I’m reading Zadie Smith’s NW at the moment and a single sentence leaps out from the Willesden grime:
If only the man were like Brigitte Bardot, who never had children, preferring animals.
The thing is, Brigitte Bardot did actually have a child, a boy named Nicholas-Jacques, by her second husband Jacques Charrier. She may well prefer animals – she said as much in her autobiography – but the child does exist.
Now of course NW is a work of fiction and the author is entirely within her rights to create a parallel world in which Nicholas-Jacques was never born. And even if she hasn’t exercised that right, she’s allowed to create characters who believe things to be true even if they’re not. Her character Leah never claims to be an expert on the family life of any particular French sex symbol, so this isn’t as much of a cock-up as the music fan in Kazuo Ishiguro’s story ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ who refers to the composer Howard – rather than Harold – Arlen; or the suggestion in Julian Barnes’s Arthur & George that the Stonyhurst-educated Conan Doyle might not know the difference between the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception.
But because of the quasi-Joycean narrative technique that Smith employs, blurring the distinction between an omniscient narrator and the inner thoughts of the characters, it’s not clear if this is what Leah thinks, or what the author/narrator thinks about the situation that Leah is in. And if we give her the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter, is the reader expected to know that Leah is wrong? And since I’m only a few chapters in, am I going to discover that whole Bardot’s child thing is going to be explained and resolved by the end, leaving me looking utterly stupid? I’ll let you know.