Thursday, February 2, 2012

Unwilling Suspension of Disbelief

One of the things I think about as a writer of fiction is how to convince (or persuade) a reader that the story she is reading is—or could be—true. Of course, most readers of a book labeled "novel" realize that neither the characters nor the situation are "real." They are the author's creation. Still, if the author is skillful enough, we are willing to accept that this could have happened; these people might have lived and talked and acted the way the author presents them.

This is true even when the characters inhabit a world we know does not exist: Narnia, the Mars of Martian Chronicles, a post-apocalyptic America. We are willing to accept the impossible (time travel, faster-than-light drive, magic) for the pleasure of the story, the characters, the writing, the conceit, or all four.

I've just seen Woody Allen's latest film, "Midnight in Paris." It hinges on the possibility of time travel. A hack Hollywood writer is in Paris with his fiance and her parents. One evening, alone and tipsy, he is invited at midnight into an ancient Peugeot and finds himself in the 1920s hobnobbing with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and more. Indeed, with virtually ever famous artist and writer who was working in Paris in the 20s. It happens more than once when he is entirely sober, so the experience is not the result of alcohol. This I can accept.

At one point, apparently browsing the Seine-side used book kiosks, the writer finds a diary of the 1920s written in French by a woman he has actually met; she mentions him by name in her diary. The American writer, who speaks no French, finds a young, good-looking French woman to translate the significant passage aloud. This I cannot accept. It raises too many questions for me. He doesn't have any French; how does he find the book? How does he convince a stranger to read it to him?

I am not sure why I am willing to accept that an American Hollywood screenwriter of 2011 can be transported back to Paris of the 1920s, but I cannot accept that the American can find a specific French book when he speaks no French. Does anyone else have this problem with books or movies? Does anyone have a theory why this should be so? Comments are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Wally,

    Having seen the delightful "Midnight in Paris" many any months ago, now, I'm hazy about the details of which you speak, though I do recall the bit about his finding the memoir/diary in the left bank book stall. My own experience of traveling in France and Italy, with my feeble grasp of the romance languages, but an open heart, is that one can get along more or less, usually finding natives who speak perfect English, and so nothing about that scene struck me as unbelieavable. The Owen Wilson character is a writer, after all, and I find it at least credible that he might recognize his own name in a French text, and perhaps a few surronding words. The fact that he finds himself referred to in a memoir written in the 1920s, however, is a bit more challenging, yet, serves as just one more of Woody Allen's inumerable expressions in that film of the Modernist literary [and artistic] ethos, which plays with time, consciousness, history and impressions. That mode is found among all the great Modernists [Joyce, Woolf, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Eliot, etc.]. And that is really what I took the film to be about, both literally and metaphorically--that, and the insight Allen offers of artists and lovers [all people really] longing for the past and dreaming of the future, as they trudge through their troubled present. That scene of stepping back from the 1920s to the Belle Epoque was priceless about the common human dissatisfactions of "present time." The Owen Wilson character is changed forever by his sojourn in Paris, and so, his impressions afterward must be viewed through that prism of artistic change, the Modernist outlook of a flowing and boundaryless grasp of time and self.

    "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter---tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....And one fine morning---
    So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." --The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzerald


    "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast....
    There is never any ending to Paris, and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other."
    --A Moveable Feast, By Ernest Hemingway