Fiction is a Lie That Tells the
by Abraham Rothberg
A Talk Delivered by Abraham Rothberg
at the Jewish Book Festival Rochester Jewish Community Center
January 9, 2009
First and foremost thank you for
coming here tonight.
Anyone who ventures out on a January night in Rochester winters for the
love of books is both a hardy soul and a lover of literature.
I came to the writing of fiction by lying. My mother always emphasized the
necessity of telling the truth, and, when I was a small boy, convinced me
that if I lied to her, she would be able to see the lie on my forehead.
The first time I did lie to her and got away with it--not by any means the
first time I had lied to her, nor the last--I was delighted, convinced
that the inside of my skull was sacrosanct, private, not available to
At the same time I recognized that meant I couldn't tell whether she, or
anyone else, was lying to me, that other people's thoughts and feelings
were being denied me, as mine were not available to others if and when I
might want them to be. It was a stunning insight: The head might be a
refuge, a sanctuary, a haven, but it was also a prison.
My mother also tried to make me understand that there were both white lies
and black one, white lies a forgivable necessity in society, although she
found it impossible to make clear to me which was which, and when and why
they were forgivable. Every day my mother deposited a few of my father's
hard-earned pennies in the little blue charity box she kept on a kitchen
shelf. Once a month, a rabbi came to empty the box for the charity
organization he represented. The first time my mother had no pennies to
deposit--that pennilessness which was to last for quite some time--she
asked me to tell the rabbi she wasn't at home, and that I had no idea
where the charity box was. Blushing, she explained that this was the time
for one of those white, forgivable lies, but I saw how much it pained her
to ask me to lie on her behalf. So there I was, telling the rabbi the
truth, "My mother's not here right now," I said, and she wasn't in the
kitchen, nor was the pushke, the charity box--yet I was lying to
him because I knew she was hiding behind the closed door of my parents'
bedroom and had the pushke with her, so there I was telling a lie,
but at the same time the lie was a truth. And there was the beginning of
fiction: Serious fiction is a lie that tells the truth.
Fiction can introduce you into the lies and truths of other people's minds
and hearts, to your own country and time, or strange, foreign places and
other eras, into the most public forums and the most private scenes of
human intimacy; it can make you see, hear, feel, love, hate, forgive,
judge, understand, and yet not be bound by the consequences of all those
activities, though you are there as a participant-observer in the most
personal and informed ways. You may come to know Becky Sharp or Hester
Prynne or Ivan Denisovich or Robert Jordan better than you know your own
closest cronies. You may learn more about the French Revolution from
Charles Dickens's A TALE OF TWO CITIES and more about the American Civil
War from Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND than from your history
books, though not perhaps as accurately, more about America's racial
problems from Mark Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FINN, more about how money and sex
affect the lives of Americans through Theodore Dreiser's THE FINANCIER,
SISTER CARRIE, and AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, than from the daily life around
you. We know how and what these literary characters think and feel, how
they conduct themselves and why, what happens to them more fully than we
can know our families, our neighbors and our colleagues.
How does that happen? I have been reading and writing fiction for close to
three-quarters of a century, yet I still cannot explain it. The best I can
approximate is that in the beginning was the word, the spoken word then
the written word, that no other species had, and through those words we
human beings were able to communicate with one another and so build
civilizations and,' yes, destroy them too. Those words have told truths
and lies, have comforted and appalled, informed and misled, but they have
always helped human beings to define themselves and their purposes.
We do not, however, know the minds and hearts of fiction's authors, though
we get some inkling from their fictional creations, from their novels,
short stories and plays, the lies that tell their truths, rather than the
truths of their public lives which are often enough lies. Many readers and
critics are far more interested in authors' lives than in their fictions.
I am not one of them, though I do concede that a reader might better
understand Solzhenitsyn's novels, say, by knowing he was imprisoned in the
Soviet Gulag but what could one make of knowing that Shakespeare, in his
will, left his wife his "second best bed," or spent most of his married
life in London while Ann Hathaway remained in their native
Stratford-on-Avon? Who knows? And would it illuminate the tragedies of
Romeo and Juliet's star-crossed love for one another?
By unlocking secrets of the human heart and mind, fiction can allow us to
know how people different from ourselves think and feel and live. The
fiction may be both a lie--that is, a made-up, imagined untrue
creation--and true --true to life and lives of others we might never
otherwise know or meet, or cast light on those we do know and whose lives
we are acquainted with, as well as give us insight into our own lives.
It allows us to know we are not alone, that others feel as we do even
though others do not, as they face life and death, war and peace, love and
hatred, passion and despair, all the agonizing problems individual human
beings are bound to face. It allows us to experience situations we shall
never have to undergo, and some we must endure, without paying the prices
and accepting the consequences of both ordeals and joys. Fiction may even
teach us how better to cope with them when next we meet them in our own
journeys through life.
And so, tonight, you will hear some of the lies I have written I take to
be important truths, serious fictions about our lives and times I thought
my books might contribute to the cultural and political conversations and
dilemmas of our epoch. If that has not taken place as I wished-- and I am
sorry to say it has not--it was not for the want of my trying.
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