Art’ll fix it

John Bayley

  • The Penguin Book of Lies edited by Philip Kerr
    Viking, 543 pp, £15.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 670 82560 3

When the great German archaeologist Schliemann exclaimed (if indeed he did so), ‘I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon!’ he was not uttering a lie, nor was he being economical with the truth. His imagination was carried away by the soaring possibilities, in the world of fact, which his successful excavations had revealed. The imagination adores whatever can give the appearance of fact, as most good writers know. When Hardy tells us that the raindrops before a thunderstorm make spots on the road as large as nasturtium leaves, no reader is going to take him up on it. When Kipling tells us that a man’s blood on an Indian parade ground dries in the sun like goldbeaters’ skin, cracks lozenge-wise, and curls up like dumb tongues, we are too mesmerised to be sceptical, although, in his brief and sensible treatise on English prose style, Herbert Read very pertinently enquired if anyone had actually seen those ‘tongues’.

They were lying tongues no doubt, however dumb. But Kipling knew how eloquent they would be, and brazenly classed them with the good journalist’s passion for fact, for ‘the unvarnished accident that actually occurred’. He runs a fact into a simile and both into a metaphor, so that all three give the appearance of super-fact. Kipling is developing in his flashy way the technique so marvellously demonstrated by the author of the fourth Gospel. ‘And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying ... and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.’ Such details must be those of an eyewitness, but a good author is always an eyewitness.

My random instances show what a bright idea Philip Kerr has had in investigating modes of lying, by deploying quotation, anecdote, gossip and history, over which ‘literary effect’ is always tentatively hovering. On the question of who discovered America Emerson wrote that Amerigo Vespucci ‘managed in this lying world to suppress Columbus and baptise half the world with his own dishonest name’, thus contriving both to libel the unfortunate Vespucci, who had no intention of giving a new continent his Christian name, and to demonstrate his own integrity as an investigative author. Hemingway’s sense of accuracy on the page is the reverse effect of the lies he told about himself. Kipling, on the other hand, probably never told a lie in his life, although his stories tell plenty. Hardy was distinctly economical with the truth about himself, but we can be quite sure that he saw those rain-spots in the dust, looking like round nasturtium leaves.

Hemingway learned much from Kipling, and Kerr quotes from Jeffrey Meyers’s biography on ‘the importance of being Ernest’. Through the persona of Krebs in ‘Soldier’s Home’ he exploited his own need for mendacity. ‘To be listened to at all he had to lie ... attributing to himself things other men had seen, done or heard of, and stating as facts certain apocryphal incidents familiar to all soldiers.’ (Hemingway’s literary adjective is itself significant: these are not gospel truths.) ‘It is not unnatural that the best writers are liars,’ he wrote. ‘If they knew all other writers are liars too it would cheer them up. A liar in full flower is as beautiful as cherry trees.’ Thus, as Meyers says, ‘everyone believed that Hemingway had Indian blood, ran away from home, injured his eye when boxing, associated with gangsters, fought with the Italian Arditi, kept a mistress in Sicily, reported the Greco-Turkish war from the wilds of Anatolia’ etc, etc. He did none of these things, but he developed the skills to describe them better than if he had. And yet perhaps the truth is not entirely mocked. Even before we know about Hemingway we can feel that the pleasure of reading him depends on the triumph of a new kind of art over the tedium and incompleteness of actual things, not on any sense that this is the thing itself. It is the same with Kipling’s stories; and the secret was passed to Raymond Chandler, whose formalised detective, the most unreal of beings, is none the less soundly based on the creator’s fantasies about himself, which altogether transcend his ignorance of an actual criminal milieu. In this fantasy the reader knowingly conspires. A humbler version of the same thing was taking place, perhaps, when News of the World readers in 1983 avidly absorbed the details about a spacecraft which had landed near the US Air Force base at Woodbridge in Suffolk. Coleridge called it the willing suspension of disbelief. Tale is more important than truth, but depends on a pretension to it that is itself an artistic convention.

There is a good deal of evidence that this kind of lying has for some time been on the increase, both in art and in other kinds of communication. ‘Realism’ in all its forms depended on it, and was also highly conscious of it. Dickens went out of his way to assure his readers that what they read in Oliver Twist was ‘the TRUTH!’ Even Tolstoy needed at times to make the same point. Henry James or George Eliot, on the other hand, never give the impression that the question could arise: the distinction was not part of their artistic outlook or method. But as a touchstone it is still very much around, and can take unexpected forms. Importunity about truth can be more shameless than a lie. The point about a Lucian Freud nude is not that a real Woman looks like that: it is that the artist masterfully insists that she does. A falseness, not so unlike Hemingway’s, is present in the transaction. Similarly, in the confessional mode of writing, or letting it all hang out, qui s’accuse not only s’excuse, but makes the reader feel he must be telling the truth.

No wonder book-wise writers and critics today tend to be contemptuous of the whole concept of truth. Kipling’s unspoken criterion, that if a thing is well done enough it must be the case, has caught on in a big way. It is all made up by the media, and by those faithful camp-followers of art who tell us on radio or TV what they were ‘trying to do’ when they wrote, painted or composed. The fashionably perceptive novel, like Julian Barnes’s memorable Flaubert’s Parrot, cannot find out what it is looking for, or what is going on inside itself. The fashionable thriller does not know the answers, or which side is which. These reactions against realism discard, often to great effect, the idea of truth as solution. So, fortuitously, did Henry James in The Turn of the Screw, and Stendhal’s Fabrice when he could not find the battle of Waterloo, or be sure that he had taken part in it. That truth is a lie shows that life is stupid: once art could fix that, but now this is not so certain, even of the best art.

As Philip Kerr has perceived, and embodied in his choice of extracts, a self-consciousness about truth goes with scepticism about it to produce the modern science of propaganda. Truth is the first casualty in war, whether hot or cold; when Churchill remarked that truth in wartime was ‘so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies’ he was not just being cynical, like Bacon’s jesting Pilate, but assuming that truth, like right, must be on one’s own side: enemy truth, attended by her SS bodyguard, must be a false creature. As Orwell saw, faith in the truth leads to lying. Since the Party is always right, the concoction of deliberate lies is a moral duty. The victims of the show-trials in Moscow and Prague found relief in the lies they were made to utter. In 1940 Orwell supposed – which is interesting in the light of what happened later in the Soviet Union, and indeed in 1984 – that ‘already there are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying a historical fact.’ Today science can appear just as much ‘the father of lies’ as Herodotus himself: not because of our appetite for wonders, but because the scientist has become much more aware of the possibilities of propaganda, whether personally or ideologically motivated.

‘You’re lying’ is still a possible accusation, but perhaps only where the individual is concerned. Public, historic or scientific issues are always seen to be in doubt. Whether in art or in daily intercourse, we have an instinct for the sound of falsity when it is on a personal level; and then we can either appreciate it, as in the case of Falstaff or Hemingway, or reject it. There is a significant difference between the Bryce Report, compiled in 1915 about German atrocities in Belgium, and Kipling’s own jottings on the same subject when reporting in France. As Kerr comments, the Bryce Report was ‘a piece of official propaganda pretending to be a legal investigation.’ As such it was quite cunning. One of the more absurd canards put out by the atrocity-mongers (and to which Kipling lends the manic force of his art in his story about a Berlin bourgeoise, ‘Swept and Garnished’) was that the Germans were systematically cutting off the right hands of Belgian schoolchildren, to prevent them ever serving in an army. The Bryce Report deprecated this story, judiciously observing that a hand might have held a weapon, or been lopped off in the theft of rings; or ‘the form of mutilation said to have occurred might be the consequence of a cavalry charge up a village street.’ The committee cleverly accepted the alleged fact by playing down the motivation, thus giving an impression of moderation and scrupulosity. Did someone on the committee, one wonders, recall the rumour from Bannockburn times that the Scots cut off the string fingers of captured English archers? Perhaps they did at that: who knows?

The second casualty in war can be an invented truth. The Bryce Committee were wise to speculate with apparent fairness and not to be too specific. Where there’s smoke there’s fire; or, as the philosopher Anthony Flew aptly remarked, it is a tendency of human nature to feel that though one leaky bucket will not hold water, six leaky buckets are likely to do so. Propagandists often overreach themselves, as the Russians did at the Nuremberg Trials by insisting on charging the Germans with the Katyn massacre, and thus bringing the evidence out into the open. The Jacobite scribblers at the time of the massacre of Glencoe were so widely disbelieved that, as Macaulay says, ‘when for the first time they told the truth they were supposed to be romancing. They complained bitterly that the story, though perfectly authentic, was regarded by the public as a factitious lie.’

Truth came out in the end, but does it always do so? No one knows to this day about the murder of the little princes in the tower, although Tudor propaganda inclines us now to think that it was Henry VII and not Richard III who did them in. Shakespeare’s efforts are just as counter-productive here as any claim by the ministry of lies. In that context one of the oddest stories is ‘the horrid tale of the bloody Colonel Kirk’, as investigated by Disraeli’s father Isaac, the antiquarian. Colonel Kirk and his ‘lambs’ bloodily suppressed the Monmouth insurrection, but the propagandists could not leave well alone and accused him, among other crimes, of ravishing a respectable wife by promising to spare her husband, who was then promptly executed. Whoever thought that one up got it from Measure for Measure, whose story was already old when Shakespeare adapted it. It’s not without significance that Shakespeare makes his Angelo into an honourable man, who can hardly believe himself what he is doing. Macbeth, too, nerved himself for murder as if it were a terrible duty. Propaganda exploits the probable fact that most of us are capable of anything, granted the circumstances. Kipling’s ‘Mary Postgate’ describes an act of horrible callousness by a kindly spinster to an injured German airman in the First World War. In the second, some, but very few British aircrew were, in fact, killed on the ground by outraged German civilians. Kipling’s story leaves it in doubt whether the thing really happened, or was all in Mary Postgate’s mind. The sleep of reason breeds lies as well as monsters, for the mind can lie to itself about what it sees, or desires.

It is also unconsciously selective: one man’s horror story is ignored by another, not because he doesn’t believe it but because his own horrors have priority. Armenians are not much interested in the Holocaust: they have enough trouble selling their own story, which is not disbelieved but put on the back burner. Omission can give the impression of disbelief. Graham Greene wrote of the period in Mexico described in The Power and the Glory that it showed ‘the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth’. That must raise a few Protestant eyebrows, for it tacitly implies that the achievements of Bloody Mary, who burned far more Protestant heretics than her unwilling sister executed Jesuit priests, were not really a persecution at all. Another Catholic, perhaps less innocently, has written that it was the Russians and not the Germans who extirpated the Polish intelligentsia and officer class, thus blurring the fact that this was the secret and determined intent of both aggressor countries. Where history is concerned it is unsafe to suppose that either one version or the other must be true: but, again, it is the way our minds work.

Both interpretations may have their own kind of truth, or lack of it. When T.E. Lawrence wrote in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom of his flogging and rape by the Turkish officer at Deraa, one of his biographers takes the account at face value, and another as total fantasy. A writer who wishes to undergo an experience can do so if he has the right command of words: Flaubert notoriously vomited several times (or so he claimed) when describing how Emma Bovary poisoned herself with arsenic. What is interesting about Lawrence’s account, quoted in full by Kerr and tacitly allocated to the category of lying, is that there seems to be a transposition of the alleged event into ‘school bully’ terms, and the tortures of the upper fifth, as also occurs in Sapper’s or Ian Fleming’s thrillers. Lawrence may have experienced those, or courted them. He has the fantasist’s cunning, too: for no one could ever have found out what, if anything, had really happened, although researchers have been able to establish the falsity of most of Hemingway’s claims.

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies.

Love is not so much blind as self-deceiving, and in my experience any reader who really admires T.E. Lawrence would almost be prepared to go to the stake for the truth of the story. No good, in that particular case, just to conclude that it is well done, whether true or false. Perhaps because it is not really done so admirably, but has something false in its factual pretension, and in the concluding reference to ‘the citadel of my integrity’? Or perhaps that ‘integrity’ really had been lost, but in different circumstances?

In his account of Agitprop’s deceptions in the Spanish Civil War, for many of the best of which he was himself responsible, Arthur Koestler quotes the contemporary slogan, sometimes attributed to Hemingway, that ‘Fascism is a lie told by bullies – a writer who will not lie cannot live and work under Fascism.’ He should know, but perhaps he had a point: a writer’s lie is different in kind from a politician’s. Pushkin positively enjoyed living and working under Tsarism, and was stimulated by it, but he was not required to do propaganda, although in fact he wrote a splendidly defiant poem justifying Russia’s invasion of Poland in 1830, because it was ‘a quarrel of the Slavs among themselves’. Saddam Hussein’s propagandists might note that one. Odd how lying and bullying are instinctively classed together, as if lying was essentially a juvenile activity found in bad schools. Perhaps the father of lies, whether Satan or Herodotus or Baron Munchausen, was really a schoolboy at heart.

Philip Kerr has assembled a fine variety of disinformation, from Livingstone’s lies about Africa and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to the Piltdown Skull; from Rousseau’s reflections on his own Confessions to Frances Stevenson’s account, from the standpoint of his mistress, of Lloyd George’s many fibs; and the theologian William Paley’s plea for ‘falsehoods that are not lies’. He gives us Casanova and Kim Philby, Shere Hite on faking orgasms, and Bernard Shaw on the need to lie to children.

The publishers tell us the editor has included one wholly invented entry, and promised a bottle of champagne to the first five reviewers who spot it. I have failed to do so: but I am sure their offer is in good faith, and if they had made it a case of vintage claret I might have tried harder. But many lies bemuse the mind. To struggle against them is the self-appointed task of Halt, an Austrian periodical dedicated to denouncing ‘the Auschwitz lie’. The editor has silently juxtaposed Simon Wiesenthal’s comments on this with Penny Vicenzi’s delightful advice to adulterers, from The Complete Liar. What was Lawrence’s ‘integrity’ exactly? – was it, like Kurt Waldheim’s, lost by fudging a CV? Enough lies by the virtuous can even seem to absolve the wicked. So many are told by the law and the media, and then exposed by other media, that terrorists in flagrante can appear like innocent victims.