In Chapter Four of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma the novel’s hero, Fabrizio, on his travels in Europe, comes across some kind of skirmish or military adventure. When he is injured, he is looked after by a local family until his wound begins to heal. And then in the next chapter he is briefly preoccupied by what he witnessed, which was either something very large or very small:
Was what he had seen a battle? And, secondly, was that battle Waterloo?… He was always hoping to find in the newspapers, or in the accounts of the fighting, some description that would enable him to recognise the places he had passed through….
But soon other things begin to distract Fabrizio, and he continues on his journey away from what might have been the Battle of Waterloo without thinking too much about it. Both he and his creator are more interested in the vagaries of love than the details of the battle, even if it was Waterloo. The large matters of history fade as the novel proceeds, to be replaced by preoccupations entirely private but rendered by Stendhal with enormous zeal and energy, as though the world depended not on the result of a mere battle but on something more vital—a happy outcome for our wayward and engaging hero in his love life.
The tension between public life—how politics and social change impinge on character—and the intimate spaces within the self that can be affected more deeply and seriously by what might seem like small and private events is something with which every novelist has to grapple. There is another tension too in the world that any novelist creates: it is the tension between memory and imagination, between the need, which is urgent for some novelists, to use, recount, or even transform real events, and the duty, on the other hand, to invent pure fictional space in which everything is imagined and invented. For most novelists none of these tensions is ever fully resolved, and many novelists indeed find them stimulating and useful. Even a novelist whose work seems pure and untarnished by mere personal experience, such as Samuel Beckett, created consternation in his family when he used the life of a cousin in his first book of stories and also offered an odd comfort to his readers by using his own life, indeed his own birth, and his family in a late work such as Company, composed forty years later.
In any reading of the work of Edmund White these questions about real events and real people arise, sometimes at the simplest level. In an autobiographical essay written in 2002, for example, White recounts an episode from a creative writing class at the University of Michigan conducted by Allan Seager, who announced: “The nouns in a paragraph should be…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.