Writers don’t just write it down (Ian Buruma, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Sybille Bedford)

On Sunday, Travelling Companion and I went to listen to Ian Buruma talk at the Bozar in Brussels about his memoir A Tokyo Romance.  We ate at the Bozar restaurant first; the picture is out the window from there.


‘You say you didn’t keep a diary at the time you were in Japan’, said the interviewer. ‘So is this fiction?’

‘Life isn’t coherent”, said Buruma. ‘So any attempt to make a narrative of it is a form of fiction’.

A couple of years ago Karl Ove Knausgaard gave a talk at the same venue. (He, though, got the big main hall.) Commenting on this question, he said this is why what he likes to read is diaries.

Last night I started Sybille Bedford’s novel A Compass Error. Her book A visit to Don Otavio is the best travel book I’ve read recently. It starts with a four-day train journey, in the 1940s, from New York to Mexico City. I found it in the big second hand shop at Alnwick in Northumberland, just over the border from Scotland.

I’m not sure where or when I got Compass Error – I found it in a pile around the house. I like the kind of thing it seems like it’s going to be – crisp books by posh women about posh young women – Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehman, The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West. It starts, though, with the protagonist, turning fifty, being quizzed by someone she’s met at a dinner party about the events to be recounted in the book:

Flavia said, ‘It takes two to tell the truth.’

‘One for one side, one for the other?’

‘That’s not what I mean. I mean one to tell, one to hear. A speaker and a receiver. To tell the truth about any complex situation requires a certain attitude in the receiver.’ […]

‘Wouldn’t it be simpler,’ he said, ‘just to write it down?’ […]

‘You forget that I am a writer. Writers don’t just write it down. They have to give it a form.’

He said, ‘Well, do.’

‘Life is often too… peculiar for fiction. Form implies a measure of selection.’

He pleased her by catching on. ‘At the expense of the truth.’

‘Never essentially. At the expense of the literal truth.’

‘Does the literal truth matter?’

She thought about that. ‘To the person to whom it happened.’

‘Even if that person is a writer?’

Round them there were signs of breaking up. People were standing, someone was dialling for taxis. Flavia too stood up, put down her glass. Before turning away, composed now, smiling, she flicked out an answer, ‘Then, there might be a clash of intentions.’

(The last sentence is clumsy. I can’t very well skip it.)

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Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

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