Roy Clark says there are two rules of non-fiction.
‘Do not add. Do not deceive.’
‘Never put something into your story that hasn’t checked out.’
I struggle with this
of extravagant fear
Like the attack on Jacques M,
by his neighbour Joseph A,
who thought him a witch
Let’s begin with just the facts then,
as spelled out by an
drawn up on 11thSeptember 1886
by the Advocate General of the Assize Court of Dijon.
we will not change the order of this story.)
Jacques: works at the pottery factory in Pouilloux, 29.
Joseph: a wheelwright at the same pottery factory, 66, married.
The men were neighbours.
The scene unfolds on 28thApril 1886.
But even Roy Clark says
there are ‘many interesting exceptions,
that… test’ the
Facts that are,
The indictment says
the scene unfolds on 28thApril,
around midday, perhaps.
and how can
be a fact?
The indictment continues
(to use another fuzzy probability).
if this detail is important,
its importance is hardly factual.
Does it matter
it surely matters
that it was after
lunch. Did they drink wine with lunch? Did Joseph have an
argument with his wife? Did she tell him she was
sick of this filth,
it was time to do
I am adrift
in speculation, but
that has always been necessary
Where an anthropologist
can go back to eyewitnesses
most historians cannot.
in the field of ‘historical possibilities’,
or ‘creative assumptions’.
But what everyone
can agree is that on
Jacques met Joseph
on the road
between his house and the factory.
about 100m from Jacques’ house.
Give or take.
It seems they were on their way back to work.
must be considered merely probable,
because only one of the men will ever make it to work that day)
And yet again
the importance of this likely detail
is hardly in the fact itself.
a striking time to commit a crime:
so ordinary and so routine,
has timed his
plotted his crime.
this is what the prosecutor will want to suggest.
But I’m the one who can’t be trusted?
the inclusion of this ‘fact’
is less about accuracy
What if the story actually has precedence over the true details that will be
and then Joseph
two shots were fired.
make some interpretation
of the attacker’s state of mind,
that cannot possibly
not just because he will
– most likely –
or at least forget. No,
there is no way to know his mind even if
– in a moment of contrition –
the most important aspect of this scene,
the most basic thing that any novelist would be able, obliged even, to write,
the murderer’s state of mind
eludes the historian.
Perhaps he fired twice
his hand was unsteady.
Perhaps he did not really want
to kill his victim.
A confrontation, not an
execution. Perhaps it was meant to be a warning, not a punishment.
There is little from the indictment to suggest this.
It does not, in Clark’s terms,
faced with absences often think laterally
(which is why I am over here, I guess)
If I don’t really know what Joseph
was doing or
I can look for
who fired a gun at a man named Julien F
in a village in the Alps
twelve years before.
for similar reasons to Joseph A.
– the intended victim –
was quick enough
to push the barrel of the gun away.
about his motives, Joseph declared
he had not intended to kill Julien,
for the wrong that he felt Julien had done to him.
This is a ritual,
a staging of violence,
not an attempt to physically harm.
Perhaps something like the many times
victims of witchcraft
tried to frighten suspected witches
these people mean to kill witches?
Their actions suggest not.
command the witch
to lift the spell. They threaten, cajole, even bribe. They want something, and
it isn’t just revenge.
Not executions, but torture.
So why was he so calm afterwards?
the source itself,
there are whole sections devoid of ‘facts’.)
to the historian then!
something else that probably happened. Some women said
they saw Jacques first running,
then walking towards
The running makes sense:
he has just been shot and the first thing on his mind was surely to find safety.
He must have slowed
to a walk
After all, he is now bleeding heavily, unstoppably.
A man named Picard
said he saw Jacques
as he hurried away from the confrontation.
Jacques told him
that Joseph had fired two shots at him.
So, perhaps Jacques
hurrying away to safety,
but rushing to raise the alarm.
from his two wounds,
running and walking towards the village,
or at least
on his way
to tell Picard what has happened.
And showing him his wounds.
Then continuing on,
entering the first house he came to.
Jacques collapsed in the house of the mayor of Pouilloux,
But now I
Was the mayor’s house
really the first building on his way?
Wasn’t Jacques’ own house
Jacques knows what he is doing:
the important thing
is to tell the mayor
his version of events.
To get even.
He was placed
in a bed at the mayor’s house.
the mayor what had happened.
Sealing his version
for the most important figure in the village.
‘He described how,
as he returned to work,
(here you must imagine him pausing to regain strength)
he had seen Joseph a little ahead of him on the road.
(he groans, his face is slick with sweat)
Joseph had stopped,
and when Jacques caught up with him,
“So I see you are still hounding me!’
(a longer pause while the injured man shifts
uncomfortably in the bed, pressing
his hand to his
And Jacques replied
‘F… off, you old idiot.
(he is not holding anything back in his story)
If you don’t leave me alone,
I’ll give you a slap.”
To which Joseph responded,
“Ah, that’s how it is,” and at the same time
(a long pause)
he drew back
a couple of paces
a revolver from his pocket
hitting him in the left arm
(his left arm is visibly bleeding)
and the lower stomach.’
(a bloody mess under his shirt)
is the version of events
that the police, the judge, and eventually a jury
based on the words of the only person (other than the shooter)
who had any idea
what passed between the two men.
And then Jacques,
the only witness,
caused by the stomach wound.
Having made sure that
would get what
was coming to
it’s not what
Roy Peter Clark, ‘The Line Between Fact and Fiction’ in Mark Kramer and Wendy Call (eds.), Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University(2007), 164-9, 166, 167.
Archives Départementales de la Saône-et-Loire, 2 U 738.
Clark, ‘The Line Between Fact and Fiction’, 169.
‘Historical possibilities’ is the phrase used by Natalie Zemon Davis, and quoted in Carlo Ginsburg, ‘Proofs and Possibilities: Postscript to Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre’, reprinted in Threads and Traces: True, False, Fictive(2012), 54-71, 55. ‘Embellishments’ and ‘creative assumptions’ are two of the phrases Kiera Lindsey uses in the afterword to her ‘biography’ The Convict’s Daughter: The Scandal that Shocked a Colony(2016), 284-5.
This is the technique Adam Hochschild champions in ‘Reconstructing Scenes’, in Mark Kramer and Wendy Call (eds.), Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University(2007), 132-6.
The case was noted by the Public Prosecutor in Digne in a letter of 31 October 1874, preserved in the Archives Départementales des Bouches-du-Rhône, 2 U 1/1134.