Category Archives: Life writing

So it’s Auto-Fiction and self-saucing theory …

midterm-review-17-728

While still musing (fretting, angsting, brooding) about the memoirs (Outside the Frame) I noticed a recent comment in The Guardian by Alex Clark (Sat 23rd June 2018). There are booms in things that we in slow old Australia sometimes don’t know about for ages, or they are overlooked in the very few outlets where local readers find out about what books to read eg The Weekend Australian Review (sorry, Stephen Romei, we love you anyway). The hot new thing, Clark says, is autofiction. Another recent comment asks plaintively, “Why have novelists stopped making things up?” here.

So it’s a big trend, and it’s led me into a further vortex of reading and thinking about the question of life-writing, or whatever it is, and the enormous burst of genre-busting (like bunker-busting) which seems to have suddenly become possible. The old divide “fact/fiction” is wobbly and feeble, although nobody has told whoever writes the Amazon categories.

Autofiction is in the space between fact and fiction but goes a bit further. Its origins lie with French writer Serge Doubrovsky, whose 1977 novel Fils (Son) did away with traditional elements including plot and character development. It might or might not have been “telling the truth”.

serge dubrovsky
Serge Doubrovsky, originator of auto-fiction – “Fils” and “Le Monstre”.  None of his books seem to have been translated into English.

Lately the autofiction trajectory has ramped up and it’s getting really really complicated because all kinds of writers are writing about others living and dead and they are all in a kind of gang and once you start with one of them you finish up with a whole crowd. It’s like inviting a new acquaintance over for a drink and they ask if they can bring their mate and the mate bring some other mates and they all know everything about each other and are planning a sleep-over and you didn’t know any of them before today.

Olivia Laing has written a couple of personal non-fiction narratives, the kind of book where the author takes a personal experience and turns it into a form of sociology/history. In The Lonely City (2016) she wrote about Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, among other art works which offer insight into urban alienation.

nighthawks
Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” –  most famous visual meme for urban alienation?

I came across this book while researching Hopper who I had studied for my painting degree. She draws heavily on the classic biographies – Gail Levin’s fantastic book on Hopper, for example. I then discovered Laing had published The Trip to Echo Springs: Why Writers Drink (2013). Are there really good excuses for the bad behavior of great artists, or, as Sarah Ditum says in the New Statesman (20th June 2018) is all that artistic stuff is a lot of hokum and they are just regular drunks who happen to be writers?

 

John Berryman
The poet John Berryman, late 1960s. After numerous stints in rehab he suicided in 1972. Photograph: Terrence Spencer/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

But now Laing has somehow fused herself with the late Kathy Acker, and written Crudo. published by Picador in July 2018. It is about the summer of 2017, you know, Trump, Mosul, Grenfell, celebrity deaths. But the story is Laing’s own, about her marriage to poet Ian Patterson, and about another book, the new biography After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus. The narrator Laing identifies herself as “Kathy” and has somehow appropriated the life of Acker, who died horribly of untreated breast cancer aged 50 in 1997. Kathy Acker is having a big surge with millennial girls/women after years of non-recognition. She wrote, among other things, Blood and Guts in High School and Great Expectations, both recently reissued by Penguin.

Kathy_Acker
Kathy Acker: rediscovered after twenty years?

What the hell is going on? If you felt confused by what I just said about Laing’s book you’ll be even more so when you come to another autofiction booming in reprint, written by that self-same Chris Kraus.

This is a seriously weird piece of work. I Love Dick may sound like a pornographic come-on (excuse me!) but instead it purports to be (or is?) a whole lot of different sorts of writing put together by failed film-maker Chris Kraus and her husband, French theorist Sylvère Lotringer. Chris forms a sudden and irresistable passion for Dick, an English theorist who arrives in Los Angeles via Melbourne and fancies himself as a cowboy. She doesn’t name him in the book, but he’s outed by the New York Times (I think) as Dick Hebdige, author of that most famous 70s sociology book, Subculture: the Meaning of Style. I taught cultural anthropology courses using that book for years. Hebdige went on to write on contemporary art, design, media, mods, reggae, postmodernism, improvisation and Takashi Murakami. No wonder Kraus and probably Lotringer fell madly in love with him. Chris pretty much started stalking him, in a literary kind of way.

Dick Hebdige
Dick Hebdige, cultural theorist and object of passion.

A little research reveals that he was appalled and issued a legal “cease and desist” order which was ignored completely. Poor man, he is still teaching in California and who knows how he faces up to those rows of eager students all of whom know he is “Dick” and that he has been “loved”. Even worse for him now with the Amazon Prime mini-series, where “Dick” has been turned into a cultural studies/art cowboy who makes gigantic sculptures in the Texas desert. Kevin Bacon plays Dick.

I Love Dick is kind of a story, it has a beginning, middle and end. Kraus and Lotringer are definitely real people. They probably did write all those letter and make all those phone calls. But here’s one clue as to why this is such a weird read, because it includes a lot of faxes, and faxes are so … well …. yesterday or, to be more precise, last century and indeed look up the publication history and you will find that this book was published originally in 1997 by Semiotext(e), a well known French-theory inspired journal/magazine/publisher which, guess what, was run by Lotringer and is still going today, releasing all kinds of strange and interesting books about Foam, Morocco, Versace and has also just published Chris Kraus’s new book on Kathy Acker. So we’re back in a circle.

Now I Love Dick has been republished by Tuska Rock Press, an imprint of Profile Books, London, with the catchy subtitle: ‘The Cult Feminist Novel, Now a ….” But the Kindle version cuts off what it now is, so we can imagine all the things it might be, like an independent movie made by Kraus herself? Probably not a Netflix series, but then, you never know. There’s an Afterword by Joan Hawkins – there are several people who could be her, one an academic, one a psychotherapist. Hawkins calls Kraus’s writing “theoretical fiction”. This is because theory becomes part of the plot, where debates over theory form an intrinsic part of the narrative. Well, that covers things nicely.

It is an 80s story, although set in the 1990s, by which time everyone, filmmakers, theorists, academics and famous former roués were all expected to have become tamed  and obedient to the emerging neo-puritanism bursting open the last seams of the millennial sofa to get rid of all that old-school libertarian stuffing. These characters still say “dig” – as in, “people who dig each other’s references”. Well!

As a veteran of French theory I am kind of thrilled to see it resuscitated even if it is in a quasi-romantic/pornographic pretend novel. And now Kraus’s earlier totally neglected book has been republished, or just published, not sure which, and it is about the same couple before they met Dick although they have different names so it’s a kind of prequel. In Torpor the couple in 1989 or 1990 go to Romania to adopt an orphan. I’m loving it.

It’s very exciting to be thinking about where these various forms of fictive narrative or narrative fictions or Me-Moirs are really going. Sadly though it has shown me that what I am writing might be far too archaic and old-fashioned being full of plot and narrative and cliff-hangers at the end of chapters and efforts at transparency and truth-telling. Even bothering to write this much about your own life is pretty radical when you are as old as I am and have no idea if anyone will ever read it. Although there is theory in my books, it is not so obvious that it will annoy anyone and probably no-one will even notice. But I am a bit sad about it too. I’d love to be writing something crazy and unacceptable and scary and disgraceful and dripping with it, a self-saucing theory-fest.

Chris Kraus quote

Me-moir, semi-moir or fictionalized non-fiction?

After the last few months of dizzying dance around the Memoirs, I’m pressing on now with a radical plan – submitting to an Australian publisher’s open call with The Dying Year, about the events in 2008 when my very elderly mother and fairly elderly ex-husband die in the same three week period. The events sparked off a cascade of disaffection from which this formerly tight family has never recovered. It is my third book of memoirs and will be the first to appear. Many recent memoirs are about a late parent or a deceased husband so I’m on trend here. If the publisher says no, I might try finding an Australian agent, and if that fails, well, it will be a DIY job, although I know it’s far from ideal for this kind of writing.

In my previous post I commented on memoir-writing which has inspired (and dis-inspired) me. Two of the writers I mentioned stay close to some version of “what really happened”. As far as Ferrante is concerned, who knows?

But now I am thinking about the rise of the definitely-not-really-me memoir, sometimes described as fictionalized non-fiction. In volume IV, still in progress, about my time in New Guinea, I found myself writing a long section, quite disconnected from the actual story, about a writer who I seem to have been shadowing for the past fifty years. I am thinking of appending it as a personal epilogue to the main account. She is a very famous figure in Australian women’s writing and you could say she was at the beginning of the movement of the semi-me-moir , as I think of narratives written in the first person about real people and actual events, who are nevertheless distorted and disguised.

One chapter in The Dying Year talks about G. W. Sebald’s book Austerlitz, where the narrator recounts a story told to him by the purported subject, so you read it as a biography but by the end you realize that it could be a completely fictional character but there are all these photographs and pieces of documentary evidence which lead you to suppose this person really did exist and these things really did happen.

The purported photograph of Austerlitz

I was so sure it was “real” that I found a copy of the famous Theresienstadt concentration camp film and searched through it to see if I could find the image of the woman who might have been Austerlitz’s dead mother and then I thought how insane this was as the image could have been of any woman at all and I couldn’t even find it anyway even though the text stated exactly at what minute and second the tiny briefly flickering image supposedly existed. But of course the film itself could have been edited to different                                                               lengths a hundred times.

Image from Nazi propaganda film Theresienstadt: was this Austerlitz’s mother?

In the Introduction to my Memoirs I vowed not to write narrative non- fiction or fictionalised autobiography, I wanted to write “the truth” as far as I could see it … but of course, there’s the problem right there, since the Rashomon effect is in full swing before you even dredge up the first images in your mind especially where it concerns deeply felt emotional stuff and your own family and your own memories and your own self-love and ambivalent feelings and your inability to remember even a fraction of things that actually happened in your past life and the absolutely refractory nature of “truth” as told by anyone let alone a self-absorbed and self-justifying author.

The Rashomon Effect: everyone has a different version.

I think I will be saying a lot more about this frustrating phenomenon. And if you are wondering, I’ve written a bit more about the project on this site, click on the tab above labeled, unapologetically, Memoirs.

More on memoir: inspirations

Last time I wrote a bit about the memoir I am currently reading, by Tara Westover. This led me to reconsider other memoir writers who have been especially influential (and otherwise) in my current project. I think it’s incredibly important to remain aware of the link between what you are reading and what you are writing. There are thousands of memoirs around, a lot of them extremely boring. But memoirs of writers … especially of writers who mainly write memoirs … it’s a whole area of literary scrutiny which seems weirdly appropriate in the present era of compulsory self-curation. So here are some thoughts about three recent literary memoirists who have had a big influence on my recent work.

JOAN DIDION.

Joan Didion’s book about her husband’s death The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), and her later book about the death of her daughter, Blue Nights (2011), were important for me in understanding how differently writers can inhabit and explain their  inner worlds. The story itself is heart-wrenchingly painful. From a young, happy creative woman with a loving family life, Didion suffers the ravages of time and random chance, far beyond what she ever could have imagined, with painful dignity. The passage of time itself seems almost a character in her books, enhanced by the publication in various places of photographs (though not in the books themselves). I have been wondering about whether to put lots of photographs in mine.  I love looking at other people’s snapshots of themselves and their families and friends as I am reading their memoirs. On the other hand, sometimes the imagination is the best illustrator.

Joan Didion with her husband Greg Dunne and daughter Quintana
Joan Didion, after the death of her husband

KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD:  MY STRUGGLE

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Karl Ove Knausgard – publicity still

Knausgaard showed me that I didn’t need to follow a temporal sequence but could produce component volumes of different lengths and time periods in episodically random order. His first  was A Death in the Family (2009 in the English publication sequence) and he was writing it round about the same time as I was writing my own maternal mortality story. His revelations about his father, which caused a violent storm in his native Norway, were pretty gruesome. I had nothing of that kind to contribute. My mother had done some pretty awful things like most of us do, but she was nothing like the kind of horror he described his father to be. If anyone was a horror, it was me. Sixty-three at the time, I still thought I had to excel in my career. I still thought I was much more important than anybody else. This was not the frame of mind to be in when trying to help a 93 year old woman through the last year of her life.

Like most English-language readers I was gripped by Knausgard’s second volume, A Man in Love (2013) about his relation with his second wife and their family. The texture of everyday existence and his internal monologues as he did his best to live in ideologically correct Sweden and please his feminist wife, the only man taking his little child to pre-school singalongs where he spent the time lusting after the kindie teacher – what happens when you want to be a writer but aren’t allowed to – a typical woman’s story, now being written by a man who had acceded to feminist expectations. A lot of women writers seem to have approached Knausgaard only to go away again. There is something challenging about entering so deeply into this man’s mind which feels strangely disconcerting. We think we know how men think but it’s weird to have it confirmed in such detail. Good feminists aren’t supposed to enter this terrain at all, or so it seems, but I found it liberating. Knausgaard exemplifies a masochistic hysterical masculinism which seems to have become a default position for many hetero male writers today.

NOT AN INSPIRATION:

Elena Ferrante (well, that is not “who she really is”; all l the hoo-haa has been quite absurd, unless you subscribe to the Author as Sacred Object school of literary thought) is very popular with women readers. Everything she has written seems to me completely fake.  I really and truly cannot read it. I have started one book, then another, tried going into the middle of the first one, then the end of the third and I don’t get it. Just look at those covers: Mummies and little girls in silly clothes, dollies and fairies, nakedness in the mirror, and a headless woman in a bright red dress. Really!

ferrante-book-covers

One of these days I will try again. If Knausgaard is the masculine consciousness of the twenty-first century,  Ferrante might be the feminine counterpart and not in a good way. Women seem to read books in order to identify themselves with the narrator, and in line with a lot of feminist theoretical work from the 1970s and 1980s, she works from the classic masochistic feminine position. It is so depressing that a great many women still seem to find this compelling.

 

Memoirs to the rescue …Tara Westover’s “educated”.

Everyone who writes is supposed to read all the time. I certainly do that, in part because of increasingly chronic insomnia. But reading too much (and watching too much Netflix) gets in the way of actually writing. So I am cutting right back. But at the recent Sydney Writer’s Festival (the one sponsored by Varuna at Katoomba, and only for one short day unfortunately) I heard Tara Westover talk about her just-published memoir educated and I had to buy the book and read it at once. Not finished yet, and will write more about it soon, but am loving it so far, and finding it inspires me with confidence about the value of life-writing. I love the fiction universe of course, the worlds created there, but the actual real world is pretty amazing!

As mentioned last time, memoirs are at the front of my priority list at the moment. I realise in retrospect that I have been reading memoirs now for several years. Westover’s book is about a young woman who is raised in a fundamentalist Mormon household on a mountain in Idaho. The thing is, she never went to school – shock horror – and yet became a highly successful writer, historian and academic at the top universities in Britain. I haven’t found out exactly how she accomplished this, but I kind-of relate to it. Of course I did go to school, and my family was hardly survivalist or fundamentalist, but the ethos of my early life was pretty similar: anti-Government, pro-self reliance, no emphasis on education, the constant awareness that you weren’t like other people who took city life and money and happiness for granted. And of course, being in Australia in the 1950s meant something different: the shadow of World War Two, family disruptions, deaths and secrets and silences.

I have read – what? – maybe thirty or forty memoirs about growing up in communes or remote communities or outside the mainstream world. In many ways I was doing the same until the mid-1970s and then, strangely, I slid back into it, but that older life never leaves you, and I think, from what Tara was saying in her talk, it has never left her either.

And today I am reflecting on the strangeness of it:  reading other people’s life stories allows you in some way to rescue or re-inhabit your own.

Tara dad