A few weeks ago, when I was in London to present my book about Moscow, I was asked—like many a debut author—how much of the story was based on my own experience. This was just after my first public reading—I was still shaken—and I blurted out a clumsy response on the deceitful nature of nonfiction, which I’m pretty sure didn’t quite come across. Here is what I would have liked to have said:
Hemingway wrote two books about Paris. Both tell the story of a young American writer who spends a fair amount of time getting drunk with other foreigners in the cafés and bars of 1920s Paris. In addition to some of Hemingway’s perennial themes, both books deal with similar issues: the thrill and frustration of the young artist, being a foreigner in a great city, idleness versus work, young and complex love. The first book, The Sun Also Rises, was published in 1926 and is considered Hemingway’s first novel. The second, A Moveable Feast, was published posthumously in 1964, and is considered a memoir. Is the Paris novel less real than the Paris memoir?
Critics have pointed out factual inconsistencies in A Moveable Feast, casting doubts over the veracity of some of Hemingway’s claims, including the romantic depiction of himself as an impoverished artist. Like any memoir, the book contains no small amount of bragging and posturing. And, even if written some three decades after the events, the memoir does not brush over details. Hemingway (aided, it seems, by notebooks he drafted at the time) incorporates precise description and entire sections of dialogue, including, for instance, a lovely scene in which the manly Hemingway reassures an insecure Fitzgerald about the size of his penis and, to prove his point, takes him to the Louvre to see naked statues.
On the other hand, when you read The Sun Also Rises, it is not difficult to spot Hemingway’s own biographical details. The book is, after all, the story of an American in Paris who, like Hemingway, travels to northern Spain with a bunch of friends to watch bullfights.
The question is that of fiction versus nonfiction. Recent literary successes—Knausgaard, Ferrante—have been said to blur the line, because the narrators of these books, which are presented as novels, strongly resemble their authors, or so we suspect. But is there a line to blur?
In narratives that are strongly based on the personal experience of the storyteller, the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is not only irrelevant—it’s misleading. After all, there is no such thing as a factual story; every story that is told, whether presented as fiction or nonfiction, is a creation by its author. And to be honest, I don’t really care if Hemingway actually took Fitzgerald to the Louvre to look at marble cocks. Perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t. It’s a great story. And, like other stories in his Paris books, it rings true, and Hemingway could not have written it if he had not been a young man in Paris in the 1920s.
Human experience is vast and too slippery to grasp. Every potential story contains an unmanageable amount of data—including the possibility of infinite description. The art of storytelling is largely about choosing what is to be conveyed and—most importantly—what is to be left out. Even if all presented details are factual, the selection of details is, in itself, a highly subjective exercise. Assuming that Hemingway and Fitzgerald did have the cock conversation in Paris, would Scott have told the same story as Ernest? Stories do not serve the facts; their allegiance is entirely to the storyteller.
A Moveable Feast is a beautiful book regardless of its veracity, simply because, as a piece of writing, it works. It’s truthful to itself. And, even if presented as a memoir, it should be judged by the same criteria as a book like The Sun Also Rises. The events described don’t need to have happened as long as the text contains truths about life.
By selecting what to tell and what not to tell, the writers of memoirs and other works of nonfiction are constructing stories. Gaps are purposely left unfilled, sometimes in an attempt at simplifying the narrative, but often in order to intensify the emotional reaction of the reader.
When I began writing my book about Moscow I didn’t know if I wanted to write a novel or a memoir. I admired both Hemingway books, and I saw some analogies between expat life in the Paris of the 1920s and the Moscow of the early 2000s.
The first chapter I ever wrote describes a scene with two characters. It’s late at night in a dark apartment in central Moscow. A young woman stands naked by the balcony window, staring at the snowstorm outside. The male narrator, lying in bed, cannot see her face but he knows she is crying. At first I wrote the scene as I remembered it from my own experience. Then I began to work on it, polishing the details, sharpening the dialogue, making it—I hoped—a better story. At some point in the process, it was not just snowing, it was the first snowfall of the season. In a further revision, an empty wine bottle appeared on the coffee table. The bottle, I thought, suggested at once an attempt at romance and a certain degree of drunkenness. It fitted the story. But was that bottle on the coffee table in my flat back then, when I lived in Moscow, a decade before I wrote the book?
Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. Honestly, I can’t say. But, assuming the bottle had not been there to begin with, by adding it to my story, I had, strictly speaking, crossed into the realm of fiction. And as I kept writing, the book developed not as a memoir, but into a novel about Moscow, with fictional characters and fictional events.
What I should have answered to the question I was asked in London is this: It’s not so much about the story being real or made-up. The significant thing is that I would not have been able to write this book had I not been a young man in Moscow in the early 2000s.
Guillermo Erades was born in Málaga and has lived in Leeds, Amsterdam, Luxembourg, Moscow, Berlin, Baghdad, and Brussels, where he is currently based. His debut novel, Back to Moscow, is out now.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: