Satisfying my Craving for Details: Autobiography, Auto-Fiction, and Letters

On one of our daily walks this week, my dear friend was telling me about a cousin she had lost touch with but through a series of different circumstances she had the opportunity recently to meet and reconnect with her family member.  My friend and her cousin had been close as children but in the last ten years had not spoken for a variety of reasons.  I was fascinated by what many would consider an ordinary story and, as is my habit, I asked my friend a plethora of detailed questions, some of which she could not answer.  She likes to tease me that I ask intricate details about a story, a character, a life, that “no one ever thinks of except you, Melissa”   I like to have a complete picture, I like to get lost in the details, I like to know what it is about life and fate that brings people together and drives them apart.  I think that my habit of incessant questioning, seeking out the minutiae, is what has drawn me to reading quite of bit of autobiography, auto-fiction and letters in the past year.

I read Annie Ernaux’s A Man’s Place and The Possession early in the year and had mixed feelings about both.  There are narrow details about specific events in these brief autobiographical novellas.  A Man’s Place, for instance, describes Ernaux’s relationship with her father and the particulars of his painful illness and death.  But the scope of the story was too narrow for me; I wanted to know more about the aftermath of her parent’s death and how it was situated in the broader context of her life.  In The Possession, Ernaux recounts a relationship she has with a man after her divorce.  Even though she is the one to break off the love affair, she becomes obsessed with him after she learns that he is living with another woman.  Once again, I wanted to know how the circumstances of this affair came about—how did he compare to her ex-husband, her father, and to subsequent intimacies in her life.  Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, which I read over the summer, felt similar in approach to Ernaux’s shorter autobiographical works.  Levy describes a very specific period in her life, the aftermath of her divorce and the adjustment to a new life but, once again, the narrow approach of her subject matter left me wanting more.

I was excited that Ernaux’s longer autobiography, The Years, was finally being translated and published in English because it might give me some of these answers I sought after reading her previous books.   The Years, told in the third person, sometimes third singular, sometimes third plural, is more of a social history than a traditional autobiography.  Ernaux describes the years between the end of World War II and the 2000’s within the broader context of what was happening in the world.  There are a lot of lists and the writing has more of a journalist tone than a personal narrative: “With the abbreviated memory one needs at sixteen simply to act and exist, she sees her childhood as a sort of silent film in colour.  Images of tanks and rubble appear and blur with others of old people who have died, handmade Mother’s Day cards, the Becassine albums, the First Communion retreat, games of sixes played against a wall.  Nor does she care to remember the more recent years, all awkwardness and shame—the time she dressed up as a music-hall dancer, the curly perms, the ankle socks.”  While I appreciate her unique approach to autobiography, I was unsatisfied for lack of personal details.  The lists, the detached narrative, became, at times, too generic and therefore uninteresting.

The recent trend towards auto-fiction feels like an attempt to turn what could be an mundane autobiography into a more engaging narrative that appeals to a wider audience.  Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s auto-fiction, for instance, have gained a lot of attention in the literary press and have been included on many a “best of” list.  I read the fourth book of Knausgaard’s autobiographical fiction and was captivated by his details, but, for some reason, I haven’t been drawn back to read any more of his books in the My Struggle series since.   I read the first two books in Cusk’s trilogy last year and enjoyed immensely the style of her writing as well as her storytelling.  But in the spring, as I read Kudos, the final book in the series, I realized that her approach to autobiography is difficult to sustain in multiple works.  There are, in my opinion, much better examples of aut0-fiction in other languages that have not gotten the same attention as Cusk or Knausgaard. Per Olov Enquist’s The Parable Book, Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners, Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow and Friederike Mayrocker’s Requiem for Ernst are all linguistically interesting and satisfied my need for details.

Since reading Kafka, I have been obsessed with the personal letters and correspondence of authors which are uniquely autobiographical.  Kafka’s letter to Felice, for instance,  that painstakingly describes their first meeting at Max Brod’s house could easily have been incorporated into an autobiography.  Kierkegaard’s surprisingly tender letters to Regine would have made a fascinating few chapters in his autobiography. Simone de Beauvoir’s letter to Nelsen Algren in which she describes her encounters with the sculptor Giacometti is the stuff of fascinating autobiographical material.  One of the first collections of personal letters that I ever read were those of Cicero which I was forced to translate during my first year of university.  I thought they were boring, self-centered and self-righteous and I haven’t given them very much attention since then.  But perhaps with my new appreciation for the autobiographical details contained in personal letters I ought to give poor Cicero another try.

Finally, this week I have begun reading Simone de Beauvoir’s three volume autobiography and I have been immediately captivated by the rich details of her childhood that she includes in the first book, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.  Maybe I am just a traditionalist, or maybe it’s my penchant for loose, baggy monsters, but of all the autobiography, auto-fiction, and letters I have read over the past year, Beauvoir’s work is by far the most satisfying, even at only 60 pages into the first volume.  Her writing is honest, straightforward and charming: “It doesn’t take much for a child to become the sedulous ape; I had always been willing to show off: but I refused to play the parts expected of me in false situations concocted by adults for their own amusement,” she writes.  A strong foreshadowing, I suspect, of how her character and strong personality develop throughout the course of her life.

On one final note (I promise), I bought Journey Into the Mind’s Eye by Lesley Blanch that was just reissued by NYRB Classics.  The introduction, written by Georgia de Chamberet describes this autobiography as an untraditional one: “the non-fiction novel” she calls it.  I’m interested to see where this fits into the genre of “auto” books I’ve described here.

What are your favorite autobiographies, auto-fiction, letters, and non-fiction novels?  Let me know in the comments!


Filed under Essay, Nonfiction

26 responses to “Satisfying my Craving for Details: Autobiography, Auto-Fiction, and Letters

  1. Vishy

    Beautiful post, Melissa! Sorry to know that the Ernaux autobiography didn’t work for you. I was hoping to read it sometime. Now I am sure whether I should. Thanks for mentioning some of your favourite auto-fiction. I have Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow – I got it after you recommended it. I hope to read it soon. Your comment on Cicero made me smile 🙂 The Simone de Bouvoir autobiography you are reading now sounds fascinating. I loved that passage you have quoted. Will look forward to hearing your thoughts after you finish reading it. That description of autobiography as a non-fiction novel is very interesting. I can’t remember reading many autobiographies recently, but I did read a book called ‘The Last Days’ by Laurent Seksik which is a novel about the last days of Stefan Zweig. Seksik says that his novel is based on actual facts and so this book is as close to nonfiction as possible. But technically it is not an autobiography or auto-fiction as Zweig didn’t write it. I read Anne Fadiman’s memoir about her father earlier this year, called ‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter’ which is quite rich details. I loved it. Your post is inspiring me to read more autobiographies. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vishy

      At the beginning of the comment, my comment on Ernaux’ biography should read – ‘Now I am not sure whether I should.’ I can’t believe I missed the ‘not’ 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s okay! I knew what you meant. It was an interesting book but I don’t think I would necessarily recommend it. There are better autobiographies to read, I think. I haven’t seen any other reviews of it and it could just be me!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Vishy

        I will add the auto-fiction books that you have mentioned to my ‘To-be-read’ list. I forgot to mention one more thing, Melissa. I read a memoir early this year called ‘Stammered Songbook : A Mother’s Book of Hours’ by Erwin Mortier. It is Mortier’s memoir of his mother. I am not sure whether it is detailed in the way you would like, but Mortier’s prose is incredibly beautiful and the book is a pleasure to read. The story it tells is heartbreaking though. Would love to hear your thoughts if you get to read this book.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the further suggestions, Vishy! The one about Zweig looks particularly interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am not a huge fan of either auto-fiction or autobiography. I either find it unbelievable, or too self indulgent. I’m not even a fan of a lot of memoir unless it brings to the surface the questions of what we can remember, what stories we have the right to tell (Peter Handke’s memoir for his mother A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is a perfect example). I loved Esther Kinsky’s River because it resembles autobiographical fiction, the places her narrator describes correlate with her general life history, but the text reveals nothing about Kinsky or the narrator apart from a relationship with her father. It is a book about experiencing places, restless like the rivers that frame the story. It’s about letting go and moving on, but we never learn what she is letting go of or moving toward. As a result there is a certain universality. Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room might also be considered auto-fiction, but again it reveals very little about the author himself, beyond the snapshots of three different periods in his life and travels, bound by the shifting relationships between himself and others as he (or his Damon character) matures.

    For more formal “autobiographical” writing, I’ll take Michel Leiris, who is completely aware of the myopic, internalized nature of the autobiographical endeavour. And wonderfully neurotic too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think you’ll really love the Beauvoir books, Melissa. I read them all back in the day, and they transfixed me. I had quite an obsession with her which never went away. I know the tendency nowadays is to blur fact and fiction, but I’m not always convinced. If the author is doing it with their own life, fine. But fictionalising someone else’s life instead of a biography doesn’t usually work for me (with the odd exception – I was charmed by Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time.)

    However, although my memory of the Beauvoir books is fuzzy I think in retrospect there is a lot of self-editing. You might want to read biographies afterwards. I think the one I read most recently was the Deirdre Bair book. If I recall correctly it revealed much that Beauvor had left out, including her relationship with Nelson Algren. Not that I want to send you down another rabbit hole, but there is a volume of her letters to Algren too, which I have lurking on the shelves…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh thanks so much for recommending the Beauvoir biography. I do have her letters to Algren which I’ve very much enjoyed reading. I used to like fictional biographies when I was much younger but I’ve outgrown them. The Noise of Time, however, is definitely an exception. I so enjoyed that book!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I read Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter and enjoyed it, but I do find her writing very slow going to the point I almost cease reading which is frustrating, I have her novel She Came to Stay, half read, the same thing happened there too.

    A slim novella that is a long letter is the one that comes to mind, Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter. I loved it, it was so outside what we might experience and yet there was a universality in her desire to share it with her friend, to whom she writes the letter. I guess too, I just love the succinctness.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I really enjoyed Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, especially the first volume. I think she is very frank, endearing and actually quite modest (she talks a lot more about her ‘brilliant friend’ Zaza and her cousin than herself, for instance).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I usually prefer the raw materials (letters, diaries, notebooks) to autobiographies. I did enjoy and would recommend both volumes of Frank O’Connor’s autobiography: An Only Child and My Father’s Son as well as the five volumes of Molly Hughes (starting with A London Child of the 1870s) and all five of Leonard Woolf’s (starting with Sowing). There are so many good collections of letters — particular favorites are: Virginia Woolf, Eudora Welty, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Robertson Davies, Elizabeth Bishop, and William Maxwell. You might like Goethe’s Italian Voyage, a journal-letter written for friends back at home. And, Michael Dirda’s recent review of Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner had me adding it to my TBR list for later investigation

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Craig

    I’m glad I’m not the only person who asks people endless questions about stories they tell me! My suggestion is Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Leger, published by Dorothy, a Publishing Project. It is a book that combines biography and autofiction. However, Leger describes in detail the low-budget film that Barbara Loden wrote, directed, and starred in called Wanda, so seeing the film certainly enhanced my appreciation of the book. (I saw it on Turner Classics). The film was pretty much ignored when it was released in 1970, but has been restored and is now considered a classic. So my suggestion may be a bit out of left field, but Suite for Barbara Loden fully captivated me and I didn’t want it to end.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve decided to view Ernaux’s books as one work, with The Years providing the panoramic view, and the shorter volumes the close-ups.
    I’ve been disappointed with some auto-fiction this year, like The Dinner Guest and Brother in Ice.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Melissa, how do you have time to read all the time?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I get this question a lot. Reading is how I relax and spend my free time. I don’t watch very much tv, for instance. I know a lot of people who like to binge watch shows on Netflix. I like to binge read books instead.


  10. For autobiography, I recommend Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. It has really affected me in a deep way. His deep sense of the spiritual side of life runs deep. It restored my hope for mankind.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: He Held Radical Light: A Memoir by Christian Wiman |

  12. Pingback: Book Review – My Struggle (Part 1) : A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard | Vishy's Blog

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