Truth is the new fiction

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Writers such as Philip Roth and more recently Will Self have predicted the death of the novel and have written its obituary notice with Roth declaring that he “was finished with fiction” and that in a few decades the novel will be as irrelevant as Latin poetry. In a recent Guardian piece Self writes that “the omnipresent and deadly threat to the novel has been imminent now for a long time.”

There is a trend over the last few years for a new type of fiction, a genre that molds memoir with biography to form a literature that feels fresh and hyperreal, a type of reality fiction for the modern reader. Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk are the disciples of this new strain of writing which channels the stream of consciousness of the post-moderns with a fiction of the everyday in depicting quotidian reality. The subjects described can often be banal but with these writer’s talent and skill the writing outshines its often plot and artifice driven competitors.  David Shields presaged this new trend when in his 2010 “manifesto” called Reality Hunger he advocates a return to the “real” in literature and he rails against conventional plot-driven fiction in favour of the lyric essay and the memoir.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s opus Min Kamp or My Struggle, which has been one of the publishing sensations of the last few years, is a perfect example of the fusion of memoir with essayistic discourse. Frustrated by the confines of the novel to write about his father’s death from alcoholism he decided to write a real account which was unconcerned with literary niceties such as structure and plot and he invented his own language “the banality of the everyday.  ”Part of what makes My Struggle so thrilling and hypnotizing is the evocation of the everyday such as diaper-changing, washing the dishes or going for a hair cut in a flat, almost conversational tone. This poetry of the prosaic is exemplified in Karl’s writing and no subject is deemed too secret to divulge. This truthful selling of his soul is very liberating for the reader, almost as if the baring of his secrets to us frees us from the shame of some of our own.

Rachel Cusk’s new novel Outline is narrated by an English writer who has flown to Athens to teach a writing workshop and writes of her encounters on the plane, in the classroom and observations made during evening meals with other writers. It is essentially plotless and imbued with greatness through Cusk’s ability to conjure up these vignettes with her characteristic stylish prose. She said in a recent Guardian interview that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts” and that description and character are “dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”

Zadie Smith wrote that she awaited the next instalment of Karl’s volume with all the longings and cravings of a crack addict. The modern reader clearly has a hunger for depictions of reality unsullied by the filters of fiction.  The lure of such work is evidently potent and perhaps truth will become more popular that fiction.

Literary Bad Girls- Part 3

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Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)

This author of the seminal feminist tome The Second Sex was an academic, philosopher, feminist and journalist, she was a trail blazer who rejected the bourgeois concept of marraige and after graduating from the Sorbonne met the existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. He and de Beauvoir maintained one of the most revolutionary relationships of their time, the couple never cohabited, but remained lovers and confidantes until his death five decades later. The couple dated other people and even formed three-way relationships one of which was with a student named Olga. Simone fictionalised this experience in  1943 in the novel “L’invitee “which explore the complexity of relationships and existential ideals. Above is a picture of her derriere taken by an American photographer in Chicago in 1950. This adds to her Bad Girl appeal! Life wasn’t all coffee and philosophy and heated discussions at the famous Cafe De Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, she also had a tremendous capacity for fun. Jean-Paul and Simone remained inseparable in death and share a grave in the Montparnasse Cemetry, Paris.

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Cafe De Flore

Cafe De Flore

De Beauvoir has always been a poster girl for poets and musicians, listen here to a very cherubic and beautiful LLoyd Cole sing the line- “she reads Simone de Beauvoir in her American circumstance.

Rachel Cusk

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Rachel Cusk was born in Canada in 1967 and spent most of her childhood in Los Angeles and after convent school in England went to New College,Oxford to study English. I first became aware of Cusk’s work when I happened across her novel “Saving Agnes’, in 1993, and I felt like I’d found a friend. The character of Agnes seemed to speak to me as it mirrored some of life’s frustrations at that time, and the prose was elegant and witty and lush with metaphor and allusions. I was hooked and bought all her subsequent work.

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Rachel wrote her book, ‘ A life’s Work : On Becoming a Mother,”in 2001 which was a powerful and often funny account of pregnancy, childbirth and mothering that doesn’t gloss over the pain, mystery and confusion of the process. She was as she is always, brutally honest. Literary reviewers loved it and one wrote that it was as compulsive a read as a thriller. However many women hated it and she became vilified by the mumsnet brigade who accused her of child-hating, of postnatal depression, of shameless greed and most often of being too intellectual.

This literary Bad Girl was, as ever, unabashed by the critisism and went on to write another memoir”Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation,” a truthful account of the collapse of her marriage written with characteristic Cuskian wry humour and honesty. The critics again had a field day that someone would plough the minutae of their own life and betray confidences and relationships for Art’s sake. However this is precisely what Karl Ove Knausgaard did in his epic memoir “My Struggle”, which was unflinching in its portrayal of his marriages, his father’s descent into alcoholism and his conflicted views on fatherhood. The man was described as a literary sensation, which of course he is, in exactly the same way as Rachel is. I was privileged to have had her as a lecturer and sat rapt as she spoke. With looks reminisent of Chrissie Hynde and the intellectual agility of Virginia Wolff she is one literary Bad Girl.

Memoir- Class A Literature?

For Freud the notion that he would do anything as crass as write an autobiography was unthinkable. A more mercenary nephew had touted the idea to him but he refused and  wrote that “a psychologically complete and honest confession of life would require so much indiscretion about family, friends and enemies that it is simply out of the question.”  Karl Ove Knausgaard would have repelled Sigmund with his six-volume literary epic based on his family and life titled Min Kamp, or My Struggle which has sold millions of copies in his native Norway and subsequently worldwide. I became aware of his work through a writer friend who had also published a memoir and found his work exceptional and unparalleled. I began it as a tome to induce sleep during the Winter of 2013 and was immediately hooked. The prose was flat and conversational and the Karl could write pages about such quotidien realities of nappy changing and cooking dinner or indeed going for a hair cut. He had become nauseous from fiction and as an antidote began his memoir powered by the language of the everyday, plotted from the poetry of the prosaic. I loved his long passages about adolescent crushes and his nerdish recollections of musical obsessions and above all the character of his father, remote, distant, feared and troubled whose presence haunted every page. No subject is deemed too secret to divulge, his parent’s messy divorce, his father’s dismal end, all are revealed in razor sharp prose by Ove Knausgaard. He wanted to write reality and for the reader this truthful selling of his soul is liberating and strangely comforting, as if his baring of his secrets to us frees us from the shame of some of our own. He has been compared to Proust and Mann but as a work, perhaps because of its modern setting I would find much more readable than “A la recherche du temps perdu”.

Knausgaard’s work has lent a respectability to memoir as a genre which for many decades was considered to be an embarrassing relative at the banquet of Literature. The kind who gets drunk and embarrasses the art with her tawdry revelations as she sits leaking the family secrets to anyone who’ll listen, unhinged and needy, clearing the dance floor with her jerky arrival.He has received the seal of approval from Eugenides and Zadie Smith wrote that she waited for his next volume with the all the longings and cravings of a crack addict. And I think she nails perfectly the need to find out more about this writer’s life, to maybe find some of our truths in the tomes. In the age of Oprah and reality TV literature has had to start dealing in truth.  Some gems from the last few years include-

Country Girls by Edna O’Brien.

Giving up the Ghost: A memoir by Hilary Mantel.

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage.

Antonia Fraser: Must You Go?

Candia McWilliam: What to look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness.

Aftermath by Rachel Cusk.

Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion.

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway.

Am eagerly awaiting publication of Lilian Pizzichini’s new memoir “Music Night at the Apollo” later this month.

Go on, you know you want to delve in someone else’s memory banks and sift through their secrets. It might just be “unreal”!IMG_0625