Tag Archives: Metafiction

Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt: ‘One story has become another’

Cover imageIf you’ve been following this blog for any length of time you’ll know that I’m a Siri Hustvedt fan. Sixteen years after I first read it,  What I Loved remains one of my favourite contemporary novels. It’s more accessible than the complex, intensely cerebral The Blazing World, her last novel published five years ago. Memories of the Future tends more towards the former than the latter. A writer comes across the notebook she kept in 1978, the year she arrived in Manhattan fresh from Minnesota, planning to write her first novel. As S. H. reads her journal, she contemplates the version of that year remembered by her sixty-two-year-old self and how often it differs from the twenty-three-year-old’s account.

S. H. discovers her long missing diary while packing up her mother’s belongings. At first she’s amused by this record of a bright young woman’s experience in a city she’s long dreamed of inhabiting. S. H. arrives knowing no one, having negotiated a deferment of her Columbia fellowship. She finds a tiny, sparsely furnished apartment and sets about writing her novel. Three weeks pass before she has a conversation. Friends are not as easily come by as she might have hoped. She hears strange declamations from her neighbour through the walls which sets her imagination racing. Is her neighbour mad, or perhaps rehearsing a play? She meets a woman at a poetry reading who becomes her friend and soon she’s part of a small circle. Then she meets a man at a party who insists on coming home with her, refusing to take no for an answer, from whom Lucy, her mysterious neighbour, rescues her. Lucy’s story turns out to be even stranger than S. H. had imagined while her own has taken a turn that leaves her questioning the way in which men relate to women who refuse to be quiet. The older S. H. reflects on all this, interpreting and reinterpreting her twenty-three-year-old self within the context of 2017.

Hustvedt weaves her present day narrative through the 1978 diary and the comic detective story which was to have become S.H.’s first novel, exploring themes of memory, storytelling, interpretation and gender while frequently reminding us of the unreliability of her role as a narrator. She’s not the person she once was; memory becomes both flexible and down right slippery with age. As ever with Hustvedt, her book is stuffed full of literary allusions, ideas and erudition but it’s also playful in its early stages, taking a darker turn after the younger S. H. is assaulted. Her experience leads her to examine all her relationships with men, even with her beloved father who seemed incapable of imagining his daughter’s interest in his work as a doctor resulting in anything but a career as a nurse. Other men are more forthright in their resolve to keep women silent, determined in their sense of entitlement and superiority. Written in Trump’s America in the wake of the infamous pussy-grabbing tapes and the sickening misogynistic chanting of his election campaign, this is an intensely political, fiercely intelligent novel which manages to be both deeply serious and very funny at times. Another Hustvedt triumph.

Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan (transl. George Miller): Fact or fiction? Truth or lies?

I’m not a thriller fan, although I have been known to read one or two. Metafiction on the other hand fascinates me which is what attracted me to Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story whose narrator, Delphine, finds her life entirely taken over by a woman she meets at a party. Hard to avoid all the clichés associated with the genre when talking about this one  – ‘gripping’, ‘riveting’, ‘unputdownable’ – take your pick. All apply to this shockingly accomplished novel which has at its heart a debate about fiction and truth.

Exhausted after a lengthy author tour publicising her latest book, Delphine finds herself uncharacteristically accepting an invitation to a party. She’s approached by a chic, assured woman who engages her in easy conversation, following it up a few days later with an invitation to coffee. Delphine is preparing to say goodbye to her twins, off out into the world to start their lives. Her lover is often away but like most writers, solitude comes naturally to her and she is just at the point where she is ready to begin her next book. L. quickly becomes the centre around which her world revolves. They have so much in common – experiences, books read, films considered formative. When Delphine talks to L. about her writing plans, a debate about fiction and truth is sparked in which Delphine sees a new, angry side of L. Pure fiction is not what readers want insists L, demanding that Delphine write the ’hidden book’ she mentioned when discussing her last novel, a piece of intimate autofiction. As the year proceeds, Delphine becomes increasingly isolated until L. is her only contact with the outside world. Who is this woman who seems to know so much about Delphine’s life, who turns up unexpectedly and seems to be watching Delphine’s every move?

Combining elements of a blockbuster thriller with a sophisticated literary debate, Based on a True Story is a fiendishly smart piece of writing. De Vigan narrates her novel through Delphine’s voice as she looks back over the year L. insinuated herself into her life. We know from the beginning that L. has had a sinister influence on Delphine, creating a psychological state in which she is unable even to send an email let alone begin her next book. The result is a constant feeling of claustrophobia, persistent doubts and questions. L. is chillingly convincing – manipulative, plausible and ultimately terrifying. This is the hook on which de Vigan hangs a debate about fiction and truth – how much veracity do we as readers expect from our novelists, what do we want in terms of authenticity and to what extent do novelists blur the line between fact and fiction whether consciously or unconsciously. Even now I can’t quite classify this book – thriller, literary novel, autofiction? It requires more than one pigeonhole. Given that it’s a piece of suspense I’ve no intention of revealing the resolution, although that’s to assume there is one which I’m not entirely sure there is. I do have my own theory, though, and I will say that the last two words are breathtakingly, diabolically clever.

Blasts from the Past: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (1985-6)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy used to be a handy bellwether for me when talking to bookish acquaintances not yet friends. Enthusiasm might well lead to friendship, blank looks or – worse – annoyance might make me think twice. Of course, this doesn’t always hold true – H can’t stand it and we’re still together. The first thing you should know is that it’s a piece of metafiction and if you’re one of those readers who thinks that kind of thing is too tricksily clever for its own good, best move on.

City of Glass is the first of the three novels. Its protagonist is a crime writer who becomes a private investigator, later driven mad by his inability to solve a crime. Ghosts is about a private eye bored to the point of insanity by his surveillance of his writer subject while The Locked Room, whose title refers to a literary device in early detective fiction, is about a blocked writer who discovers his old friend’s unpublished fiction and not only publishes it but takes his missing friend’s place in his family. Each of the novels is closely interconnected with the others. It’s all about identity, writing and the many-layered nature of reality: Paul Austers abound in the first novel – a particular bugbear of H’s – and the second’s protagonists are all named after colours.

I’ve read all three novels several times over the years but not for a while, it has to be said. Writing about them now, I wonder if I’d feel quite so passionately as I did all those years ago although I still have a very soft spot for metafiction as my reading of Ben Lerner’s 10:04 last year reminded me.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?