How Best to Read Auto-Fiction

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Lev Tolstoy with his wife, Sophia (Sonya), in the garden at Yasnaya Polyana, circa 1890

I am accused of auto-fiction. A British reviewer feels my recent novel In Extremis is too obviously about my life for him to assess it as a novel. That is, if I am going to focus on my own life in a book—and it’s interesting the reviewer feels he can be sure about the facts of my life—I should, like Karl Ove Knausgård, openly declare that this is autobiography, or at least, that it should be thought about in relation to my life, and stop pretending it is fiction.

This debate is as old as the hills: there are critics who feel it’s good for the novelist to focus on his own experience, and then there are those who feel that the core of a novel must be invented. Just as there are writers who claim their work is never autobiographical, even when it seems it must be, and writers who claim their work is always autobiographical, even when it seems it can’t be. Champions of truth and authenticity; worshipers of the artist’s untrammeled imagination.

Can we say anything new about this? Anything deeper than a difference in literary taste?

Philip Roth, who died this week at the age of eighty-five, always defended himself vigorously against frequent accusations of “auto-fiction.” Evidently, the criticism troubled him. In a series of essays and interviews republished in Why Write?, Roth insists that while his novels draw on his background and experience, they are sovereign artifacts, quite distinct from biography. “Readers may have trouble disentangling my life from Zuckerman’s,” he says of the character who appears in so many of his novels and is commonly thought of as his fictional alter ego. All the same, these novels are “the result of a writing process a long way from the methods, let alone the purposes, of autobiography.”

So the hero is not the writer. Fair enough. But the question is more complex than that, and in a later interview, Roth defended The Counterlife, which offers various, conflicting versions of the life of novelist Nathan Zuckerman and his brother Henry, in these terms: “People constantly change their story… we are writing fictitious versions of our lives all the time, contradictory but mutually entangling stories that, however subtly or grossly falsified, constitute our hold on reality and are the closest thing we have to truth.”

Actually, most people don’t write fictitious versions of their lives at any time, though they may invent such versions in conversation or reflection. Roth seems to be conflating, or confusing, the novelist’s activity with the individual’s construction of a personal history. This would appear to be in line with the conclusion of The Counterlife, in which Nathan explains to his wife, Maria, who is objecting to the way she has been presented in a novel of his, that there is “no you” and “no me.” People are simply the sum of their performances.

So, behind the debate about whether this or that character in a novel is identical to the writer—auto-fiction—lies the perplexing question of selfhood, of what it means to be someone and to have an identity at all. Rather than a stable state, Roth suggests, selfhood is a perpetual performance, a character in a book being only one representation, one possible manifestation, of that performance. It cannot be identical with the author himself, since his extra-literary performance of selfhood is involved in constructing the other, fictional self. Hence “even in a fiction that may have decidedly autobiographical roots, one is always at a distance from one’s sources anyway, and that distance is always in flux.”

Roth’s arguments are hardly consistent when we look at them closely. By talking about “fictitious versions” of our lives, he implies that there is a true version. By talking about “the closest thing we have to truth,” he suggests that this true version remains disappointingly unavailable. But if a version is unavailable, in what way can it be said to exist at all? By going on to contrast the “subtly falsified” version and the “grossly falsified” version, he nonetheless assumes that we know how to get closer to the truth if we want to. But might not that be an illusion?

In more defensive interviews, Roth simply insists on a manifest gulf between himself and his supposed alter egos. The author Philip Roth, he says, has lived most of his life alone in the country, writing novels, something that gives him “an enormous sense of personal freedom,” of being out of the fray, while his characters for the most part get on with their much busier, sometimes scandalous, lives. What links the two, author and character—beyond the obvious Newark Jewish backgrounds—is the common concern with freedom. Roth’s heroes invariably seek to overcome fear as they kick against the curbs of social convention, particularly in the sphere of relationships and sex. Out in the country, mainly alone, Roth feels free from social pressure, free to write about characters with backgrounds similar to his own struggling to be free. If character is not stable, the performance nevertheless follows recognizable patterns.

Let’s offer this formulation: a certain kind of writer, for whom the day-to-day performance of self—the interaction of personality with the world—is complex and conflicted, invents multiple fictional selves who deal with the same predicament in different ways. Rather than establishing any ultimate truth about identity, such a writer explores possibilities that might be dangerous or incompatible in real life. In short, the writing becomes an extension of the living. “Making fake biography… out of the actual drama of my life,” Roth acknowledges, “is my life.” According to this scheme, the novelist’s creativity lies in the richness of variation with which the same underlying conflict is reconstituted in every new story.

Let’s try out this formulation on one of the greatest exponents of auto-fiction, Lev Tolstoy. Almost every character, every scene, every conversation, claims the critic and biographer Angus Wilson, every object even, in Tolstoy’s novels, can be traced back to something in his life. He is the most biographical of authors. The fictional reconstructions of events close to those in his own experience, Wilson goes on, frequently present an alter ego behaving as Tolstoy would like to have behaved, but didn’t, in similar circumstances. Behaving better, that is, more nobly and honestly. Thus Konstantin Lëvin, in Anna Karenina, is in all kinds of ways similar to Lev his author, except that he is nicer. Lëvin has a sick and wastrel brother, exactly like Tolstoy’s brother Dimitry, but behaves patiently and kindly at his deathbed, which Lev did not, leaving Dimitry to die in the country because there were parties he didn’t want to miss in St. Petersburg. Lëvin proposes to his Kitty in exactly the way Tolstoy proposed to his wife, Sophia (or Sonya, as she was usually called), just that the saintly Lëvin does not have sex with any number of peasant girls while agonizing over that proposal, as the profligate Lev did. Throughout his life, Tolstoy experienced, and indeed spoke openly about, a fierce conflict between an insatiable sexual appetite and a deep yearning for sanctity. Again and again, this conflict is played out in his fiction.

After Anna Karenina (1877), Tolstoy largely gave up fiction writing, which he had begun to see as itself a form of self-indulgence, in order to “be good”—or “play at being good,” as Sonya would disparagingly put it. The two quarreled constantly and constantly produced children (thirteen in all). She kept him anchored, Tolstoy worried, to the world of the flesh and the world of material belongings. To achieve sainthood, it wasn’t enough to stop writing novels and to stop having peasant girls; he would also have to stop having sex altogether, renounce his wealth, leave his wife and family, live like a hermit, or at least like a monk. But he couldn’t. Instead, in 1887, he went back to fiction and wrote The Kreutzer Sonata. In that novella, a man who holds exactly Tolstoy’s extreme views on sex (that it is utterly disgusting), and whose courtship and marriage in every way described corresponds to the author’s own biography, kills his wife in a fit of jealousy when he assumes (probably wrongly) that she is betraying him with her handsome violin teacher.

Was this wishful thinking on Tolstoy’s part? Was it a warning to himself of what he might be capable of? Was it an exploration of the relation of his extreme views to real behavior? Whatever the case, Lev allowed Sonya to read the book aloud to his family. Did they find it too obviously about the author’s life, about their own lives, to be enjoyed as a novel? Not at all. Despite the glaring and unflattering parallels, Sonya loved the book and, concerned as always about the family’s finances, immediately set about promoting it. Shocked when Moscow gossips began to take it as a straight account of their marital crisis, she insisted on letting everyone know that, after twenty-five years of marriage, the two still enjoyed sex; in fact, a last child had been born while the book was being written. But of course, this was exactly the problem as described in the story; an inability to stop having sex.

Six years after the novel’s publication, still determined to leave Sonya, Tolstoy became furiously jealous when she fell in love with her much younger piano teacher. But he did not kill her.

One can enjoy The Kreutzer Sonata without knowing anything about Tolstoy’s private life, as one can enjoy Portnoy’s Complaint and Zuckerman Unbound without knowing anything about Roth. And one can enjoy them in a different way knowing what there is to be known about the life behind the work, or rather, the life performing itself through the work. Certainly, to read a number of Tolstoy’s novels, or Roth’s, is to be aware of a mapping, if not of some fixed point from which they are all projected, at least of a precise area of disturbance that throws up seemingly endless variations on the underlying theme. Roth’s writing about characters with similar backgrounds struggling to be free would seem to be part of his own struggle. Tolstoy’s writing about characters eager to be pure seems very likely to have been part of his own eagerness for purity.

Roth’s struggle ended in 2012 when he put down his pen and settled for the safe, elderly man’s freedom of not having to engage with the world any more. Tolstoy made his bid for absolute purity when, in 1910, at dead of night, aged eighty-two, he slipped out on his sleeping wife with thoughts of seclusion and monasteries. Two weeks later, he was dead from pneumonia.

In the case of my novel In Extremis, many events do follow more or less the events surrounding my mother’s death. Many do not. Some conversations seem to me to correspond, at points, to what was actually said. Most do not. To an extent, I share the narrator’s view of events. To an extent, I don’t. What is clear is that at the time of those events, nobody could have imagined the book that is In Extremis; no filming of the events would have produced, or even hinted at, the story that is In Extremis. A majority of the people who come to the book knowing nothing of my life will simply enjoy it, or not, as a novel.

Those who disparage authors for practicing auto-fiction tend to believe character is a steady state that can be adequately represented on the page and thus see the autobiographical as an easy option, a copout. What they want instead is a determined effort of the unbridled imagination representing many different characters, all stable and well-defined, interacting with one another. Both the stability and the creativity are reassuring, even when the drama may be tragic. Those who recognize the problem of being anyone at all, the difficulty of keeping the performance on the road from one moment to the next, will have priorities of a different kind.

Perhaps the first group should avoid reading author biographies, or too many novels by the same person, since the more you read of any author, the more the same patterns will emerge, making an awareness of the biographical element inescapable. The second will be happy settling down with the complete works of Tolstoy and Roth, Joyce and Dickens, Dostoevsky and Chekhov, of George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Faulkner and Hemingway Proust and Beckett, Bernhard and Coetzee, and even Dante and Boccaccio… auto-fiction has a long pedigree.

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