Day 21: Stories too good to fact-check

Julian Barnes, writing about George Orwell in The New York Review of Books, 03.12.2009:

Eric Blair’s passport photo, complete with unfortunate mustache.

Eric Blair’s passport photo, complete with unfortunate mustache.

One small moment of literary history at which many Orwellians would like to have been present was an encounter in Bertorelli’s restaurant in London between Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick and Orwell’s widow, Sonia. Crick dared to doubt the utter truthfulness of one of Orwell’s most celebrated pieces of reportage, “Shooting an Ele-phant.” Sonia, “to the delight of other clients,” according to Crick, “screamed” at him across the table, “Of course he shot a fucking elephant. He said he did. Why do you always doubt his fucking word!” The widow, you feel, was screaming for England. Because what England wants to believe about Orwell is that, having seen through the dogma and false words of political ideologies, he refuted the notion that facts are relative, flexible, or purpose-serving; further, he taught us that even if 100 percent truth is unobtainable, then 67 percent is and always will be better than 66 percent, and that even such a small percentage point is a morally nonnegotiable unit.

At least two of Orwell's biographers, including the aforementioned Mr. Crick, believe he did not. Shoot the elephant, that is. To me, a more interesting question now is, Does it matter? Orwell never purported to be documenting elephantcide in the colonies for the historical record. If he was claiming the authority of the honest, diligent journalist all the while inventing some or all of the story, that dishonesty does him dishonor.

But at this point and in this case, I think nothing matters but the quality of the prose, which is high indeed. I do not defend anyone who tries to pass off invention as reportage, especially when accuracy and fidelity to actual events is essential to the moment and situation. But whether or not Eric Blair pulled that trigger is now a mere academic argument.

It's odd, perhaps, but I"m less concerned with the veracity of Orwell's account than I am with the story of the Crick-Sonia confrontation. I very much want for that to have happened.