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Where the Truth Lies

April 21, 2002|VIVIAN GORNICK | Vivian Gornick is the author, most recently, of "The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative."

Writers of personal narrative--that is, of memoirs and essays--are often accused by readers who meet them of not sufficiently resembling their own narrators. This happened a lot to George Orwell. The persona that he created in countless books and essays--that of Orwell the involuntary truth speaker, an essence of democratic decency--was something genuine that he pulled from himself to serve his writer's need to be witness to the politics of his time; yet it was hardly his ordinary, everyday self. Orwell was a man often at the mercy of his own mean insecurities. In life he could act and sound ugly (revisionist biographies now have him not only a sexist and an obsessed anti-communist but possibly an informer as well). Readers who met him at dinner could be disconcerted.

It's a problem for everyone who writes this kind of nonfiction: being both yourself and not yourself on the page. In 1972, I went to Egypt, under contract, to write a book about middle-class Cairenes. The Egyptians were warm, nervous, volatile. It had always been my style as a journalist to "be myself"--that is, to speak freely and provocatively and make a story out of the response I got--and I knew that here in Cairo I had, as well, to act naturally. But my full-blown, unmediated self--at the time I was on the barricades for radical feminism every minute that I was conscious--put most Egyptians off rather quickly. To do my work, I'd have to put a lid on it.

Soon enough, I found that if I responded to this instead of to that, kept habitual judgment to myself, asked fewer leading questions, remained absorbed when bored or restless, I was able to get on quite well. More than quite well. As I brought myself steadily under greater control, I felt myself seeing and hearing differently. I started enjoying the difference, even cultivating it.

Then an astonishing thing happened. The difference became an identity inside of which I began to live. In time, this identity became my instrument of illumination: It told the story of Egypt I wanted to tell. A few months after the book was published, a woman at a dinner party said accusingly to me, "You're nothing like the woman in the book!" Later in the evening she said, "I take that back .... You're something like her." But the discrepancy disturbed her. She clearly had wanted to have dinner with the narrator of the book she had read, not with me.

Yet no one stopped reading Orwell because he'd been a disappointment in the flesh. Actually, he was even more a joy on the page if you had met him. There, his voice came through as one richly in service to an intelligence that was consistently clarifying and reliable. The reliability made the Orwell narrator trustworthy. The trustworthiness was irresistible.

Now, here's a distinction worth making between the fictional narrator and the nonfictional narrator. The fictional narrator can be and often famously is unreliable; from "The Good Soldier" to "Remains of the Day," the unreliable narrator in a novel serves a writer's deeper intention. The ignorance or cunning or self-deception of such a narrator is often key to the larger tale's being told. But this conceit will never work in nonfiction. Duplicate that unreliable narrator in a memoir and you have literary disaster. The nonfiction narrator has many of the rights and responsibilities of the fictional one but does not have the right to be unreliable. To the contrary, it must always persuade the reader that--to the best of its ability--it is speaking truth.

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