TrustHernan Diaz
Riverhead May 202219,73 € 416 S.
The ManiacBenjamin Labatut
Penguin Oct 202326,50 € 368 S.
Biography of XCatherine Lacey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Mar 202324,79 € 658 S.

Sneaking into the House

I will discuss three novels published over the past two years. These novels draw heavily from real or imagined lives, or fictional lives presented as real. Through this approach, they expose autobiographies, memoirs, and biographies to the treatment the novel itself has been experiencing (or suffering) for years: to an elaborated form of theft.

The category we’ve come to call «literary nonfiction», and «autofiction» as its main agent, has been breaking into the novel’s house for a long while now, and eventually, the novel is striking back with what’s left in it. As readers, we’re not always sure of what was stolen and from where, but we sense that something went missing from both houses; some objects have been dislocated and others are gone for good. Each wing of the building assaults the other in the hope to aggrandize itself: to appear more legitimate, more relevant, more «real».

The results can be exhilarating or emphasize a general sense of impoverishment. It depends on how cleverly the act of robbery is executed, and on the author’s handling of the evidence on the scene. After years of being looted, the novel started as a weak contender, but the three books I’m discussing here prove that the counterforces of literary imagination are taking on nonfiction and cycling back to their own forms with a renewed sense of empowerment. I would like my judgment on these three novels to be inferred from the layout of their properties and from what they are trying to do. Two of these novels I loved. One I didn’t. You’ll see for yourself.

The Novel, A Stranger I know

First of all, you should know where I am writing from: I’ve spent the past five years discussing my life under the presumption I was talking about fiction.

In 2019, my Italian publisher La nave di Teseo released La straniera, a book I no longer know how to describe although I’ve participated in its public life relentlessly. I have attempted to call it «un’autobiografia del sentire» (an autobiography of listening/feeling) since it’s largely based on my mother’s experience of deafness. In Italian, to hear/to feel are conveyed through the same word, sentire. I have called it a «novel from life» when I needed to be quick, and I’ve always, always made sure readers and critics understood it was an arrhythmical and hybrid piece of fiction without using the word «hybrid», which started to sound funny and maybe a little pretentious.

In 2018, amidst the first draft of La straniera, a friend of mine, who is also the author of very clever maximalist novels, asked what I was working on. I said «I’m writing a book about my parents’ experience of language, the way deafness and migration shaped their lives, as a piece of socio-sentimental linguistics…» «Oh, so you’re writing a memoir.» I made it clear that I was not writing a memoir, although I think that technically, I was.

Years later, La straniera was translated into English as Strangers I Know by Elizabeth Harris, and the «I» that I had so fervently eluded came back at me, obscenely visible. This proves that translation can also switch the genre of a book in a playful yet significant way, and while the main character in La straniera – both channeled by my mother and me – can be easily presented as a larger fictional entity, Strangers I Know introduces the explicit focal point of a main character who has less room to sneak out of her own centrality.

In the cultural ecosystem I was living and working in at the time, writing a memoir still manifested residues of lesser dignity, although very prominent authors had established the prestige of the format. My long-winded explanations on why I was not writing a memoir became methodical: I tried to own the embarrassment I felt and claim it as a poetic and even political choice (who gets to write the story of her own life and at what age, why would my efforts be recognized as literature while my illiterate mother’s diaries were «merely» autobiographical, a genre of survivors?).

In 2020, at the dawn of the pandemic, I started to write a new book. I realized that any residual embarrassment I felt had been swept away by current events. Covid-19 had made the «I» irrelevant. The presumption that every life is unique paled in the face of a situation where very different lives became flattened into the same state of suspended time. Not everybody could afford this suspension, but those who did began lulling their very different lives into the same routine of death, boredom, and fear. Who wanted to read a chronicle about that?

I naively assumed that real history had interfered with literary history – not by inspiring dystopian novels that smell of eau de catastrophe, but by eliminating what was left of autofiction in its final stages of particularization, fragmentation and hybridization. Autofiction too would die from a lack of oxygen; millions of Is had become interchangeable, millions of journal pages irrelevant. The book I worked on while meditating on this turn of events is out now in Italy as Missitalia. While I wrote it, I came across three blockbuster novels that got me thinking more energetically and actively about what the novel can or cannot do at this stage of our literary lives.

Stealing

Trust by Hernan Diaz is work of montage assembling four different formats revolving around the same theme: a journey into the evolution of American capitalism, which is also a journey into mental illness, into cognitive dysphoria, and into a repeated breach of trust.

To grasp the novel’s ambition, one may start from the question «Is Andrew Bevel a real person?», on Google’s People Also Ask. Bevel, the financial tycoon at the center and margins of Trust, might eventually become a real person in the sense that Jay Gatsby is one. It takes long stretches of time to mold a literary character into flesh, to remove its fictional stain and make the public believe that somehow, somewhere, this person must have existed. I do believe this type of projection and faux transgression between reality and fiction is essential to the survival of literature itself.

After all the reproductions, imitations, doppelgangers, and reverberations in American fiction, it has become impossible to read the life of Jay Gatsby within the framework of Fitzgerald’s novel alone. Our reading faculties are constantly re-shaped in the nonfictional mold, and as much as we’d like to avoid the reality trap, we end up doubting that the novelist could have made it all up. We know we’ll sound more naïve than we actually are, but still can’t seem to repress the realist impulse.

Reading The Great Gatsby today feels like following the ambitious biography of a «real person» whose actual existence can be certified via AI-generated imagery. Nick Carraway’s tone in Fitzgerald’s novel is the tone of a writer who wants to win the non-fiction Pulitzer Prize. In the same vein, Andrew Bevel, the main character in Trust, is not a real person yet, but fingers crossed that he becomes one. Did Diaz have anything of this in mind when he chose his four different formats to analyze Andrew Bevel’s life, along with the life of his wife Mildred?

The first format is a bestselling novel called Bonds. Written by a family friend of the Bevels, it narrates the rise of Andrew Bevel’s fictional alter ego Benjamin Rask during the best and worst of times of American capitalism (crack, postwar, strikes, boom), as well as the influential role of his wife Helen, a woman strangled between a mentally frail father and a demanding husband. Bonds is immensely successful and affects Andrew Bevel’s reputation quite badly. He tries to write his own autobiography and fails. (In his version, his wife Mildred dies of cancer, unlike her fictional alter ego Helen, who dies after repeated shock therapy).

Later, Bevel hires the daughter of an Italian anarchist called Ida Partenza to write his biography and help him reclaim some credibility, but her account will eventually focus on the wife. Then older Ida finds Mildred’s journal, and it’s a game changer. As readers, we are allowed to debunk Mildred’s former portrait as an artistic and fragile persona. Instead, we discover her wickedness in playing the financial market. Mildred’s journal feels like hearing a milder Zelda talk about her marriage to Fitzgerald in one single shot. But while Zelda Sayre was adamant in stating who stole details of her life to write great novels, Mildred is aware of her role in manipulating and falsifying the self. She knows that she is the co-author of her husband’s existential quest.

The marketing aura of Trust was very recognizable. The publisher emphasized the genealogy of the book and framed it as a contemporary classic in conversation with some great American and European novels. Even the cover’s hue of green – mineral and potentially poisoning – evoked a sort of latency, a vibe that is modern and ancient at the same time. The campaign evoked not so much what we really know about Edith Wharton, Thomas Mann or Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s writing, but what we believe to be their key achievement as great novels: capturing time. Trust took off in the presumption that if we liked what we remember about these authors, we’d like reading this one, in a spotifyesque flair. But are capturing and stealing the same gesture, in literature?

In a bad joke about AI applied to literature, one could say: if Hernan Diaz used this technology to write his books, Wharton and Mann and Fitzgerald may be the first prompts to be inserted in the machine, but authors like Karl Ove Knausgård and Rachel Cusk were the real dataset the AI was trained on. In this joke, Hernan Diaz is a very sophisticated coder or, on the contrary, just an old school writer plenty aware than the novel is always and foremost a learning machine.

Lots of characters steal something in Trust, but the novel itself tries to do what Andrew Bevel is doing: to reclaim its own respectability. Diaz’s novel feels like a boisterous and ideal first-person statement setting things straight, although it needs to borrow a lot of material from elsewhere: the conventional idea of a memoir, the conventional idea of a journal. The novel senses that it’s no longer enough to rely on its own means, and adjusts.

Borrowing

The Maniac is Benjamin Labatut’s first novel to be written directly in English. The title refers to a proto-computer invented by John von Neumann – one of the numerous involuntary creatures designed by the Hungarian polymath and prodigious theorist.

Much like Christopher’s Nolan Oppenheimer is a legal drama in guise of a biopic, The Maniac is a novel playing with the idea of being experimental biography. Most if not all the facts in the book are heavily researched and documented, and clearly based on real-life events, but Labatut aims for a novel right from the start.

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The illusion is quite potent: when reading his rendering of Paul Ehrenfest in the overture of the book (a physicist who killed his own son in Amsterdam in 1933) and his general portrait of von Neumann, one might think that both men never existed. This is the opposite of Andrew Bevel: there, the compression of a myriad of literary stereotypes into a fictional man creates a simulacrum of reality; here, the meticulous examination of documents, historical facts and textual sources about a real genius creates a simulacrum of fiction. Labatut achieves this effet de fiction by creating a choral structure in part two, with multiple characters describing von Neumann, and by adopting a surreptitious, «dark marvel» tone throughout.

Benjamin Labatut burst onto the international literary scene with When we cease to understand the world, translated into English by Adrian Nathan West in 2021. That book was all about proportions: the multifaceted inventions of mathematicians, alchemists, chemists and the torments of many geniuses are compressed into the same scale of increasing fictionality. The opening chapter of the book is 99 % nonfiction, then the writing gets spiked by the author’s imagination until we’re plunged into a pure short story, unrelated to the rest of the book if not for a vague thematic juxtaposition.

A quick judgment on Labatut’s experiment in When we cease to understand the world is this: the nonfiction part was best. The more the author relied on history and scientific trivia, the better his writing became.

One wonders if this circular impression of his authorial skills prompted Labatut to leave the proportional method behind and to write an experimental literary biography based on a simple rule: in Maniac, literary fiction = literary nonfiction. Equality, not proportionality. No genre upstages the other, although the reader can sense Labatut’s desire for the novel to be empowered: at last, someone is bringing the novel back into the literary game. (The Maniac is also about game theory).

To achieve this purpose, Labatut needs to rely on geniuses whose real lives were already told (if not lived) as novels, sometimes more than for their own good. Labatut’s geniuses are otherworldly even when restrained by the most bureaucratic circumstances; they are necessarily demonic or godly even when wearing a gray suit. From Paul Ehrenfest or John Von Neumann’s lives, Labatut takes whatever is necessary to create a darkly romantic account of their legacy – but other accounts of these two scientists prove that the dark matter was already there in their lifetimes, ready to be revived with some degree of inspiration.

With his geniuses and the authors who have already written about them, Labatut establishes a fair and orthodox relationship: there’s no stealing in his craft, but lots of borrowing. The method is rather transparent: the writer will borrow what he needs in order to build the case, as stated in the final acknowledgments.

Quite tellingly, the second section of The Maniac opens with a quote from Adam Curtis’ 2021 mash-up documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head. The quote is about George Boole, but what’s interesting is the presence of Curtis himself in this interplay of references. Labatut has spoken about Curtis’ influence on his work, which makes a lot of sense because his documentarian style also borrows plot or footage from external archives in order to create artifacts. But their aesthetical effect is different: Curtis’ style is lysergic pop, often kinetically raw in order to evoke something very deep or very superficial within one’s personal repertoire of knowledge about the current state of the world. It’s either very profound or very banal, never in between.

Labatut’s writing tries to achieve something similar, but he lands on the thinner side of Alessandro Baricco’s early pastiche novels on mad geniuses or extravagant accidental composers somewhere in Europe. Bariccos’ relationship to the dark genius was truly original in the sense that it was vocationally novelistic. Labatut’s relationship to his characters reflects all that which is implied in fiction = nonfiction. It feels less risky, somehow.

While Hernan Diaz is meticulous in clearing the «robbery» scene, Labatut has no need to do so, the evidence is out in the open – up until the third part of the book, when AI defeats human intelligence. Here the writing surrenders to the account of verified events, and the author translates old clichés about the man vs. machine battle into his own vernacular, while making very clear the originating source of that sound. The general effect is similar to a transcription.

Gifting

Biography of X is Catherine Lacey’s fourth novel, published in 2023. The desaturation of the self Lacey has explored in her former works turns into a different kind of adventure in this new book. Set in a parallel America governed by a theocratic regime from the «Southern Territories», the novel blends alternative history with the formal codes of «autofiction» or novelized biographies like the ones written by Emmanuel Carrère. At the center of is a woman called C.M. Lucca who is writing a posthumous biography of her late wife, an artist named X.

During the research process, C.M. gets caught in a game of clues about her former wife’s many lives. Unlike Anthony Bevel in Trust, the main character is gone and can no longer defend her own version of the story. The frail judgment on what’s true or false is handed to the novel’s narrator, a former journalist who thinks she has exclusive knowledge about X’s life – but in fact, she’s wrong.

Biography of X has been considered a leap forward in Lacey’s craft, it was called «one of the best Great American Novels of all times» in a rhapsodic review for The Atlantic. If the characters in Lacey’s earlier novels have always longed for anonymity in their quest for freedom, this book is a further exploration of that feeling. X believes that to be seen by many different people at different stages of one’s life is not to be seen at all, a belief she claims both through her art and her politics.

Multiple viewpoints on the same person can make that person disappear, like the blending of all colors at crazy speed achieves nothing but a startling, blinding white: everyone knows something about X, but who she really is remains unknown. One of Lacey’s widely commented and funniest moves in Biography of X is to historicize the present by quoting fictitious articles in prominent American magazines, written by real contemporary critics, in order to make X’s life more real: everyone talks about her, and this leads to an increasing feeling of surprise.

On the surface, Catherine Lacey is a bold thief: she breaks directly into famous people’s lives and takes with her what she can, whether it’s David Bowie, Kathy Acker or an article by Elvia Wilk. Compared to Diaz and Labatut, she’s the most explicit thief of all, yet what she does with the goods she acquires is quite simple: she passes them on as gifts.

Feeling grateful for the «gift» of a good book is a common phrase among bookfluencers. But what I mean here by gift is a sort of gratuitous and generous passing on of references: at one point in Biography of X, the Italian philosopher Carla Lonzi shows up with her leather pants and a white shirt in a room full of women talking about art and practicing «autocoscienza» in the golden age of Italian feminism. Never forgotten but absent from bookshelves for many years, Lacey seems to resurrect Carla Lonzi out of nowhere, a true gift to its readers.

One can sense the influence of Carla Lonzi’s Self-portrait on Lacey’s novel, a nonfiction masterpiece first published in 1969 and available in English thanks to Alison Grimaldi Donahue’s translation. Self-portrait is structured like a «cenacolo» attended by Lonzi to record conversations about criticism, beauty, the inner perception of one’s own work with prominent artists of her time such as Lucio Fontana, Carla Accardi and Pino Pascali. The flow in Biography of X is strikingly similar, melodic and agitated at once, carrying unpredictable moments of light. For one moment it seems that the person who’s speaking about her or himself is strangely centered, only to «run» away a few sentences after.

There are many unexpected presences in Lacey’s novel, and this is one of the gifts she is handing over to her readers. It’s close to what Roberto Bolaño did in short stories like Johanna Silvestri, where suddenly, an Italian singer like Nicola di Bari pops out of the blue, a testimony to his voracious appetite for local signifiers. Biography of X is a repeated mechanism of surprise, although the effect can last shorter for someone less open or interested in this kind of generosity.

Unlike Trust, where the art of stealing runs parallel to the evolution of capitalism and the main characters gain control over themselves by accumulating stories as if they were mortgages on their own lives, and unlike The Maniac, where borrowing from history leads to a stalemate between progress and ethics, Biography of X is a trickster who steals in order to squander. This can be a successful assault at the industry of the first person, the ever-expanding literary market in which we trust to tell the «true» story of the self.

Conclusion, misappropriation

There’s an Italian expression I’m fond of, although I rarely use it, as I usually try to avoid legal dramas: «appropriazione indebita». It means claiming the property of something that you’ve already stolen or illicitly appropriated. The literal translation in English would be «misappropriation», but «indebita» embraces the word «debito», debt. Something you get out of need that you might or might not give back.

While «misappropriation» sounds more menacing and hints at a necessary moral resettlement, «appropriazione indebita» has a lighter touch: it feels more fitting to address the current relationship between literary fiction and nonfiction. Both parties are indebted to each other, they are just switching roles from time to time, playing on our shared memories of what a novel should be and what a novel is not.

The way an author perceives of this debt or indeed of the art of stealing, changes everything: it influences their style and all kinds of formal choices that end up in their books. Carrying out the theft too elegantly might make the novel look trite. Handling the debt with too much indulgence takes away all the fun.

Did I say enough about which novel I didn’t love?

Bio:
Claudia Durastanti lebt und arbeitet als Schriftstellerin und Übersetzerin in Rom. [Mehr lesen]