Everything I Tell You is the Truth - Except the Lies
I don't know why - I have never known why - but I'm impelled to lock things into place with words. Words are my safety deposit boxes, my guarantees against the loss of what I know. Words are the only currency I have, and without them, I might as well fill my mind with stones and swim out to sea. I am a writer, and a writer writes... Words.
Ah, yes - but which? And to what end? There is a difference between reality and our perception of it. Something vital is always lost in the translation.
Let me give you an example.
There was a famous figure whose fame, around the time I was six, became rather alarmingly personal to me. This was the woman who came and cleaned our house every Tuesday and Friday. I have never known a woman so dour and endlessly unhappy. She never smiled and was given to heaving sighs halfway up the stairs. This woman, whose name was Mrs. Simpson, was tall and thin and wore her hair very tightly bound inside a woven net. Her skin tone was grey.
One day in December of 1936, the lady in question was standing on the landing, leaning on her mop and heaving one of her sighs, when the newspaper arrived. My mother unfolded it, as she did on any other day - and suddenly cried out: "My God! The King is going to marry Mrs. Simpson!" To me, of course, there was only one Mrs. Simpson and she was standing halfway up our stairs.
But why hadn't she told us the King was going to marry her? Still, we all know he did - and very soon afterward she stopped coming over to clean our house.
Needless to say, something vital was certainly lost in that translation of reality. This is where the writer steps in - to track that vital something down and give it articulation. Forty - five years later, I wrote a novel called Famous Last Words, in which Wallis Warfield Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, was a major character.
Am I telling you the incipient writer was already there at work, that December morning in 1936? I like to think he was. Certainly, the thin grey figure standing in the shadows on the landing was redolent with fictional possibilities - and I can only presume he recognized them. After all, what is a writer's imagination worth, if it cannot deliver such a figure to be married to a king?
The truth about Helen and Paris, for instance, is told in every discarded condom in the gutters of every city. Homer was able to elevate this truth to mythic heights. A myth is not a lie, as such, but only the truth in size 12 shoes. Its gestures are wider - its voice projected farther - its face bolder than reality would dare contrive. When Paris discarded his condom, its contents drowned the citizens of Troy.
Is this not so?
The Mrs. Simpson - the one who became the Duchess of Windsor - was a figure whose place in history became guaranteed when she altered its course that December morning in 1936. She took on Homeric stature - on a par, almost, with Helen of Troy. Dozens of books have been published about her, one of them as recently as last year.
Like it or not, Wallis Warfield Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, has permanent residence in the mythology of modem times. Nothing can dislodge her.
Clearly, she is also a candidate for fiction - since only fiction can accommodate the unknown aspects of her character. Historians dare not set out, word for word, what was in her mind at any given moment. They can offer theories, of course - they can offer conjecture. But they cannot claim this, that or the other was absolutely so. Not in her mind, not when she was cloistered with the King, and certainly not when she was cloistered with only her self and its image in the mirror. That self is denied historians and biographers. But it is not denied to the makers of fiction. That self is ours alone.
Yes, we can malign her. Yes, we can do her damage. Yes, we can get her wrong - but we cannot destroy her. …