It was on a cold night one year ago that copy editor Bernice Eisenstein sat at my dining-room table and revealed to me the problem she had not wanted to discuss over the phone: She had found repeated factual inaccuracies in my manuscript.
Eisenstein was copy editing my first novel, Mme. Proust and the Kosher Kitchen, which includes sections of a diary purportedly written by Jeanne Proust, mother of the French novelist Marcel Proust. It was while checking this diary, eliminating misspellings, inserting commas and ruling on the use of italics that the meticulous Eisenstein had started to find some things that didn't add up. Debussy unveiled his opera Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902, but Madame Proust attends a performance in 1901; the English art critic John Ruskin died in January, 1900, but Marcel Proust is writing an appreciation of his life for the Figaro newspaper three months earlier.
I wasn't the least surprised that Eisenstein had found these mistakes. After all, I had put them there. I had written that diary and, in turning the story of Marcel's relationship with his doting mother into fiction and then combining it with two later 20th-century stories, I often had to compress chronology for the sake of drama. Doesn't Hollywood do this all the time?
What surprised me was that Eisenstein thought this was a problem. This is a work of fiction, not a biography of Proust, I argued; surely, it can be permitted minor departures from historical fact.
Eisenstein was not convinced. The contemporary narrator of the novel is Marie Prévost, a bilingual Montrealer and Proust aficionado who seeks refuge from a failed love affair in the manuscript room of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, finds these diaries and begins translating them from French to English. Marie is something of a Proust expert, Eisenstein argued; she would know these facts were wrong. She wouldn't let them slip by unnoticed.
It was a mind-bending argument and it took me some moments to figure out why I disagreed. Marie is a fictional character, I eventually replied. In her world, these things are not wrong.
Eisenstein and I never did reach a consensus on this -- we finally resolved it by agreeing I would expand my author's note about my methodology at the end of the book -- but I was very glad to have the debate. As a journalist-turned-novelist, I had worried about my duty toward history as I wrote and she was the first person I had encountered who shared my anxiety. I had often asked my editor, Martha Kanya-Forstner at Doubleday, whether it was permissible to bury famous bodies in Paris's Père Lachaise cemetery if they actually lay elsewhere or whether it mattered what excavation technique was used to build the Toronto subway system, and her reassuring reply had always been the same. What matters is that you create a believable fiction for your reader -- if something is so obviously false it jolts them out of that world, you need to adjust it; otherwise, don't worry. I had come to operate on that principle, and figured you could probably move the date of Ruskin's death but not that of Queen Victoria's.
I was to discover, however, that what sails by one reader may well jolt another. Writing a section in which Sarah Simon, the Jewish refugee whose story forms the third strand of the novel, faints on the opening day of the Toronto subway in 1954, I found that a romantic image of workmen tunnelling under Yonge Street had sprung onto the page. Doing some research, however, I discovered that the Toronto system was not tunnelled but built using a cheaper but less disruptive technique, in which a trench is excavated and a temporary roof of planking then laid overtop. I asked Kanya-Forstner if I needed to rewrite that description but, like me, she wasn't yet born when they dug the Yonge Street subway, and she argued that, while historical accuracy is important, fashioning the characters' fictional lives must take precedence.
Then I spoke to my father, who was in his 20s when they opened the subway, and explained I had written a description of the tunnelling and was wondering if . . . I wasn't able to complete my question before he corrected me: The Yonge Street subway was built using the cut-and-cover technique. Clearly, if my novel were to succeed with any Canadian reader over 60, that passage had to be changed.
This example may seem picayune, but underneath lies a bigger issue about who has the right to tinker with history, even within the context of fiction. It was an issue to which I was particularly sensitive in writing this novel, not only because I was inserting real historical figures into a fictional framework, but also because I was creating fictional characters who lived in the shadow of the Holocaust, an event whose depiction in art is an ethical minefield.
Mme. Proust and the Kosher Kitchen is not only a novel about Jeanne Proust and her difficult son Marcel, but also about Sarah, a Jew who escapes wartime Paris as a child and settles uneasily in Toronto. From the very start, I had decided that, unlike Madame Proust's diary and the interruptions of it by my translator and narrator Marie, Sarah's story would be told in the third person. I would not, as a Gentile author, attempt to adopt directly the voice of this Jewish character. Also, in a novel dealing with the theme of memory through the 20th century, I never directly depict the Holocaust, but rather recount how it exists as a memory both for Sarah, who has lost her parents to Auschwitz, and for Marie, a contemporary Catholic.
But I knew it would be the details that would convince readers of the novel's artistic legitimacy. I had depicted Sarah's life in Jewish Toronto of the 1940s and 1950s and I had created her segregated kitchen, where she would attempt to reconcile the various strands of her heritage by cooking a kosher version of French cuisine -- and so lend the novel its title. Would these scenes be believable to Jewish readers?
While I was busy researching subway construction, I also gave two generous Jewish volunteers sections of the manuscript and asked them for their reactions and any mistakes they spotted. I wondered if these family connections would feel free to comment honestly on what they read, but I need not have worried. Suggestions poured forth from Louis Levine and Rena Isenberg. Monkfish isn't kosher. Bread dough left overnight on a heating grate would rise so much it would explode. The term "wedding vows" sounds Christian. Jewish culture is child-centred and physically affectionate: Sarah would get a hug, not a pat on the head. Oh, and by the way, the Toronto subway wasn't tunnelled. . . .
I sorted through their suggestions and applied my new knowledge to the final draft of the manuscript, excising monkfish and rewriting wedding ceremonies. Would my novel now pass muster?
To find out, I thought I would have to wait with trepidation until this month's publication, but last winter I got an answer of sorts from Eisenstein herself. Her doubts about the liberties I had taken in Madame Proust's diary had never particularly alarmed me because, just as I had polled two Jewish readers, I had done similar testing with Madame Proust's diary soon after I started writing the novel in 1995 to see if this diary of a turn-of-the-century Frenchwoman were believable.
In my initial meetings with Doubleday, editors had even asked for assurance that I had in fact written the diary myself, so I concluded it was sufficiently convincing. What I really wondered was what Eisenstein thought of the Jewish material in the novel -- especially since she had told me that she herself was the child of Holocaust survivors. As she did her copy editing, her answer was elliptical but reassuring. She said nothing at all about Sarah's story, she simply called me on the phone one evening and told me a story about her own parents and the camps.
I won't repeat it here, for it doesn't belong to me.