He said, she said: it’s all a matter of perspective

I’ve just finished watching season 2 of The Affair, a smart drama about the impact of an adulterous relationship between a teacher with a promising writing career and a waitress unravelling with grief following the death of her son.

It’s solidly scripted and brilliantly acted, with plenty of good set pieces, but the most interesting and unique thing about the show is that events are told and re-told from the point of view of four lead characters.

We get access to their inner lives, and as viewers we pinball between their different versions of events and are left to make our own judgement on whose perspective rings truest.

It put me in mind of two of my favourite 20th century American novels, both lightly fictionalised versions of true events written by swaggering male writers.

Both are now part of the literary canon and both were subject to re-tellings: one a factual account of events from a real wife who appeared as a prominent character in the novel; the other a fictionalised narrative version of a wife’s experiences, giving voice to an otherwise mute but real life character.

In both cases it took decades to redress the balance. And in both cases the follow up book from a woman’s perspective is an antidote to the original books at their worst while at best shedding light on the real life circumstances of their creation.

On the road Off the road

First, there’s On the Road by Jack Kerouac, the book that became the bible of the ‘Beat Generation’. It’s packed with high-energy road trips and hitch hiking adventures, back and forth across America and down into Mexico, laced with beer, grass, jazz, sex and poetry, and written in a breathless spontaneous prose style.

And nearly 40 years later came its counterpoint: Off the Road by Carolyn Cassady. Carolyn was Camille in Kerouac’s novel, her husband was his muse Neal Cassady, or Dean Moriarty. And for several years, Kerouac was her lover too, with Cassady’s blessing. Continue reading