Print Edition



Nov 22, 2022

Facts For Fictions

Read Time

Eva Brann Small

Eva Brann

St. John's College

Eva Brann, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, is the longest serving tutor at St. John’s College.

More About this Author

Facts For Fictions

Winslow Homer  Artists Sketching In The White Mountains

Artists Sketching in the White Mountains, Winslow Homer, 1868

Packed away as an easily missed “parenthesis” in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita (1955), a masterpiece of linguistic virtuosity by an ESL (English as a Second Language) writer who was also a moral ropedancer, there is a vanishingly short report of a fact: a crime of abduction and rape whose victim is a girl. Here it is:

Had I done to Dolly perhaps what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?

This actual event is fleetingly memorialized as a confession in a fiction in which a European intellectual is doing the same to Dolores Haze—“Lolita” to the perpetrator—who is the same age as Sally.

A book I had, quite fortuitously, bought just when I was thinking once again about the essence and modes of fictionality, Sarah Weinman’s The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World (2018) added a dimension to those lifelong inquiries.1

Weinman’s straightforward intention is to show that Nabokov was quite aware of the Horner abduction and, while holding himself harmless of deceit (hence the parenthetical acknowledgment) was ambivalent about admitting this use of the fact and unwilling to come clean about its extent, although the much-reported event had become a kind of armature for the novel—and at one point a “writer’s block” breaker.

I find the Weinman exposition completely persuasive and highly suggestive. For, implicit but not, as the locution goes, “thematized” was a tricky problem that opens up a deep question: Is underlying, or, if you like, “backgrounding” fact a contingent or a necessary element of fiction? Is factuality inevitably twinned with fictionality? Or, more internally, is memory a precondition for the functioning of the creative imagination? It is a question new to me, one that I owe to the Weinman book.

This question gathers interest from Nabokov’s above-mentioned ambiguity, well brought into the open by The Real Lolita, about acknowledging his debt to reality. For, while admitting his acquaintance with the fact, he disclaimed its importance, although it does seem to have saved Lolita three times, when his wife Vera had to snatch the unfinished manuscript from the fire to which he was consigning it out of despair about how to carry on. Thus reality seems to have been the circumstantial atmosphere breathing life into Lolita’s genesis, content, and culmination. 

Even at my first reading, back in the last century, I was captivated by the book—not by the proudly willing love that we have for Homer or Jane Austen—for repulsion was an ever-accompanying element along with the enchanted mind. Yet there were aspects of simple charm—on the one hand. To me, the most memorable is Nabokov’s immigrant-love for America, the continent, that “lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country” of my own experience—mine and my Beetle’s.2

But there is, in Lolita, that other, sinister hand.3 This yet so unspoiled continent of the mid-twentieth century is the rolling venue of a crime: child molestation. Here’s a strange inversion: In the mid-twentieth century, the time when bland conformity was in its flaccid bloom, the novel was regarded as scandalous and surreptitiously pornographic—Nabokov had a hard time finding a publisher. Now the sex as sex wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but as a rights issue it does raise the indignation of the “woke.” But again, there’s ambivalence. A contrary reading sees Humbert Humbert, the perpetrator, as a charming, sympathetic European with a pathology that is not to be imputed to him for vice but is to be pitied as an affliction. This, currently acceptable, view requires that prisons be fitted up as hospitals and people be reeducated not to see the ugliness of such desires.4

There is also an approach to Lolita that discerns in Lolita courage, even heroism. I am doubtful; her attempts at escape are feeble, in part from some complex reluctance but in part from outright fear. And when she does finally escape, it’s into the hands of a pornographer. 

One more feature of the book that is remarkable: to me, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835) is the book of books on my adopted country, the land to which I came, a refugee, as a teenager. It seems to me a masterpiece of anthropology at its nonprofessional best, the study of humanity as incarnate in communal settings. The French Tocqueville’s Democracy is almost the equal of The Persian Wars by that Greek grandmaster of ethnic insight, Herodotus.

Now, bizarre as it may seem, I think of Lolita as an updated addendum to the nineteenth-century book. To be sure, Nabokov indulges in sophisticated5 linguistic games that make reading Lolita in a spirit of trying to “get” it somewhat effortful—whereas Tocqueville writes, of course, without speech shenanigans, thus allowing more care to be devoted to his actual disclosures.6 

Whatever more they can be, novels are entertainments, and so Nabokov has every right to be mordant and even supercilious. In that spirit, Lolita records a dismal joy ride across America, a little over a century after Tocqueville traveled on the continent. Humbert Humbert is a faux father, and his unfathered daughter, an abducted sex slave, is held to him in their aimless, furtive progress, now by bribery, now by intimidation. However, as I’ve intimated, there’s another aspect of the book, not for the two characters but for the reader. It is a lovingly observed as well as scathingly expressed description of the beautiful and banal, philistine and open-hearted land that Humbert exploits and abuses as he turns its ever-available motels into a brothel-complex.

And yet, were a citizen-in-waiting to ask me for books to read in preparation for “naturalization,”7 I might recommend, among others, Lolita, for the reasons just given, but particularly because Nabokov, who came to America from Europe when he was forty-one, caught on to what other, older Europeans in their culture-conceit often missed: the complexity of conscientiously American souls, the ambivalence glossed over by that American simplicity that is usually on display. 

All the preceding is only a lead-in, and not even all that pertinent, to the question that The Real Lolita raised for me by its persuasive recollection of the factual crime at Nabokov’s disposal. Here are the elements of the question:

1. Let a fact be an accurate report of some discernible segment of reality. Then how do we grasp reality so as to articulate its parts? Articulate means, etymologically, “to cut at the joints.” For Plato it is a method, the “way of division (diairesis),” which depends on discerning the joints of the world. But the how of that method (Greek methodos means “a way to be followed”) is a project too long to tackle here.

2. Is a pure fiction, quite divorced from any fact and its reality, even conceivable? What would a fact-divorced narrative, devoid of spatiotemporal references, of “reals” (late Latin, realis), such as constitute our mundane experience, even be about? Such a pure fiction would be a tale of no-where, no-when, no-matter. Its fictions would be of nothing we experience through the senses, the images behind them of totally imaginary beings. I am trying here to imagine the essentially unimaginable—beings beyond the categories of existence.8

3. So then, if a factual armature is not an option at all but a required condition, a prerequisite of fiction, does that invalidate the artist’s vaunted claim to creativity—that is, to a share in a god’s, even in the God’s, power to make a world without a model, to determine its form or matter, to give it substance? For a form to immatter and the matter thus to inform is just what a creator-god doesn’t need,9 but a mere mortal probably does.

I’ll take a shot at answering my three questions. Or rather just the second one, since I’ll set aside the first question as involving too deep a delving into ontology, and since I’ve answered the third question in asking it. In any case, I couldn’t care less about the kudos of creativity, and while Nabokov was evidently not eager to acknowledge his debt to fact, he needn’t have worried. Judging by myself, I think that most lovers of fiction admire writers for snaffling a piece of the factual world and fitting it up for imaginative use, especially since fiction can exceed reality in realism.10

So that question, to me a newly discovered perplexity, concerns the need of a factual armature for a robust fiction—a perplexity aroused by reading about Nabokov’s skittish use of a real parallel, a pedophiliac crime. This is how I frame for myself not the evidential problems concerning actual practice, but the philosophical question concerning the nature of art: Do the artful feignings of literary fiction (or probably all the products of the fine arts) require the extensive support of existential fact—why and how?

I’ll begin with the observation that there is a genre that seems, perforce, to do without factual background stories—namely, fantasy literature. In fantasies, things occur and events happen that don’t turn up in reality. To agree to that proposition, it isn’t necessary to believe that the natural world (almost always a part of the primary setting) is ordered by prescriptive natural law; it’s enough to agree to Hume’s “constant conjunction”—that is, to concede that, without imputing any unobservable causal connection to a series of events, they do seem to us always to occur in the same serial orders: if I punch, say, a metal ball, a very short time afterward a ball lying contiguous to it will roll away from the direction whence came my attack.

In fantasy fiction or depiction, however, it doesn’t need to happen. Many such fictions, chief of them Alice in Wonderland, begin with a prelude showing its human character transiting into a strange realm, perhaps by dropping, safely unaccelerated by the natural Law of Free Fall, down a vertical rabbit hole.

1877 Winslow Homer The New Novel

The New Novel, Winslow Homer, 1877

To me, fantasy is palatable only if the author appears to be well-enough versed in the rules of logic, the propositions of mathematics, and the laws of physics to contravene them wittily. An author unconstrained by such knowledge is, as the Germans say of a childish tantrum, ausser Rand und Band, “beyond borders and bonds”—and so goes terminally boring. The relish of even the most intelligent fantasy tends to turn into tedium, for me at least, unless it is conscientiously antinomian—that is, devised against a background of reality, with antithetical necessity. 

So then, why is there always such a factual reality, oddly like a saving grace? Well, to begin with, this presence gives engaged readers a chance to reconvert the tale to the real world and so to make it significantly applicable to their own lives. Moreover, if there is some resonance of real reportage in the fiction, some remains of “breaking news,”11 then the narration gains in tension, in a surviving frisson.

But back to the question. It seems that fictions are willy-nilly fact dependent. To be sure, much serious imagining is magical. By “serious” imagining I mean the production of mental images that are, so to speak, not just a kind of pseudovisual vociferating but coherent and sustained “works.” 

So they may be magical, but their magic depends, just to be distinguishable as magic, on a backdrop of factuality—where facts are, if they are anything, among possibles, things that might be. When you are facing facts, you may be puzzled by the how of their being, but the whether of their existence is no longer in question. 

So fictions subsist in an environment that is in some basic structural way continuous with the natural, the given, world. But they are also in more specific ways factual, insofar as the most powerful images tend to be most truthfully—and here I need to concoct a locution—most veritably adjectivized: attributes are expressed by adjectives, and something property-rich might well be called “well-adjectivized.”

Aristotle says somewhere that attributes come in two categories: essential and accidental. Essential properties belong to, are constitutive of, a human being’s (or any being’s) very being; accidental properties are contingent and circumstantial. When I evaluate a fictional writing for myself,12 I first look for the author’s ability to balance and place persuasively essential and accidental properties.13

Adolescents tend to be world abstracted, even when, or especially when, they are impassioned world reformers.14 That is why their touching attempts to write the great American novel so often issue in grandiloquent manifestos rather than promising first fictions. 

All the above is prelude to my recent discovery—new news to me, but very likely old news to veterans of fiction making—of the question that raised itself for me: Does a fiction need to originate in, and rely on, a fact of reality? The answer seems to be: Yes.

I set aside, as merely circumstantial evidence,15 the fact that all the grand fiction I’ve lived with is indeed incited by?, based on?, parallel to?, twinned with? a reported reality. For example: James Joyce’s Ulysses is based on Homer’s Odyssey;16 Thomas Mann’s greatest novel, Doktor Faustus (1947), is based on the life of Nietzsche; Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet (1966 on), my favorite twentieth-century fiction, was inspired by Scott’s service in India.

From here on, I’m in the realm of conjecture, pushing as close to established truth as I can. I’m not so much thinking about particular fictions—though, of course, I, an avid reader of novels, have some in mind—but about Fiction as a way of Being, about artful Feigning, aka well-crafted lying.

Then why do such works require a backdrop, or better, an armature, of creditable actual characters and actions, the kind of things and events that are reported in solid journalism?

Here again is a nugatory first answer: it’s not so much a requirement as an inevitable accompaniment. All intelligible writing, and especially fiction, which is largely descriptive, participates, quite inevitably, in reality. For it consists of things that are shaped by geometry and motions that are ruled by physics and animate beings that exhibit psychologies. In other words, the genera of reality have to lie in or behind fictions to make them apprehensible to readers to begin with.17

Inversely, writing or painting (even music) that eschews all natural categories is simply unproducible.18 It’s a truth at once banal and astounding—banal because what else but incomprehensible would a derealized world be, and astounding because it brings home, at least to me, the often subverted fact of our easy at-homeness in so profoundly intelligence-informed an environment.19

Another utterly practical reason why fact is needed in support of fiction is that artists, not being the God who can create something out of nothing, get stuck behind that writer’s block as did Nabokov with Lolita. Now this blockage can be undone (as Nabokov had undone) by recourse to the originating fact.20

But perhaps the above is more in the category of the “helpful” than the “essential” to authors.

Now comes the how, which does turn out to be of the essence. How do authors (and mutatis mutandis other artists) intimate?, reference?, incorporate? the factual antecedents of their fictions?

The Real Lolita shows that authors who are anxiously protective of their own creativity may be loath to admit to the co-work of fact in their inventiveness and to concede that they must share credit with a world all too prolific in artlessly and spontaneously rousing and gripping tales. Especially so since artists work artfully and designedly to produce tales that might yet be a touch less poignant and a lot less horrifying. Some realities have an arousal tonic that outdoes the imagination.21

Now I am no longer able to dodge the deep question among observational asides. The world is replete with the wonder-invoking experiences we receive through our artifacts, among which images are the most riveting. The image-original relation appears to be a deeply rooted, perhaps even the primary, relation evidenced by humanity’s activities and, probably, by the world’s being. Is there any recourse for illuminating this relation to ourselves?

I think there is, and it comes, as I would expect, from the Platonic Dialogues, and so from a Socrates caught for us in his activity whose very essence is Beginning, when the questions really came before the answers and the conversation truly anticipated the doctrine. 

To me, the Dialogues are indeed devoid of doctrine but replete with intimations and opinings, simply full of substance.22 In particular, I find there the answer to my question concerning the mutual dependence of facts and fiction.

The Platonic texts take seriously, first, the experience of a world that presents itself to us as an appearance, a whole environment that surrounds and hence confronts us and incites us to look back and confront it.

And second, they take seriously the apprehension that whatever appears is somehow both revealed and concealed by its very appearance—that an appearance is, by its literal meaning (ad-parere, “to be visible to”), a cause of visibility, so behind the appearance, which is thus an occluding show. One might say that appearance is a revolving door analogue: by your very entry you exit; by your very taking in an appearance, you are at once brought to what appears and disjoined from it—disjoined because the appearance is it, is what you get.

This understanding of “appearance,” however, brings it close to “image,” which also, by reason of being an image, is of something. This parallelism suggests that the appearing world is an image, a pictorial front that both obstructs and reveals an original in the background, a realm behind and beyond. 

By this description we are entitled, even enjoined, to ask, “Of what?” Of what is Appearance the front?

Plato’s answer, an elaboration of Socrates’s intimation, is: “Of Forms.”23

So now, aided by some old texts, I’ll produce an answer to the question, “How can fictions depend on, require, facts to make them properly fictive—that is, credible, coherent, complete—in short, persuasive?” That answer, boldly stated, is this: the transition from the factual to the fictional mode24 is neither an enhancement nor a realization but a smooth transiting into another—I might even say high-order—mode. The world is itself an image and contains images of itself.25 In particular, animals as a genus propagate genetically; from an evolutionary perspective, such image-spawning is their single assignable purpose.26

But back to the point. If there is something to the notion that the world is itself an image, then my question has an answer. And, as I’ve intimated, I’m drawn to believe that what I perceive has an image character, because of my ever-present sense that when I look at the world with my eyes, I’m invited to see into it with my mind.27 But that act of seeing into, of delving, of depth, is accomplished by means of, through, the senses and the apparitions they deliver, while these, in turn, are most veritably apprehended as images. For images can deliver—to be sure, in reduced dimensionality and curtailed verisimilitude—the nature of the true being beyond. In brief, they can bring all the news that’s fit for mortal apprehension.

So if the sensed, appearing world is image-like or even a fully endowed28 image, if our world is itself an image, then the distance between fact and fiction is not the great one between a primary original and a secondary likeness, but just the smaller one between a global and a local image. Thus the factual back-up of a novel is but, so to speak, an anticipatory iteration of the work’s imagination. Hence, no problem. Image-making artists are specialized practitioners of one of the world’s universal modes, and lovers of their works are participants, reverently playful participants, in the rites of image recognition.29


Renovatio is free to read online, but you can support our work by buying the print edition or making a donation.

Browse and Buy