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Betty Smartt Carter

Bonhoeffer: Factual Fictions

I confess, I often cast my own life in dramatic prose. Having read Swann's Way and To the Lighthouse, I know the trick of elevating an ordinary moment by sticking it into narrative:

"Long enough," I said, watching the last irises wilt against the garden wall outside my window. "I've put this review off long enough." The hum of my computer sounded like a long sigh as I tried to remember the name of that book by Virginia Woolf.

Fascinating stuff, I think, but would anyone else think so? Probably not. What writer would care to build a novel around any of us, translating our experience into prose and probing imaginatively into our hearts? Few characters in history have inspired novelists to take up their literary crosses. Most of those who have (Claudius Caesar, Saint Luke, Michelangelo) are so long gone that it's pointless to argue too much about the accuracy of their literary portraits. Their very obscurity makes them perfect fodder for fiction: characters famous enough to attract readers but so remote that nobody much cares what a writer makes up about them. You won't hear any shocked friends of Alexander the Great complaining to Mary Stewart, "I knew him well and I can say for certain that he was not a bisexual!"

Apart from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I'm hard-pressed to think of any great novel (great novel) with a real-life hero who's been dead fewer than a hundred years. Biographies abound, but biographies have rules of their own. We don't demand dramatic movement from them, nor artful prose, only readable information. Biographers are slaves to hard facts but free to be—well, frequently dull. When a biographer writes well, we are surprised and grateful. Novelists, on the other hand, must always sing for their supper; they must entertain as well as enlighten, and their task becomes all the more difficult if they have to limit themselves to historical facts.

That's why it is both moving and fascinating to see two recent novels based on the life of Dietrich ...

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