‘Reads like a novel,’ it says more and more often on the jackets of biographies, memoirs, travellers’ tales, historical studies, collections of essays, volumes of poetry – anything in print, except the novel. And the claim, unlike most of those on blurbs, is frequently true, since non-fiction nowadays contains so much fiction. Examples are everywhere.
Examine that fastest-growing publishers’ fancy, the first-hand account of the worst journey in the world. Every week, they take off – by boat, by train, by bicycle, by raft, by canoe, by balloon, on foot or in wheelchair. They are running out of forms of transport. But that hardly matters after the first chapter. Sooner rather than later, the expedition turns out to be into their own interior. There is usually even more about themselves, or their modish travelling companion, than about the wacky, wonderful, outsize characters they meet along the way. It is instructive to note how those inflated figures shrink to portable dimensions when the safari is replayed, as it usually is, before the cameras, for the next year’s Channel Four series. The secret ingredient which makes each incident, like Proust’s Japanese flowers in water, so glowing on the page and so drab off it, is known as imagination. This can also be called invention, make-believe, the poet’s eye, the novelist’s ear, possibly what was known when I was a boy as a pack of lies. Not only the cynical may find it remarkable how these writers, so dull at home, become so fascinating abroad, so easily embroiled in sexual intrigues, backwoods vendettas, dangerous adventures, so readily adopted by crazed millionaires, whimsical bandits, insatiable madams of brothels, affectionate but lethal animals. It may all be true, but I find it difficult to suspend my disbelief about bizarre experiences in Patagonian bathhouses, Siberian sleeping-cars or Mississippi river boats if retailed by those who provide unreliable accounts of Archway pubs or the train ride from Charing Cross to Folkestone.
Let us glance at a precise example of stretching the evidence, pushing the novelist’s licence to caricature beyond its legitimate limits, in non-fiction. In his Hilaire Belloc (‘One of those outstanding biographies which have the deeper and wider resonance of a novel’: Christopher Booker), A.N. Wilson tells a funny anecdote about Mussolini that was new to me, though I had just finished Denis Mack Smith’s Mussolini. It runs: ‘Mussolini had in fact modelled his style of dress on that of his favourite film stars, Laurel and Hardy, whose sartorial distinctiveness he regarded as the embodiment of trans-Atlantic chic. He only abandoned it when he was informed that Laurel and Hardy were generally appreciated, not as models of sophistication, but as clowns.’ In a footnote, Wilson refers us to Mack Smith. How could I have missed it? Easy. It is not there. What Mack Smith writes is somewhat different: Mussolini ‘discarded his bowler hat when he noticed that in American comedy films (for which he had a passion and installed a projector) they were no longer worn except by his favourite stars, Laurel and Hardy.’ Wilson, by a Lytton Stracheyish sleight-of-hand, has turned the story upside down for an easy laugh.
The overlap of fact and fiction is very near the front of my mind these days. Last year, long after many of my colleagues in journalism, I decided that anyone who had written an estimated four to five million words of (supposed) non-fiction ought to have limbered up enough to have a bash at a novel. Having sacked myself after 12 years on the Sunday Times, exiting without a single tainted penny, out of distaste for newspapers that was not entirely to do with the newly-tyrannical Murdoch, I wanted to produce, for myself alone, a work that was one hundred per cent fiction.