Well, let it pass, he thought; April is over, April is over. There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice. – F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Sensible Thing’

‘The Sensible Thing’ is the title of a story in a Fitzgerald collection called, ‘All The Sad Young Men’, probably long out-of-print. (I no longer have a copy.) I never asked permission to use the quote, by the way: I took it for granted it was by then in the public domain. The punctuation is exactly Fitzgerald’s. I copied it carefully many years ago.

À vous,


Memory and Invention

I have never read or heard about anything to do with the writing of fiction that fits, exactly, my own experience, and I now believe it must be difficult. If fiction grows out of the layers of time, memory, imagination and invention, it ought to be possible to dig into the foundation and analyze each element, down to the bedrock. But the truth is that it resists analysis, all but the most shallow and humdrum, and cannot be tested or measured or, really, classified and contained.

Once, it must have been at about 1992, when I happened to be working all day, every day, on a story set in the Paris of 1953, I was stunned and bewildered to step outside and discover the shape of the cars, the casual clothing and clean facades of the 1990s. This shock – a true shock, for it brought me to a standstill – lasted no more than a couple of seconds. Had it gone on I might have believed that part of my mind had been severed and sent adrift. As it was, I accepted it as a fragment of the power of memory to influence time.

I had by then lived in Paris for ten years, on and off, and on this street for thirty more. If I had suddenly been shown a picture of any Paris street, as I had first known them, I would most probably have remarked on the buildings, black with decades of soot and grime, and recalled from a long distance how they had darkened those early Paris winters. It would not have altered the living city, contained in some bubble of memory, ready to come back into life as fiction.

Visual reminders are accurate, but only up to a point: an old photograph inevitably introduces the notion of quaintness. Each rising generation forgets that people pictured as a street crowd, in some corner of past time, did not look strange or odd to one another. A picture needs human voices, popular music, scents, street sounds, the squeal of brakes, the heat and cold of the given moment. To admire a picture as a picture is one thing; to expect it to replace a memory seems to me hopeless.

Imagination, all invention, will occur spontaneously – occur or interfere. ‘Interference’ means it is false, mistaken, untrue. Although I have kept a journal for years, I never look anything up. A diary is not a dictionary or the record of a meeting. Sometimes a sharp, insistent image caught in one’s mind, perhaps of a stranger glimpsed only once, will become the living source of a whole story.

My story ‘The Fenton Child’ emerged, intact, fifty years after I had seen a pregnant adolescent girl, waxing a floor on her hands and knees, in a religious institution. It was a hot summer afternoon in Montreal, two or three years after the end of the Second World War.

I was there as a reporter for a local weekly. There had been rumours about this institution – a place where unwanted babies were deposited, some to be adopted, with few questions asked, others to live brief lives. Actually, I was able to turn in only a fraction of what I heard and saw, for it would amount to an indictment and I was told to be careful. If I had tried to tell what I suspected I would not have been reporting at all, but sliding into fiction: a problem of a different kind.

The image of that tragic girl lived with me for half a century, buried somewhere, emerging only now and again. As a victim observed, she remains as she was in life, never making a sound, never looking up; but her presence alone speaks volumes. It says, Yes, but what about this? Who will make all this up to me? The answer, of course, can only be, No one. Nothing.

Every other character in ‘The Fenton Child’ is out of that mixture I have mentioned, the layers of memory and imagination. I think, now, the story is really the portrait of a certain city at a certain period of urban time. I do not know the people described, though I have encountered many like them. Actually, rereading, I find a likeness between Boyd Fenton, the father of Neil, and Ken Peel, second husband to Lily, in ‘Let It Pass’. Both look and behave like Anglo-Montrealers of that generation, who grew up in time for war, went off willingly (there was no conscription for overseas service in Canada; the names on war graves abroad are all of volunteers), survived, had the buoyant nature peculiar to Montreal, then, but with a dark side to it. If I had reread these four stories carefully, looking for the core, the heart of each, I might never have become aware that the imaginary Ken Peel and Boyd Fenton were typical or, at least, made of the same culture, now virtually extinct. It leads me straight around, full circle, to the enigma of fiction.

If the French author, Anatole France, describing a Parisian school boy in some of his short stories stayed close to crucial dates of his own life, it must have been around 1852, when he was eight, that he asked his mother, ‘What is a fiction?’

‘A fiction is a lie,’ she replies, unaware that she may have opened a door to her son’s long career and his Nobel at the age of eighty. Why does he want to know?

The young Anatole was attending a private school, where his teacher seems to have written a considerable amount of poetry, in school hours. That day, she had read to her class, weeping, long stanzas about ‘Jeanne’, the prettiest girl in her village, who had loved in vain. Anatole, extremely moved, goes up to her desk, unbidden, to offer sympathy. Now he knows, he says, why she seems so downcast and lives such a lot.

‘Little idiot,’ the teacher says, by no means cordially. ‘Jeanne is a fiction.’ She orders him to go back to his place at once and return the silver star – probably a medal – he has earned for some academic prowess.

He does as he is told, by now weeping too.

Later, he overhears his mother telling his father that the school is stuffing the pupils’ heads with nonsense. The parents’ conversation then takes on the ironic, light tone of some of the grown-up Anatole’s novels. It indicates their exclusive love for each other: they seem to have forgotten about the school, that particular teacher, even that particular child.

How much did France remember and how much did he invent? And if ‘a fiction is a lie’, in any case, how much does it matter? My answer would be, not at all. When I recall the incident in the street, the shock of time and memory colliding, it seems to me a transparent image sliding over another transparency. I think that past time had reclaimed a right to a territory, its right to over take the present, to occupy the same measure of space, now, later, perhaps forever.

That is what I think today. Tomorrow, I may believe something perfectly different.


Photograph © Canada Reads

John Burnside | Interview