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!