What is literary fiction? What exactly is it, and how would you describe it to someone, if you had to? Maybe ‘it’s stuff that isn’t true’ or ‘it’s about things that are imagined/made up by someone’. Although some fiction includes a certain amount of ‘truth’ (for example it’s true that New York exists, and it is featured in many an excellent story of fiction, from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to Auster’s City of Glass) it refrains from being true in so far as it hasn’t actually happened, and it is indeed made up by someone. But I don’t think that captures the whole idea of what fiction is, or the way that we actually experience fiction. That feeling you get when you’re engrossed in a book, when you feel moved or affected by what you’ve read – almost like you feel more alive – is that not what fiction is all about? A truly existential experience that speaks to a part of you that you almost find difficult to identify or describe. I’d be tempted to say that THAT is what fiction is.
Ok. So, what is…well, THAT?
I had a lecturer at Uni who was absolutely incredible, one of those inspirational characters who you have massive respect for (and envy towards): a French guy called Dr Daniel Mariau. He taught a few of my modules, mainly in third year, and must have been in his late 60s – definitely past your typical retirement age. One of his modules, ‘Metaphysical Fiction: The Labyrinth of Existence’, is definitely one of the periods in my life that has had the biggest impact on me and my perspective. We studied George Bataille’s Story of the Eye (if you like lots of teen sex, perversion, blasphemy and pissing on things then look no further), Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (what better way to understand boredom and existential angst than to make the reader experience them during the reading process) and the aforementioned City of Glass by Paul Auster (a mystery about language, identity and existential crisis based on the tale of a religious fanatic who locked his son in a room as an experiment).
Dr Mariau also introduced me to a selection of work by Jorge Luis Borges, an award-winning Argentine writer and poet who is widely revered as the master of surrealism and metaphysical fiction. Although he wrote many short stories (if you want to read any, I recommend his best-known collection entitled Fictions), there is one in particular that masterfully illuminates the nature of fiction and the relationship it has with reality, and that is a story called The South.
The basic narrative is that Dahlmann, an Argentine man who is fiercely proud of his cultural heritage, wounds his head on an open window and develops septicaemia which results in him being admitted to a sanatorium in a hallucinatory fever. The story then describes how he quickly recovers, leaves the sanatorium and travels to his family’s ranch on a train, stopping in a small town for a drink where he is challenged to a knife duel by local gauchos. The story ends with him stepping out into the street with his knife, a nod to the ‘machismo’ culture in which Argentine identity was nostalgically rooted, without the reader finding out whether he survived the encounter. However, throughout the story Borges alludes to the dreamlike qualities of the protagonist’s experiences after leaving the sanatorium, and it is ultimately implied that he may have never left at all and may instead be hallucinating before dying from his septicaemia.
‘Imagination, I should say, is made of memory and oblivion. It is a kind of blending of the two things’ Borges once said. After studying his work and other similar fiction, I understand the oblivion he refers to. It is a metaphysical dimension that is created by the author, and in the story of The South it is similarly created by Dahlmann within his feverish hallucinations, but to such a degree that it appears to the reader as the ‘reality’ of Dahlmann’s story. He doesn’t wake up ‘and it was all a dream’, in fact the ending of the story is irrelevant – it doesn’t matter which way he died, what Borges was representing was the fact that fiction (whether literary, hallucinatory or even in dreams) represents meaning to the subject in the same way that meaning is represented to them by reality.
The creation of fiction replicates the way in which we relate to the world through symbols and meaning, and that’s not to say that life is a dream. Not at all. It just means that reality is just as impossible as fiction in terms of it being an ‘ideal’. If you were asked to describe the difference between reality and a dream, I honestly think it would be almost impossible, but that is exactly what makes fiction, and also reality, so liberating and perplexing. Fiction appropriates reality, mirrors it, and we enjoy getting lost in it, each of us to differing degrees. Some people are happy with a quick story in Take a Break magazine, others play on games consoles, some experience hallucinations as symptoms of mental health issues, and others take hallucinatory drugs (at this point I would also like to recommend The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda – the descriptions of his hallucinations are fascinating).
At the moment I’m half way through The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. He was a journalist who experienced a massive stroke, fell into a coma and awoke a month later fully cognate but only able to move one of his eyelids, a condition called Locked-in Syndrome. He used a partner assisted scanning system, where someone would read out ordered letters of the alphabet until he blinked on the letter he wanted to spell words, eventually transcribing the full book. He passed away a few days after it was published. But the book is not only about his condition. Incredibly it is about the way he uses his powerful imagination to experience joys and pleasures: ‘There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court…You can sit down to a meal at any hour, with no fuss or ceremony. If it’s a restaurant, no need to call ahead…The boeuf bourguignon is tender…the apricot pie possesses just the requisite tartness.’
Reality is definitely not the ideal. Far from it. But access to imagination and fiction can almost soothe the anguish, angst and boredom that often seem to be an inherent part of ‘reality’. Bauby’s metaphor of his imagination as a butterfly, within the diving bell which symbolised his disability, is such a poignant one that it has the power to inspire, comfort and enrich a person’s life, even in the most dire of circumstances, as it did for Bauby himself.
The only thing I consider to be more important than this freedom is talking to other people about it. Whether it’s a formal lecture on Feminism, Sexual Difference and the Ethical Gesture Towards the Other, or simply alcohol-fuelled musings on what happens at the end of The Sopranos, just try to share it with as many people as you can as often as you can, because the reality of fiction is one we shouldn’t ignore.
Sarah is what she is not, and is not what she is. She also likes cats and other animals an awful lot and doesn’t think the word ‘girl’ is sexist. Sarah is happily married to her best friend and finds herself laughing a lot of the time thanks to her husband and very wonderful friends.