Abraham Rothberg  - Author


Fiction is a Lie That Tells the Truth                               Home
by Abraham Rothberg

A Talk Delivered by Abraham Rothberg at the Jewish Book Festival Rochester Jewish Community Center
January 9, 2009

First and foremost thank you for coming here tonight.

Anyone who ventures out on a January night in Rochester winters for the love of books is both a hardy soul and a lover of literature.

I came to the writing of fiction by lying. My mother always emphasized the necessity of telling the truth, and, when I was a small boy, convinced me that if I lied to her, she would be able to see the lie on my forehead. The first time I did lie to her and got away with it--not by any means the first time I had lied to her, nor the last--I was delighted, convinced that the inside of my skull was sacrosanct, private, not available to anyone else.

At the same time I recognized that meant I couldn't tell whether she, or anyone else, was lying to me, that other people's thoughts and feelings were being denied me, as mine were not available to others if and when I might want them to be. It was a stunning insight: The head might be a refuge, a sanctuary, a haven, but it was also a prison.

My mother also tried to make me understand that there were both white lies and black one, white lies a forgivable necessity in society, although she found it impossible to make clear to me which was which, and when and why they were forgivable. Every day my mother deposited a few of my father's hard-earned pennies in the little blue charity box she kept on a kitchen shelf. Once a month, a rabbi came to empty the box for the charity organization he represented. The first time my mother had no pennies to deposit--that pennilessness which was to last for quite some time--she asked me to tell the rabbi she wasn't at home, and that I had no idea where the charity box was. Blushing, she explained that this was the time for one of those white, forgivable lies, but I saw how much it pained her to ask me to lie on her behalf. So there I was, telling the rabbi the truth, "My mother's not here right now," I said, and she wasn't in the kitchen, nor was the pushke, the charity box--yet I was lying to him because I knew she was hiding behind the closed door of my parents' bedroom and had the pushke with her, so there I was telling a lie, but at the same time the lie was a truth. And there was the beginning of fiction: Serious fiction is a lie that tells the truth.

Fiction can introduce you into the lies and truths of other people's minds and hearts, to your own country and time, or strange, foreign places and other eras, into the most public forums and the most private scenes of human intimacy; it can make you see, hear, feel, love, hate, forgive, judge, understand, and yet not be bound by the consequences of all those activities, though you are there as a participant-observer in the most personal and informed ways. You may come to know Becky Sharp or Hester Prynne or Ivan Denisovich or Robert Jordan better than you know your own closest cronies. You may learn more about the French Revolution from Charles Dickens's A TALE OF TWO CITIES and more about the American Civil War from Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND than from your history books, though not perhaps as accurately, more about America's racial problems from Mark Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FINN, more about how money and sex affect the lives of Americans through Theodore Dreiser's THE FINANCIER, SISTER CARRIE, and AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, than from the daily life around you. We know how and what these literary characters think and feel, how they conduct themselves and why, what happens to them more fully than we can know our families, our neighbors and our colleagues.

How does that happen? I have been reading and writing fiction for close to three-quarters of a century, yet I still cannot explain it. The best I can approximate is that in the beginning was the word, the spoken word then the written word, that no other species had, and through those words we human beings were able to communicate with one another and so build civilizations and,' yes, destroy them too. Those words have told truths and lies, have comforted and appalled, informed and misled, but they have always helped human beings to define themselves and their purposes.

We do not, however, know the minds and hearts of fiction's authors, though we get some inkling from their fictional creations, from their novels, short stories and plays, the lies that tell their truths, rather than the truths of their public lives which are often enough lies. Many readers and critics are far more interested in authors' lives than in their fictions. I am not one of them, though I do concede that a reader might better understand Solzhenitsyn's novels, say, by knowing he was imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag but what could one make of knowing that Shakespeare, in his will, left his wife his "second best bed," or spent most of his married life in London while Ann Hathaway remained in their native Stratford-on-Avon? Who knows? And would it illuminate the tragedies of Romeo and Juliet's star-crossed love for one another?

By unlocking secrets of the human heart and mind, fiction can allow us to know how people different from ourselves think and feel and live. The fiction may be both a lie--that is, a made-up, imagined untrue creation--and true --true to life and lives of others we might never otherwise know or meet, or cast light on those we do know and whose lives we are acquainted with, as well as give us insight into our own lives.

It allows us to know we are not alone, that others feel as we do even though others do not, as they face life and death, war and peace, love and hatred, passion and despair, all the agonizing problems individual human beings are bound to face. It allows us to experience situations we shall never have to undergo, and some we must endure, without paying the prices and accepting the consequences of both ordeals and joys. Fiction may even teach us how better to cope with them when next we meet them in our own journeys through life.

And so, tonight, you will hear some of the lies I have written I take to be important truths, serious fictions about our lives and times I thought my books might contribute to the cultural and political conversations and dilemmas of our epoch. If that has not taken place as I wished-- and I am sorry to say it has not--it was not for the want of my trying.


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Abraham Rothberg

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