Putting real people into memoirs and novels

Germaine Greer to Primo Levi, discussing his book The Periodic Table on his experiences in the concentration camps.

. . .  Would Sandro recognize himself from the account you give of him in The Periodic Table? [Sandro Delmastro is the hero of a section of The Periodic Table. He was the first of the Piedmontese Resistance group to be killed in 1944.]

Primo Levi: No, he wouldn’t recognize himself. He’d have protested. As his nephews in fact did protest. They attacked me violently, for stupid reasons: because I wrote that his father was a capomastro and in fact he was an industrial surveyor. It’s always dangerous, transforming a person into a character. No matter how good the author’s intentions, no matter how much he tries not to distort anything, or tries to improve the character of the person, to make it more noble or more beautiful, the person is always disappointed. Because everyone has an image of himself which is different from the image that other people have of them. It’s as if I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a different face from the usual one. A human being is a ‘unique’, complicated object. When that object is reduced to a page, even by the best writers, it’s reduced to a skeleton. It took Flaubert five hundred pages to describe Emma Bovary. I think if Sandro had lived, and I’d made him read the portrait of himself, he would have burst out laughing. He would have thought it comical that he’d turned into a written page. He was a young man who so loathed all forms of rhetoric that he’d have been afraid to find himself described as a hero, a saint, a warrior. He’d have laughed and said something in dialect, ‘Balls!’ probably.

Now that I’m retired I go to a swimming pool and nearly every Tuesday I meet Sandro’s brother there. We greet each other, talk about the weather but he has always refused to talk to me about Sandro.

Germaine Greer: It is dreadful, isn’t it? A writer’s like a parasite whose excrement lasts longer than the thing it fed on.

Primo Levi: That’s true. But the writer’s not only a parasite, he’s also a creator. In the best cases, the book lasts longer than the man who wrote it and transmits a reality which isn’t the true one.

Germaine Greer: And no matter what he confesses to, the narrator is always invulnerable.

Primo Levi: Because he is in control. The author is omnipotent and can create the reality he wants.

(from here) 

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