14 December 2012

Real-life stories need fictional plausibility too

Realism in movies or books is a confusing term. One wonders if it means to portray life as it is - in its bare, unpolished form?  Often you see a film that completely defies logic but is sold to you as a 'real life story'.  One is confused as an audience what to make of this. 

Some of Maugham's literary ideas here come to our aid. The author saw no reason why implausibility in story should be condoned even if it was taken from real life.   Maugham in his book of essays 'The Vagrant Mood' commented about many crime thrillers that were directly lifted from real life stories. But some of these cases were rather far-fetched and hence  offered no reading satisfaction. "That something has occurred in real life does not make it a fitting subject for fiction. Life is full of improbabilities which fiction does not admit of." 
Life may be stranger than fiction, but even the world's greatest fantasies need a grain of truth in them to succeed.

In 'Ten Novels...' also he had similar views about Stendhal's novel - 'Le Rouge et le Noir'.
He found the book to be extraordinary overall, but felt disappointed with the climax. Stendhal had written the novel inspired by a news report.  Maugham was wonderfully impressed with the author's acuity and psychological insight into his lead character. But the climax he felt was a terrible let down.  He remarked that he couldn't think of a worse ending. This happened apparently because Stendhal chose to give the same ending that happened in the actual case, from which he was inspired. This required Stendhal to make his central character behave in a way that was foolish and out of character.  It was a grave flaw in an otherwise great book, says Maugham.

What could have prompted Stendhal to dilute such an enthralling character?
Maugham felt that  "the facts from which Stendhal was inspired exercised a hypnotic power over him from which he was unable to break loose".  He felt himself under compulsion to pursue the story, against all credibility, to its wretched end.  This, Maugham felt is a wrong approach for fiction.

"By God, fate, chance, whichever you like to call, the mystery that governs men's lives, is a poor story-teller, and it is the business , and the right, of the novelist to correct the improbabilities of brute fact."

Clearly, Maugham here implies that art, to qualify as one, must be able to rise above its bare facts and say something universal about human nature and life. The individual's life story, however exceptional, would have to be plausible enough for the reader or audience to picture themselves in the character's position and feel his/her emotion. When the character acts too unreasonably, the audience detaches itself and the sympathy is over. Art is not life itself. It cherry picks from life what it thinks is beautiful and arresting. Art's ultimate goal is to engage and entertain.

Facts and real-life are an artist's raw material, not art itself is Maugham's point. There is a wonderful piece, 'The Rolling Stone' in 'On a Chinese Screen' by Maugham where during his travels, he was told of a man who had a remarkable career. He had been to different lands, lived with the most unlikeliest of people, and on the whole boasted of extraordinary experience. When Maugham saw him, he was a little surprised because the man's face was so blank and indistinctive. The man indeed had travelled to all the places and partaken in all the experiences he was credited with.  As a job,  he was offered the chance to write about his journeys in an English language paper in China. The man's difficulty was now to choose from the fullness of his experience. He wrote many articles, and though they were not unreadable, Maugham felt they were merely observations. "But he had seen everything haphazard, as it were, and they were but the material of art. They were like the catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores," he said.

"They were a mine to the imaginative man, but the foundation of literature than literature itself. He was the field naturalist who patiently collects an infinity of facts, but has no gift for generalisation: they remain facts that await the synthesis of minds more complicated than his...his collection was unrivalled, but his knowledge of it slender."

Maugham in this piece also points out how in writing, the important thing is less richness of material than richness of personality.  

Maugham himself was inspired by stories of real people. He did not adapt what was humdrum and routine -which he admitted was how most people live. When he heard a story, he obviously looked for some singularity of characters or circumstances. Something that stoked his interest. Naturally then, most of his short stories  are very dramatic, with shocking outcomes. But there is a structure and plot. And the characters are all believable. So even if Maugham was inspired by real-life, he only took what was useful to him in telling his story and conveying the inevitable truth in it.

This weaknesses of getting carried away with one's real-life impression was something Maugham too suffered in two of his novels in my opinion. This did weaken the respective plots of the novels, both considered his best works, Cakes  & Ale and The Razor's Edge. That both are extraordinary in their own ways is nothing to debate.  However, both have a central character (Rosie in 'Cakes And Ale', and Larry in 'The Razor's Edge) who is shadowy and vague.  Maugham is terribly fond of these two people, whom he knew as acquaintances in real life.  His characters are normally treated with sharp irony but Maugham in these cases was somewhat reluctant to fictionalise these characters and pointedly analyse their motivations.  Especially Larry in 'The Razor's Edge' gets extreme leeway, and there are long, meandering passages of his monologues. At one time it gets confusing and you wonder if it is Maugham or Larry speaking. The novels gets painfully tangential in these parts. As a reader you struggle to get a grasp of Larry's mind. He is too detached and confused a figure to ever completely draw in the reader's sympathies. Larry and Philip in Of Human Bondage are comparable. The latter is Maugham alter-ego.  There, Philip's struggle and wretchedness is wonderfully conveyed, mainly because it was written in first person. They were Maugham's own emotions.  The author was essentially describing his own life, and though in 'Of Human Bondage' too there are episodes (the Mildred one) which astound you, and there are parts which stretch one's logic somewhat, Philip's character on the whole is plausible. Larry was someone Maugham related with, but he was still another person, and Maugham did struggle to translate his personality on to the pages, especially since he was predisposed to only believing the best of him.
But on the whole, Maugham always did a stellar job of adapting from life and presenting his stories convincingly.  Few authors lay as much emphasis on creating credible stories and characters as much as him.  

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