The trouble with reality in fiction

Arts Entertainments

You might not have heard of Pierre-François Lacenaire, but thanks to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, his story may ring a bell. The two men had a lot in common: blighted youths, gambling problems, flirtation with radical politics, prison time and a fascination with the criminal underworld. Lacenaire’s key resemblance, though, is not to the Russian author but his best-known character. In 1834 Lacenaire and an accomplice murdered a petty thief and his mother in Paris. Among other methods, they used an axe—the weapon with which Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Dostoyevsky’s novel of 1866, kills a pawnbroker and her poor sister.

“The Saint and the Sinner”, a gripping new book by Kevin Birmingham, charts Dostoyevsky’s aspiration to write about evil from the inside, including his interest in Lacenaire, which resulted in “Crime and Punishment”. Their connection has a bearing on an anxiety in the air today. The trouble—moral and political as well as literary—is over what to do with reality: to what extent real people and events should be incorporated into fiction. Dostoyevsky’s example can help.

Two recent literary sensations highlight the problem. In July an essay in Slate by Alexis Nowicki complained that “Cat Person”, an internet-breaking tale of consent and desire published in the New Yorker in 2017, borrowed details of a relationship she had in college. Ms Nowicki seemed pained by the echoes of her life yet disconcerted by the story’s divergence from it. “Who is the Bad Art Friend?”, a piece in the New York Times Magazine in October, told of two writer friends, or supposed friends, one of whom donated a kidney to a stranger—an event the other adapted in fiction, along with some of the donor’s words, afterwards protesting that this sort of thing happens all the time.

Alongside these rows over the rights to reality, a powerful strain of contemporary fiction avowedly draws on life. Rachel Cusk, Jhumpa Lahiri and other practitioners of autofiction mould experience into novels, striving to reproduce human consciousness on the page. But though the genre is boldly impatient with literary conventions, all those made-up plots and characters, it also suggests a kind of modesty: over how much reality authors are entitled to take on. In this way it chimes with modern strictures over cultural appropriation—ie, the freedom or otherwise of artists to imagine lives dissimilar from their own, once taken for granted but now contested. These days some fiction can seem teasingly free with the author’s reality and reserved about other people’s.

Much of this would have baffled Dostoyevsky, not to mention Charles Dickens and Émile Zola. In truth, though, it isn’t only 19th-century realists, or historical novelists like Hilary Mantel, or journalist-entertainers like Graham Greene, who paint from reality. No writer can avoid it. From the crassest romans à clef, to the subtlest facial expressions and idiomatic turns of phrase, to sci-fi fantasies and romance, novelists remix elements from the periodic table of life. The serious question is not whether they do so, but how.

Diligence is one consideration. Rarely do authors go as far in their research as Dostoyevsky: as Mr Birmingham recounts, during the four years he spent in a Siberian labour camp for subversion, he became intimately acquainted with the psychology of murderers. But, adept as they are at sniffing out fakery, readers tend to rumble anyone who skimps on their homework or on noticing the world around them.

If fiction has a duty to veracity, though, it also has a responsibility to art. Moments that might seem trivial in a newspaper report can, with the right emphasis and polish, become luminous in a novel. Fiction aligns details and observations to maximise their impact, omitting whatever clutters the picture; the craft involves forgetting reality as well as recollecting it. In other words, it tries, through invention, to uncover the essential truth beneath the superficial kind.

Dostoyevsky did that in “Crime and Punishment”. Raskolnikov’s motives and excuses—money, nihilism, fatalism, contempt for his victims and rage at injustice—recall Lacenaire’s. But other stories went into the novel too. Whereas Lacenaire was guillotined, Raskolnikov lives—like Dostoyevsky, whose death sentence was commuted to penal servitude as the firing squad assembled. Cases like Lacenaire’s, he wrote before beginning his book, are “more exciting than all possible novels because they light up the dark sides of the human soul that art does not like to approach”. Yet through his devotion and his talent, Dostoyevsky’s art did. He turned reality into something new.

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