Category Archives: Subjective Non-Fiction

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.

THE WORST REVIEWS EVER?

Imagine writing a thousand page novel which everybody hates.

Following my long-standing interest in German art, especially my work on Neo Rauch and Gerhard Richter, I decided to see what had been going on in the German novel lately. I cruised through a few lists looking for something that piqued my interest. I chose and ordered a few from Book Depository which has a great European language selection. Being hasty and lazy, I based my choice on review comments and catalogue descriptions without looking carefully into details. I can read in German, but slowly. I came across one which was highly praised – by the publishers, as it turned out. It won the German Book Prize in 2008. Der Turm (The Tower) by Uwe Tellkamp offers a “monumental panorama” of the former DDR (East Germany) across three generations in decaying Dresden. Sounded good to me, if a bit intense. I put it with the order, which will arrive in a week or so. I discovered that there is an English translation, published by Penguin in 2014, but I wanted to do the German thing. Why not?

Der Turm Germ cover
Cover of the German edition of Der Turm

Well, one reason might be that the book is around 1000 pages long, and that’s in paperback. I hadn’t realized that when I bought it. Since I read mostly in bed, this is exactly the kind of book I vowed and declared I would never buy again, once the miracle of Kindle turned up. (German books aren’t available on Kindle, or if they are I can’t work out how to buy them). I can’t even imagine how to physically manage reading a book of this size in bed. I realized I had made a stupid and expensive mistake, but by then it was too late.

Dresden Gasometer
Decaying Dresden: the Gasometer

A day or so later I realized this simple purchasing episode clarified some things about myself which annoy me so much, the stuff in my auto-critique basket. Lack of careful attention to what I am doing. Impulsiveness. Ordering things online at midnight. Ignoring my own resolutions. And because I have been reading obsessively in the genre of subjective non- or semi-fiction (Knausgaard and now Carrère) I kept finding myself composing paragraphs about how this was actually a signal to me about myself, something I really should pay attention to, a message from the Great Beyond or maybe it’s the Deep Inside, the Unconscious.

Finally, though, I realized that my biggest mistake was not reading any actual reviews before I bought the damn thing. Cripes! It seems to be the most incredibly boring book that anyone has ever come across. Although the publisher’s blurb and remarks by a few London-based literati suggested it was an “epic” exploration, on the English-language Goodreads site there were 56 reviews and all of them were one star, which is the lowest you can give. And several of these were in German. I have never before seen such revulsion and disdain. Here’s what some said: “I just can’t get past the ridiculous writing style and overblown descriptions in this book … spurious, convoluted and self-congratulatory”. “A thousand-page cringe fest, arid scenes from the lives of the lifeless”. “Absolutely terrible!” Lots of people left no comment, only their voluble single star.

How would you feel, writing a book so unbelievably long, which all your readers seemingly hate? I mean it’s hard enough to get people to review your books in the first place, but what if they’re all totally negative? Is it better to be ignored or condemned? Then again, how does such a book even get published? There are thousands of writers all over the world, struggling along day after day, approaching agents and publishers with panting enthusiasm, only to be rejected time and again, consigned to the slush pile and thence to the Kindle quagmire, if they can even get that far. And here is someone who writes and writes and writes in a turgid prose with achingly dull detail and not only is he published in both English and German but he wins a prize. Go figure!

Uwe_Tellkamp_Worms
Uwe Tellkamp

 

Leipziger_Factory
More DDR decay: abandoned Leipzig factory