirs were more “fantasy” than the novels. But nobody maintained that L’Engle deliberately lied: “She would make sense of a thing to her own satisfaction. Then for her that story was reality.”

Now, I don’t claim an author writing about her life has an obligation to include everything, no matter how traumatic or embarrassing. Nor do I cherish absurd expectations for beloved authors to have ideal lives and no human flaws. L’Engle had a perfectly good right, for example, to keep the alcohol problems of her father, husband, and son private. C. S. Lewis omits a major sequence of events from his autobiography, SURPRISED BY JOY—but he explicitly says he’s leaving out an important episode and apologizes for the necessity. L’Engle, according to several of the interviewees, didn’t so much purposely omit negative elements as deny them even to herself (at least while writing).

Does the fact that some details in SUMMER OF THE GREAT-GRANDMOTHER may not report what “really happened” invalidate that book as a memorial to her mother and an inspiration to untold numbers of readers struggling with caring for elderly parents? I don’t think so. However, consider TWO-PART INVENTION, her memoir of her lifelong marriage to Hugh Franklin, published shortly after her death. That’s one of my all-time favorite books about marriage and the death of a spouse. Does it diminish the value of the book as an inspiration to others that we now know Hugh had a drinking problem and engaged in at least two extramarital affairs? Alan Jones, L’Engle’s former son-in-law, says, “In the Crosswicks Journal, she idealized her relationship with her mother enormously. And while I don’t think her marriage was at all disastrous, it was complicated, and TWO-PART INVENTION was a tremendously idealized picture of the marriage. I always thought the title was suitably ironical.” L’Engle doesn’t simply omit facts in this book. She explicitly says Hugh didn’t have the trouble with alcohol that many actors have, and she refers to their forty years of keeping their marriage vows in terms most readers would assume to imply fidelity.

As Cynthia Zarin puts it, “The picture that Madeleine painted of herself—and this is often true of writers—was not necessarily who she was. . . . She painted in her nonfiction books a picture of her life as she wished it to be. Then, in her fiction, she painted a life that was in some ways closer to the truth.” In principle, I don’t have a problem with that. I won’t stop loving her work. But I do think these insights raise a vital question about how much the value of a nonfiction, autobiographical work as artistic or thematic truth depends on its factual truth.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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