Write what you know is the advice of the writing class. Write about who you know is the mantra of the gossip column. Surely these two maxims are meant to meet – and the meet will be cute.
The name for it now is “auto-fiction”. Its great predecessor, always wheeled out to impress the rubes, is Proust. And who can deny that the Marcel of In Search of Past Time bears a striking similarity to that man in the cork lined room at the end of the line, caught in his web of words?
There’s an amusing story in the New York Times about the autofiction feuds of Norway. Norway is the featured country at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, and this has produced a thin stream of stories surveying the literary scene in that country of 5 and a half million people. Not a lot of people up there, clustered around the fjords, but there are many writers, including international star Knausgaard, the king of auto-fiction if there is one. The story is, thank God, not another warm-over of the Knausgaard story, but instead features a bookish shootout going on between two sisters, one of whom wrote an auto-fiction about growing up with an abusive father and the other of whom responded with a novel about growing up with an abusive drunk for a sister. In other words, look who’s talking.
One year after the publication of her novel “Will and Testament,” the Norwegian author Vigdis Hjorth was at home with her two daughters when she received a surprising email. Hjorth’s widely read 2016 book, which tells the story of an Oslo woman who accuses her father of sexually assaulting her as a child, and which was seemingly inspired by elements of Hjorth’s own life, had spurred a debate in Norway about the ethics of adapting real events into fiction.
The email informed her that her younger sister, Helga Hjorth, was publishing a novel of her own. The sister’s book focused on a woman whose life was upended by the release of a dishonest sibling’s autobiographical novel, and seemed to be an answer to “Will and Testament.”
“The older sister in that novel is an awful human being, very cruel, narcissistic, alcoholic, psychopathic,” Vigdis Hjorth, 60, said in a recent interview. “And, you know, as bad as she was, I thought, ‘This is good for me.’”
This is good for me – that’s the spirit! All of this is extremely pleasing to my current mood. I’ve just finished Loitering with Intent, a Muriel Spark novel that skates circles around the auto-fiction device before it even wore that name. It is, if you will, a meta-auto-fiction, a tendril from the great root of Don Quixote, in which, as is well known, Don Quixote has to struggle with the fake Don Quixote conjured up by some other author after Cervantes had published the first volume of the work. That characters walk abroad in this world is no news to novelists, but is a perpetual surprise to journalists. While she was writing the novel, Spark said in an interview that it “sort of sums up my life”. She didn’t say it was autobiographical however: the summing up of a life comes in different disguises, as every tax accountant knows.
I’d put Loitering with Intent on the shelf with At Swim-Two-Birds – they form incongruent counterparts, like the left and right hand. In Flann O’Brian’s novel, the characters conspire against the author. In Muriel Spark’s novel, there is also a conspiracy against the author, but the characters involved are more, what shall I say? Mobius-stripped. A novel entitled (awfully) Warrender Chase is being written by the narrator, a young woman “in the middle of the twentieth century” with a very vigorous sense of the chaos of things – a sense that was no doubt reinforced by the twentieth century she’s in the midst of. Fleur Talbot, novelist and narrator, here, has a very simple theory about what to put in a novel: “I was aware of a dæmon inside me that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that, but more than ever as they were, and more, and more.” With her first novel, Fleur sees, with pleasure, that experience, like a faithful hunting dog, trotted out in front of her and brought her back all the people and situations she needed. But these experiences were, of course, nothing without the imagination to light them.
|“I was aware of a dæmon inside me that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that, but more than ever as they were, and more, and more.”|
They were, to vary my metaphor, dead before she brought them to life. This is the spirit and point of view that get Fleur in trouble, of a kind, with the people around her. Her job with a blackmailer and mini-messiah, Quentin Oliver, who has founded a circle, the Autobiographical Association, is to answer the mail and brighten up the autobiographies he collects from his circle of impressionable neurotics. The bits that she puts into their autobiographies (in a prescient case of false memories) soon get accepted by the subjects, who fit them – fictions all – into their story of themselves without much fuss, and then proceed to build upon them.
What strikes Fleur is that Oliver and his patients all seem like characters in her novel, W.C. She isn’t the only one that thinks so. After she reads a bit to one of the patients, and the patient repeats the story to Oliver, Oliver is sure that W.C. is somehow about him. Being a mini-messiah, he loftily dismisses the time discrepancy between Fleur’s writing of the novel and her association with the Autobiographical Association. So, in the vaudeville of subplots that Fleur thoroughly enjoys, he has the novel stolen, attempts to suppress it with Fleur’s publisher, and even starts repeating dialogue from it to Fleur, as though he had absorbed her fiction into his living being.
It’s a hard effect to pull off, this of showing how a written thing, a text, can leap out into life, and life back into the text. I think that every real novelist must feel it, but there is a taboo on it, and not only because you can be sued. It is like déjà vu – a disconcerting kink in a time line that, for ordinary purposes, just plows straight ahead. One doesn’t want to talk to much about déjà vu. One does not want too much spookiness around one, at an unsafe proximity. The novelist is continually finding, outside of her work, events, words, people that seem to converge with it. And this is not because the novel is based on the people you know, viz. the gossip column gag, but more because the people you know and don’t know base themselves on types and secret histories that they are only dimly aware of: they are not only masks of God, but masks of all kinds of traffic and coincidence, and the novelist taps into all that. Make up a character, get her to talk – really talk – and you will soon find her counterparts at the next table at Panera Bread, using your dialogue.
Fleur’s motive of simply absorbing the fact that people are more and more themselves is regarded as sadistic, improbable, unfeminine, or simply false by many of the other characters. Autofictionalists, it should be said, often seem to be afraid of this fate, and seek, in the confines of the story, some redemptive purpose. Spark, apparently, had a strong sense of redemption – as a Catholic convert – but she confined it to the sacred, not the profane. After all, one cannot say the redemptive moment is here, nor can one say it is there – it comes flooding in, it recedes, and one is, above all, not responsible for it – it is a gift. The sacred is not reflected in the story itself, but in the possibility of stories themselves, the cosmic elbow room in which they can be told and skewed and retold differently:
I went along to Hallam Street next morning. I felt sure, now, that not only was Sir Quentin exerting his influence to suppress my Warrender Chase but he was using, stealing, my myth. Without a mythology, a novel is nothing. The true novelist, one who understands the work as a continuous poem, is a myth-maker, and the wonder of the art resides in the endless different ways of telling a story, and the methods are mythological by nature.
Perhaps the density of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, his sheer piling up of details, is a way to ambush that redemptive moment. For a writer, the moment often comes when the work works – when the book is finished, or when the writer suddenly sees how it can all work together, a glorious, paranoid thought-reading machine. Spark dispatches this romantic, and rather incestuous motive in Fleur Talbot’s story. After she finishes W.C., she is finished with it. She has another novel in mind, and immediately transfers her attention and loyalty to it. In a parody of the plot of the novel about a novel being written, her concern with W.C. is to recover the typescript of it from the people who stole it. It is not the novel itself that tracks the plot of the novel, but the recovery of the material basis of the novel, its pages, already filled with the words she needed: a purloined letter. Fleur’s plot to find the typescript and steal it back has a Dupin-like aura (the means of finding the manuscript really do imitate Poe’s story, no doubt intentionally). And one realizes that Fleur, economical Fleur, is using the story of the peripataia of Warrender Chase to make another story, an autofiction on an autofiction. She is introducing a new vertige in the old lumberroom of motifs.
In a review of Muriel Spark’s output in the TLS, Margaret Drabble displays a certain uneasiness about Spark’s refusal to make the moral point – her avoidance of that requirement of fable, the moral. What was she writing for? Drabble suspects the practical joker, a compulsion to humiliate the weaker. Like Fleur Talbot’s friend and enemy, Dottie, Drabble likes a novel where the reader “know where they stand.” When Dottie labels one of her characters in W.C. evil, Fleur replies that she is “only words.” And that is a formalist mode that Drabble doesn’t like at all:
Martin Stannard’s biography, published in 2009, was initiated and authorized by Spark, but then contested by her. One of Stannard’s many anecdotes tells us that at a talk in City College in New York in the mid-1960s someone put it to her that she did not much like the people she wrote about. “Oh no”, Spark replied, “I love them all; when I’m writing about them I love them most intensely, like a cat loves a bird. You know cats do love birds; they love to fondle them.” She was enigmatic from first to last, a smiling assassin.”
It is a very Dottie-like conclusion. But it doesn’t dispatch Muriel Spark, who is very much on the side of life – the life of the assassin as well as the victim. More and more and more.