Howard Jacobson: Reinvention is the joy and purpose of art. Truth is for judges

The novel proper has been losing ground to real life improper for years
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The Independent Online

Let other pens dwell on domestic misery and parental neglect. I wish only that Julie Myerson had not told us that her new novel is a "true story". Can a novel ever be a true story? Can anything ever be a true story? And why are we so hung up on truth, anyway? Is it because we think the opposite of a truth is a lie? That's an opposition that lands us in hot water when it comes to writing – not just fiction, any writing. We would be better to do away with the concept of truth – factual truth – altogether.

There are a few brute facts in the world – I have a document to prove where and on what day I was born (though it might of course be a forgery, or the guesswork of a drunken registrar of births) – but once we hand event over to language, language will have its way with it. That's what language is for: the act of retelling is an act of interpretation and my words won't interpret as your words interpret. Welcome to the wonderful world of the imagination where every mind is as free as any other. Not to lie, but to discover the real truth behind the apparent one.

Call it mysticism. All the best novelists are mystics of a sort.

I haven't read Julie Myerson's book and, because it claims to be true, probably won't. I don't want to be told a book is true. The claim interferes with my imaginative free will and takes away the fun. I haven't read the literature of moral outrage her book has spawned either, though for different reasons. Who wants to hear moral outrage? Who wants to hear one mother telling another how she should do, or should have done, her job? Talk about tempting fate. No parent should offer advice on the best way to bring up a child until her own children are too old to go off the rails. Which these days is around about 100.

I say I haven't "read", but you no longer have to read to know; today knowledge reaches us through senses which 20 years ago we were not aware we possessed. As plants gather energy from light, so do we imbibe information, useful or otherwise, but mainly otherwise, photosynthetically, through our skin. Without watching or listening we somehow just get to find out. So, although I am completely unread in it, I can fairly claim to have absorbed the essentials of the Myerson brouhaha, the most disturbing detail of which, to my mind, being that Julie Myerson kicked her son out of the house because he regularly made himself cheese on toast at two o'clock in the morning and then forgot to turn off the gas. Yes, yes, I am aware there's more to it than that, but that the mention of cheese and toast should have reached me in my ivory tower at all must mean it was contributory, in her or in somebody's account, to his expulsion. Now if such is to be a criterion – even a subsidiary criterion – for mothers turfing out their sons, or worse, for wives turfing out their husbands, I am in deep trouble.

I too make cheese on toast – though not at two o'clock in the morning: I am no longer capable of doing anything at two o'clock in the morning – and then forget to turn the gas off. Considering that I suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder in relation to taps, especially to taps from which murderous gasses might leak, spending hours checking that they are off, and then several more hours checking the checking in case I have inadvertently turned them back on while checking the last time, there is a certain crude irony in my leaving them on whenever I make cheese on toast. How to explain it, I don't know. I can only guess that there's such engrossment in the process of preparing the cheese (too thin and it resembles a Kraft cheese slice, too thick and it won't crumble), and then of arranging it so that there are no double layers (you don't want to bite into an underfelt of uncooked cheese) but at the same time no part of the toast is left uncovered (you don't want to waste surface either), that all other considerations flee the mind.

Alternatively there could be some forgetfulness-inducing narcotic in the cheese – extra strong cheddar that takes the skin off the inside of your mouth when it's cold let alone when it's bubbling on toast – which, in the case of Julie Myerson's son, might have added to his addiction problems, though in mine represents the only transgression of which I am now capable. "High" on toasted cheese and oblivious to the hissing of the gas – that it should have come to this!

I am not going to say that's all balderdash. Saying you're lying is as bad as saying you're not. And it's no one's business, either way. This column being a species of little novel, our concern is not with what actually happened (in so far as anything actually happens), only with what might have happened, or essentially happened, which is another matter. Reinvention is the whole joy and purpose of art. Truth in the lesser sense is for judges and social workers. And even judges and social workers are the better for having read, say, Dickens who hyperbolised everything in the name of the real truth of the imagination as opposed to the false truth of reality.

The novel proper has been losing ground to real life improper for years. Reading groups routinely treat novels as a sort of dating agency, successful only if they promote lifelike relations between characters and readers. Believability and what is called identification – as in "I can't identify with Captain Ahab" – the same. Let a member of the reading group aver that she can't imagine ever falling for Vronsky and that's Anna Karenina buggered. And waiting in the wings of every discussion is the question of autobiography. Is the hero you or isn't he? Did your mother and father truly beat and sodomise you and then force you to make them cheese on toast or didn't they? Only autobiography, to our impoverished imaginations, truly authenticates a novel.

We read now to get to the end, to be possessed of something we can show for our labours – a nugget of portable information, the consolation of knowledge – when what we should be experiencing is the sensation of getting absolutely nowhere slowly and arriving, if we ever do arrive, empty handed. There is no true story to be told. There is only the truth of telling.

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