Based on real life

We probably all have well-meaning friends who when recommending a book will add that it is based on real life. I have never found this fact alone to be a strong incentive.

Real life is what I look for in biography/autobiography but it isn’t enough without good writing. I want it to be transformed by the author’s putting it into perspective. I want it to be thoughtfully written and well edited.

In fiction, I am hoping for writing that is beautiful because it is original and clear. Ideally, there will be a moment or two of enlightenment — something thought-provoking or clarifying, arrived at indirectly through the text. Whether something is literally true does not seem important and may be distracting. The author’s real-life experiences behind the writing are important, but they need to go through a distillation process. And it’s necessary for the autobiographical elements to be subordinate to the writer’s art and craft.

From my recent reading:

The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer

Recommended for its background of European history and its architecture lessons, though with some misgivings about the characters. The story is set mainly in Czechoslovakia in the late twenties and early thirties. Viktor and Liesel Landauer live in the Glass Room, which represents the Landauer House, an architectural masterpiece by Rainer von Abt. The twist here is that the setting is based on a real house — the Villa Tugendhat, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe — and the action takes place during the lead-up to the Second World War.

The characters are the weakest part of this novel: they are not fully realized or compelling. Towards the end of the book a couple of new characters are added for no discernible artistic reason.

Early on, The Glass Room makes you think about architecture: how architectural theory and practice has evolved, how it affects how people live, and what humans need in the spaces they live in. Later, the book makes you think about the human tendency to stay put as a society crumbles around you and what war does to human relationships — for that matter, what it does to humanity.

One additional caveat: the novel has an all too specific focus on particular sexual acts, leading me to think that the author’s personal tastes overcame his sense of what was needed for his story. I like a well-written sex scene as much as the next book club reader, but this was just too much and too unvarying. There is such a fine line between what is arousing and what is silly or just unconvincing.

The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje

Recommended, but may need to be revisited a couple of times. Ondaatje’s work does not always reveal its full potential on first reading. It is poetic, but subtle.

The setting is the SS Oronsay during a voyage from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to London in the early 1950s. Eleven-year-old Mynah (the nickname for the young Michael) is one of three unaccompanied boys who are seated at the Cat’s Table, the dining room table with the lowest status. The behaviour of the adult passengers is seen through the eyes of Mynah, Cassius and Ramadhin, so it is only very gradually that an interpretation of some of these facts dawns on the reader.The ship is peopled with odd, eccentric characters, including a prisoner who is taken for walks at night, Mynah’s attractive cousin Emily, and other occupants of the Cat’s Table, including the mysterious Miss Lasqueti and the pianist Mr. Mazappa. The reader is in the mind of a child, hearing snatches of conversation and piecing together an imperfect understanding of events.

The basic autobiographical facts are that Ondaatje did sail to London as a boy in the 1950s, live in London, and move to Canada. Beyond that, we assume the novel is that magical mix of observations swirled around and recreated as a story with enough factual elements to give it authenticity.

In contrast I recently read Somewhere Towards the End, a memoir by Diana Athill, the editor. Athill, now in her nineties, writes frankly about her life and her thoughts as she faces the end of it. There is much to be interested in — she is still sharp and honest and she writes as one might correspond with a friend. The catch here is that although I can enjoy hearing the facts and opinions she chooses to share, it is obvious that creative writing was never her forte. She was an editor and, not surprisingly, her sentences are swept clean — so unadorned, in fact, that the essence of her personality seems to be missing. You hear some quite intimate facts about her life, but ultimately she is not knowable through her writing.


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