Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Lies, damned lies and novels

“Our societies evolve and revolve around stories.”

So says Alex von Tunzelmann, writing in Prospect magazine (April 2022) about the British monarchy.

“They define our identities and norms, bond us or divide us, shape our politics. Stories are part of what makes us human.”

That is undoubtedly true. Cats and dogs are among the dramatis personae of human stories, but we are the storytellers. Animals don’t tell stories themselves, except in The Jungle Book and other stories in which the storyteller gives them human characteristics.

Stories are part of what makes us human because part of being human is the habit, good or bad, of telling lies. Stories are made up. We tell them to make us feel better about ourselves, treating stories as the Queen in Snow White treated the mirror on the wall, hoping to be told that she was the fairest of them all.

Stories are not real. As Aristotle pointed out in his Poetics, they have a beginning, a middle and an end, which real life never does. Life goes on. Happy endings belong, with heroes and villains, in the world of fiction.

T.S.Eliot’s much quoted line from Four Quartets, “human kind cannot bear very much reality”, explains why fiction is so popular. Within the confines of a novel, even the most realistic of novels, life becomes bearable, because it’s only a story.

As the historian also writes in his Prospect article, “those who dismiss royalty as the stuff of fairy tales and soap operas have the wrong end of the stick. Royalty is precisely the stuff of fairy tales and soap operas: two of the most powerful forms of storytelling yet devised.”

He goes on to say that “royalty is the mythological engine that powers the state”, his argument being, not that Britain would be better off as a republic, but that the fiction of royalty makes us stronger.

“Royalty has incredible continuity: ‘the king is dead, long live the king’ announces that the show has already been recast and will continue without a break in transmission.” In a monarchy, human kind need not bear the reality of electing a new leader.

Being human, having endured that reality for more than seventy years, the little knowledge I have (or thought I had) has come from fiction, not fact. I might have enjoyed reading about Russia’s war with Ukraine in a novel by Tolstoy. Tolstoy himself stopped writing novels when he came to see that all they did was to romanticise history. Hardy stopped writing them when the pressure to give them happy endings became too much to bear. 

Should I stop reading them and read about real life instead?

A few years ago, I came across a book about Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor. I knew very little about Marx himself, let alone that he had a daughter. In fact, he had three, of whom Eleanor was the youngest and his favourite. Rachel Holmes’s biography, Eleanor Marx, is neither a fairy tale nor a soap opera and would resist dramatising. The heroine, though she translated not only her father’s work but some of Ibsen’s too and played an active part in the political movements of her time (1855-98), was in no way heroic. George Bernard Shaw was a friend of hers, but was never likely to have seen her as another St Joan. The beginning, middle and end of her life could not be contained on a West End stage, even by Shaw. The end, in particular, would have been a hopeless anticlimax.

Biographers and historians should not tell lies. We rely on them not to. Novelists should. We expect them to. Every novel, every play, every film, is an escape from reality.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Unless we forget.

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This entry was posted on March 7, 2022 by in Literature.


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