The Real Deal
So many family stories are passed down, even ones we haven’t experienced with our own eyes get changed through the telling, often exaggerating bits or softening unflattering portraits. Before I was born, I’d heard that my Uncle Syd had been arrested on Ellis Island for supporting the Rosenbergs who had been accused of smuggling secrets to the Russians during the cold war. How did this occur? How he was reunited with his family, or even allowed back into the United States as a visitor? I never knew or enquired, perhaps snippets of family stories overheard or felt unfit for the ears of children.
There were the classic tales of my mother’s growing up in Europe, her fur coat and doll with the sleeping eyes, her grandfather a rich butcher and my grandmother a beauty with roaming eyes. On my father’s side, my aunts gossiped about how my great grandfather an accountant( perhaps the weirdest part since no one I knew in our family possessed math ability) had been so indispensable to his feudal master in Romania that when his eye sight failed, likely cataracts, that the boss arranged for an operation – but great zaida was blinded as a result of this procedure, and dismissed. So the family immigrated to Canada to begin a new life. Were these facts or truths, or more likely something in between as no tales were verifiable, only bits that happened to be passed on, remembered or exaggerated decanted or referenced when aunts and uncles got together to smooze, complain or converse with one another.
In books we have some similar situations. As I read Hemingway’s Moveable Feast that describes his years living in Paris, I am taken by the same events I read in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife. Aretha van Herk in the Globe opines, “ Inspired by a real life, The Paris Wife is also constrained by that life, resulting in a thickness at its heart, a wall of factuality inhibiting McLain’s imagination. The story seems trapped by the very lives it wants to depict.” So “known and described are the writers and artists in the Paris world of early 20 th Century such as Ezra Pound, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, for instance, that it is no surprise that the reader cannot disentangle truth from tall tale . In Moveable Feast, Hemingway gives us his conversations with Hadley his first wife of four who supports “Tatie”, Hemingway’s nickname. The identical experiences : such as being treated as a mere wive ,even though Hadley is an accomplished pianist, at Gertrude Stein’s soirée; allowing Hemingway’s precious writing to be stolen en route to Lausanne, for instance, are shared in both memoir and novel. All events apparently real, the events retold are the basis for not just a biography but a fictionalized story. How then do we read a novel so based in reality that we cannot know which is fact, embroidered, or completely imagined by the author?
Similarly the race riots in American Pastoral are also apparently based on lived events in Newark, but the protagonist Swede, is a creation of Philip Roth. In Here I Am, we recognize the life of Jacob Bloch complete with Farrow & Ball paint , vitamixes and bar mitzvahs, but know he is a made up character by Jonathan Safran Foer, although we recognize the reality of the contemporary backdrop. In deed the furor over Elena Ferrante’s nom de plume and its discovery have caused her to explain that in using real people and real events from her personal life, she had hoped to provide anonymity and no doubt not betray those close to her, thus writing under an alias. Sadly, Claudio Gatti ‘s unmasking of Ferrante as Anita Raja received mixed responses to by her readers. In deed, Ferrante has replied that” She may resort to telling lies …to shield my person, feelings, pressures”( See The ‘Unmasking ‘ of Elena Ferrante by Alexandra Schwartz in Oct 3, 2016, New Yorker).
To my great surprise, Masters of Sex, a television production keeps pretty close to the truth of Thomas Meir’s book that records the work of the two.Beginning with the pioneering work of William Masters and Virginia Masters in human sexual response , the show demonstrates- at first- the difficulty of having the medical realm accept controversial work. However as the series continues the complicated personal relationship, the sexual tensions between the two main characters makes one wonder if this not a story gone soap opera, the scientific research into sexuality a backdrop to spin out and unravel an on again off again struggle between the protagonists..Yet apparently the highly charged relationship that included using themselves as research data is correct. Even Master’s wife, Libby’s fertility treatments is verifiable. Actress Lizzie Caplan is a very sexy and promiscuous manipulative Virginia who will do anything to get her man, but throw in a lesbian couple in which one partner dies in childbirth, Libby deciding to go to law school and you wonder if you have entered into a hodgepodge of history, inexplicable to be disentangled in the minds of viewers.Fortunately for the modern day watchers seeking truth?!, a click on the internet apparently separates fact from fiction. But consider how well has “ fact” been dramatized as it looks so believable in polyester fabric, small tv consuls and documentary news.Much like the people who post their entire lives, complete with singing cats, low fat recipes and selfies of Facebook, how do we discern where the private ends and the public begins, or maybe one is merely the extension of the other, I suppose. Here science popularized for public education- and titillation!
At least in House of Cards, the Macbeth scoundrels , perhaps modelled after real people and possessing evil traits, do not pretend to be President Nixon and his First Lady- that’s for another show. Now of course, no one purports that this is reality, even showcasing a disclaimer- although the gelling of imagined and real certainly feels believable.
Today in my Ryerson class, the lecturer discoursed on Gertrude Stein revealing, I think, great respect and even some awe at her, her role as confidant to the literary crew in Paris in the early 20th Century. We were fascinated by her relationship with Alice B. Toklas, her concept of a new kind of writing,her soirée..For an hour and a bit, we, too were part of Woody Allen’s flight into Midnight in Paris (2011) where the hero( Owen Wilson)hangs with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker,Cole Porter, Picasso…. But someone in the class interrupted the daydream by asking,” Did Stein stay in Paris during the Nazi occupation?”
Yes, Stein worked for the Vichy government and was affiliated with Bernard Fay, an identified collaborator. Stein even agreed to translate Marshal Philippe Petain’s anti- Semitic speeches into English.Barbara Will, a professor at Dartmouth, published a book on Stein’s complicity, especially angered that The Met in New York did not present a full picture of Gertrude Stein’s complicity in their show “The Steins Collect”. Will promulgated how had the Steins incredible art exhibition survived during the war?but disparaged that often the “ innocence of intellectuals…( is given) a free pass to those we admire, regardless of the context…”And truthfully, we do tend to forgive TS Eliot his ant- semitism, Degas his prurient interest in pre-pubiscient dancers offered by their mother’s to rich men( See Emily Greenhouse in The New Yorker, May 4, 2012), forgetting the political for he sake of revelling in the beauty of the art.
The wonderful thing about media, particularly books and film, is that they recreate importance visually so that we can better know and comprehend how our society has evolved; however, it is essential to remember that every story has multiple perspectives and consider who is the teller of the tale you are embracing for no story is totally complete, and may have slanted, amplified, downplayed or enhanced – for performance possibilities or personal predilections.
Just as history books now present students with history from the victims’ point of view where once it was the conquerors’, so too must we be stirred beyond the entertainment value, to critique, explore the stories we watch and seek behind what we are seeing or hearing in order to weigh, gauge and piece together the jigsaw of the real deal.