A Book Lives Longer than a Girl

I grew up with people who believed unquestioningly in the spirits. This was of great benefit to me. Simply to walk through the groves where I lived as a child was to enter a magical realm of taboos, spells and curses.

The island of Moloka’i, known for its sorcerers

On the small island of Moloka’i, a haunted place of cowboys, sorcerers, and fishermen, a neighborhood story teller, Harriet Ne, saw the spirits known as the Night Marchers as recently as fifty years ago: “It is in the season called October and November,” she would say, ‘that they come, walking, walking, and chanting as they walk. That night, the first man was of the chiefs’ class, tall and strong. As we watched, the marchers continued down the hill to the house, and disappeared inside.” I sat at Harriet Ne’s feet as a girl and listened to her stories — all of them fanciful to the point of implausibility with magic and myth; stories that were, literally, incredible. After each of Auntie Harriet’s stories, one more chilling than the next, she would say: “I myself have seen it.” And I believed her, succumbing perhaps not so innocently to what Coleridge called the suspension of disbelief. Years later, myself a storyteller, I used her injunction as title for one of my books.

Tattooed warrior in feather cape and helmet, colored lithograph after Jacques Arago, ca. 1820

Which is not to say that I am as literal, as inspired as Aunt Harriet. Or as truthful. With maturity, or shall I say time, a certain shyness, a certain reticence has overtaken me. It is almost a feeling of shame. The revelation of infantile fears and wishes, even in the form of metaphor, is no longer so compelling to me. My earliest work seems excruciatingly puerile, even vainglorious in its revelation. I have come to accept that when the public reads fiction, the public likes to believe that what it is reading is true. I don’t mean true in the sense that all fiction is true — but the literal truth. The reader wishes —- more than wishes —- requires for his well being that fiction represent the real.

The worse way to read a book is in the expectation, the assumption that the characters are real. The good reader understands that this need for real life, this instinct and craving for veracity is not only impossible to gratify, but is beside the point — the reality of a character or a situation depends solely on the writer’s ability to convincingly create a world of his own, and if he succeeds, no matter how preposterous or strange his world may be, we are convinced of its authenticity. Like other writers, I have had a most difficult time convincing readers that my books are not real. And despite my injunction that I myself have seen it. To quote Nabokov: “The girl Emma Bovary never existed: the book Emma Bovary shall exist forever and ever. A book lives longer than a girl.”

And this despite V. S. Naipaul’s warning that fiction never lies — it is autobiography that lies. I have been trying for the last few months to write a memoir; that is, I have been struggling not to lie, or at the very least, not to exaggerate or ameliorate my haphazard collection of memories. For the moment, however, I have put it aside in defeat, and am reading thrillers instead.

Hawaiian women wearing the long gowns imposed by missionaries, 1899


5 thoughts on “A Book Lives Longer than a Girl

  1. mistakesweremade2016 November 13, 2016 / 12:27 am

    This so poignantly said. Our need to believe fiction – as we invent our own lives. Love your confessions! Please write on ( the memoir).


  2. Toni Withington November 13, 2016 / 1:49 am

    I too swim in that so-called reality that floats between memory and imagination. It seems each year passing wraps a gel-like haze over what believe happened and what we perceived at the time, until looking back through the onionskin of layers convinces us that the fantasy we believed as real back then, becomes more clear than our memory. Then, add to the confusion, there’s the words that we wrote about our experiences at the time, or in closer reflection to the present, and we strive to believe the older rendering to be the answer. As you so beautiful said, it is not. What the readers believe is up to them. Please continue on with your memoir. It is a reflection of where you are now. And we are all ears, er, eyes.


  3. Peter F. Davis November 15, 2016 / 12:23 am

    Aunt Harriet was right, and Susanna Moore is right: We ourselves have seen it. We need those spirits Aunt Harriet saw right now to help us through this very dark time in our history.


  4. Flora Biddle December 11, 2016 / 6:28 pm

    This is so moving dear Susanna– it brought tears, somehow.
    Missing my dog, I wonder again and again, what IS real.
    You write so deeply. . .


    • Peter Davis December 11, 2016 / 10:44 pm

      Dear Susanna,

      Hope this reaches you because it’s a different address than the one I had. Anyway, certainly a good book outlives all of us, and you’ve written some glorious ones. Someone told me this morning that John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles’ grandfather John Foster overthrew the last royal family of Hawaii and installed an American protectorate. True? I don’t recall if this is in your wonderful book. Where are you now? — NY or the big island?

      Merry Christmas!




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