Friday, February 1, 2013

Literature: A Guide to Life

Few would today identify with the nineteenth century parlor maid who devoured novels to get a glimpse of the secret behaviors of the men and women who lived upstairs. But no one would deny the way novels let us look into other lives, experience other choices and other challenges. Fiction is as good as eavesdropping, as being privy to others' secrets.

I was thinking about this at the end of my vacation, three weeks in India in January, when the hotel manager mentioned that another writer who had often visited had had a reversal of fortune, as it were. The man in question was a travel writer who had given up his very lucrative business, handing it over to a relative, and eloped with his dream. He had always wanted to be a writer and now that he had money in the bank, he was going to live his dream. He moved to Asia, traveled around, and wrote about what he saw and experienced. 

As far as I can tell from limited Internet research, he published a dozen travel books, all with the same publisher, and lived the life he wanted. He traveled in Asia and wrote about many parts of it, often staying in the same hotel in India as I stayed in. And then his world fell apart. The meltdown of 2008 took his considerable savings. His books failed to sell, he lost his publisher, and he moved to--Paris? The story is he is now poor in Paris. (There are worse places to be poor, I'm sure.)

This story reminds me of one Somerset Maugham wrote (I have searched fruitlessly for the title, so if you know it, please let me know) that remains vividly with me. It concerns a young British insurance agent who vacations on the Riviera annually. He loves the area and promises himself he'll retire there when the time comes. But something changes him, and he decides not to wait. Before he is old enough, he cashes in his various savings and pensions and moves to France. There he lives the life he wanted, a life of ease on the Riviera, enjoying the people, the weather, the social life. 

But this wouldn't be a Maugham story if it ended there. Eventually, the money runs out when he is entering old age. The caretaker of the house he rented takes pity on him and gives him the use of a shed on his own small property. There the man lives out his years in abject poverty, at the mercy of the locals who provide a beggarly meal now and then. It is a pathetic story with a mean ending, something Maugham did quite well. I read it years ago and the story stayed with me almost as a cautionary tale. I remembered it when I heard about the American who gave up his business to live and write in Asia.

There's no moral to any of this, no special insight, no lesson to be learned unless you'd like to find one, which is up to you. For me, it's just one more example of the intimacy between fiction and real life. I love these stories of lives that match up with fiction, of men or women who seem to be stepping out of a novel or story. Perhaps I just like the idea of finding evidence that fiction is as real as nonfiction, and sometimes more so.

Labels: Somerset Maugham, India, Paris, short story, fiction, writing


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

This is a truly interesting post. I always like to combine fact and fiction in my own writing. Your stories instantly make me think of my daughter-in-law's sister and brother-in-law. They have both given up high paying jobs so that they can spend a year traveling abroad. They are not going the luxury route however, but are backpacking in the most exotic places. They write a blog which I follow with great interest. People will follow their dreams no matter the cost. Perhaps that is as it should be. I say this as I sit in the comfort of my apartment barely traveling at all.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I am fascinated by the way people strike out on their own, to follow their dreams, and what happens after that. We usually hear about the ones who took the plunge and made it big (e.g., Mavis Gallent, whose memoir came out this fall), but we don't hear about the ones who take the plunge--and drown.