When I first became a journalist, not much of what I did was really journalism. To begin with, I made up a lot. I started small - with a harmless quote perhaps or an insignificant detail - but gradually went over to bigger things. While always careful to remain within bounds, I would create scenes, characters and swathes of dialogue and, on one or two occasions, entire stories. None of them was really consequential, or traceable, or - God forbid - incriminating. At the time, I did not know about that Herostratus of journalism, Stephen Glass. In the 1990s, Glass was a star reporter at American current affairs magazine The New Republic, a spectacularly successful young writer who, it seemed, never ran out of bizarre and amazing stories, until, one day, most of these stories turned out to be completely false. I doubt that it would have discouraged me had I known Glass' story then. After all, he was a one-off: his fabrications were on a truly grand scale and he was methodical about it, too: as a cover-up, he used to fill his notebooks with fake interview notes as well as make fake business cards and websites. Me, I just couldn’t be bothered to hide my fibs - on the contrary, they were a source of mild pride to me and something of an in-joke in the newsroom: So what did he come up with this time?
In case you are wondering, I’m not making this up. Well, maybe just a little bit. But I guess the correct word would be dressing up. Indeed, we all tend to dress up our lives, to embellish, don’t we? Some people, like the proverbial boy who couldn’t help crying wolf, they just can’t do it right. For my part, I try to be truthful - or, if that sounds too much like a paradox, true to life. What you do is you take some basic fact and spin a story around it. Not too much, mind, just a little bit: a detail here, a detail there, and perhaps a not-quite-faithful quote in between. My childhood was full of such stories, with my father being their primary source and producer. When I was growing up, he would lay them out in front me, one by one: bits of family history, events in his and mother’s life, details of my grandfather’s murky background as a spy in post-war Berlin and Vienna, all covered with that barely perceptible layer of fiction, a quality that somehow made them truer than ever. That was, I guess, my first education in the sort of imagining and fictionalising that has come, in time, to define my own life. And then there were the books: I think I was clear from the start that the category of them which is called fiction and which I was preoccupied the most with as a child was exactly that, fiction - or, to use another word, lies. But unlike other people who preferred to keep fiction safely in books, I was eager to take it out into real life. What use was there in holding imagination under lock and key? The creative use of lying had many upsides: it could elicit respect or fear or indeed open doors. When I was at school, I exploited my surname to gain free entry to the nearby museum of cosmonautics and aviation by claiming the father of the Soviet space programme, Sergei Korolyov, as my much-revered ancestor. This isn’t true but it is true enough, or it could be true. After all, you can’t really question fiction, can you? Writers don’t normally intend fiction to be truthful, and readers certainly don’t read it for a spot of factual information. There are encyclopaedias and text books for that. Rather, they expect to receive some kind of moral message, or perhaps they like the author’s style or attitude. Some people, not least the writers themselves, get a kick out of that peculiar writerly hauteur. A writer friend once told me that while all people have life knowledge and experience, writers by default have better ones.
I think that’s exactly what drew me to fiction in the first place: that unspoken glamour and power (and yes, arrogance) that it afforded you. But it also made for much confusion in my family’s everyday life. Sometimes, there was just no telling what was, strictly speaking, the truth. Each member had a different account of this or that event, and a third party usually had to be summoned to set the record straight. When it came to mischief, my sister and I had clashing explanations to offer our parents, which left them with little opportunity for anything like effective parenting, especially because their versions of our transgressions were at odds not only with ours but within themselves. So much for the celebrated didactic role of fiction, I say. At this moment in time, I can’t really say for sure whether any of the stories I now tell about my childhood, adolescence and indeed later life are in any way true to fact, or even took place. But I consider this to be more of a strength than a weakness. I am free to reinvent these stories at will, over and over again, adding fresh detail, new characters, perhaps even tagging on a different message. The only problem with this is that while other people’s memories may be more or less fixed, mine and those of my family are always subject to change, and so are the accompanying emotions. That’s one of the reasons that we rarely ever speak affectionately to each other: despite the closest possible ties and years beside each other, we still know little about what goes on in the others’ heads and hearts.
My surroundings and all aspects of life in childhood and adolescence were all a bit fictitious, not to say poetic, touched up by my imagination and populated by slightly modified versions of the familiar friends and family. This touching up was not a retrospective process; rather, it happened on the spot, like a pair of some sort of magical glasses that coloured everything in and threw up facts and information as I went along. Also, everything seemed larger - probably because I myself was smaller: our country house and its multiple recesses, the football pitch in the forest, the adventures, the books, the loves. Over time, however, poetry gave way to prose, and things started coming into focus: with something like a panic, I realised how tiny the house really was, and that the football pitch could only be called that at a stretch. As for the books and loves, they stayed the same size, I guess, only I went through and about them quicker. What started off as fiction was rapidly turning into non-fiction. Interestingly, I only recently started reading non-fiction, but mostly memoirs, which, I feel, are only non-fiction by name.
And then, as I said, I became a journalist. For a while, that fictionalising streak of mine took hold again but it never really stuck: partly because of the limitations of the profession (you can’t go on made-up stuff all the time), partly because of the limitations of imagination (you can’t go on making up stuff all the time). Besides, in journalism, fictionalising may come dangerously close to propagandising - you have to watch it at all times. But then again fact is never too far away from fiction, this I have learned well, and sometimes you need fiction to give power to fact. Speaking of which, journalism also holds power, although a different kind of power to that of literature. But journalism and literature are the same in that both make you sit up and listen - or read, for that matter. As opposed to the writer, though, whose claim on some special knowledge of ultimate truth is often a bit dubious, the journalist does have real authority, or at least they should. My job also elicits respect (but hopefully never fear), and opens doors, and I don’t have to tell lies for it. It’s just that once I’m past that door and safely inside, I may tell a few.