Writing from Life

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An essay by Ian Jack for the 2008 festival

Ian Jack is a writer and editor. From 1995 to 2007 he edited the literary magazine Granta and from 1991 to 1995 The Independent on Sunday, of which newspaper he was a co-founder. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian.

In 1999 the writer Elena Lappin published in Granta magazine the fullest account then available of the enormous deceit that lay behind a book called Fragments. The author named on the cover, Binjamin Wilkomirski, had apparently survived a childhood spent in Auschwitz. The brutal scenes inside the camp were rendered persuasively and the book claimed - and received - a literary as well as a documentary distinction; it won awards as a 'Holocaust memoir'. Of course, none of the story it told was true. Wilkomirski was in reality a Swiss citizen, Bruno Doessekker, who had never been near a death camp. Nevertheless, his fantasy of barbarity and survival deceived editors in Frankfurt, New York and London, as well as many thousands of readers.

I was editor of Granta at that time and while I was editing Lappin's piece I called the London publisher of Fragments to ask him if, in the light of Lappin's research that proved the book indisputably a hoax, he would withdraw it from his list or reclassify it as fiction. 'Why?' he said. 'Because it's fiction and not non-fiction,' I said. 'No', he said, 'it isn't non-fiction and it isn't fiction. It's a memoir.'

I've always remembered those words: not non-fiction, not fiction, but a memoir - and so, by the publisher's reasoning, a respectable literary form ambiguously situated somewhere between both. In fact, Fragments was later withdrawn: the memoir form may be ambiguous - or, let's say, it may allow ambiguous tendencies - but Doesseker/Wilkomirski was pure fiction: Auschwitz certainly existed and the particular scenes Fragments described aren't unlikely, but the 'I' of the narrative is completely made up. Outside Doesseker's head, Wilkomirski never existed. One might as well describe Robinson Crusoe as a memoir: 'The Life and strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe … Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself … With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates. Written by Himself', as its introduction says, though Daniel Defoe, the author of that great novel, had been no closer to shipwreck on a desert island than Doesseker/Wilkomirski had been to Auschwitz. Crusoe was published in 1719 and it's hard to know if the reading public in the early 18th century made a firm division between what was 'true' - that is, had actually happened to the author - and what was merely grounded in another person's reality, in this case most probably that of the Scottish sailor, Alexander Selkirk.

Today, however, readers want to know what's what. Is it fiction or is it non-fiction, is it invented or did it really happen? If writers had legally binding contracts with readers some form of those words would need to be included. And there would be more and more such contracts, because the autobiographical form has never been so popular (bookshop shelves labelled 'Real Lives', a sub-genre called 'Misery Memoirs') and never before have there been so many scandals when confessional literature (abused childhoods, addictions of all kinds) turns out to be lies. You might have imagined that the fuss over Fragments would serve as a cautionary tale. Instead it seems to have been an inspiration. In the decade since Doessekker's story was revealed as a fantasy there have been many hoaxes. The most famous is James Frey's story of addiction, A Million Little Pieces, a memoir that was proved to be at least partly fictional, but not before it got on Oprah. Frey's deceit is far from the most spectacular. Margaret B. Jones, author of the gang memoir Love and Consequences, was recently discovered not to be a half-white, half-native American raised as a foster child by a black family in the roughest part of Los Angeles but a woman called Margaret Seltzer from a privileged background in the suburb of Sherman Oaks. Another memoirist, Misha Defonseca, confessed this year not to have been raised by wolves in the forests of Europe during the Holocaust (the imaginative spirit of Defoe is far from dead).

But let's not be too hard on these people. Remember that many American writing schools have a department called Creative Non-Fiction; remember our seemingly insatiable appetite for 'reality' in television shows and the films and novels that boast of their origins in a 'true story'; and remember the words of Fragments' publisher about memoirs being neither fiction nor non-fiction. There's some truth in that. Once upon a time, the time when good manners and social shame were powerful influences on writerly behavior, the author's life became that thing called the autobiographical novel - think of David Copperfield. Most of these inhibitions have now disappeared and fictional disguise is no longer so necessary in writing an intimate account of one's life. Still, that intimate account needs often to borrow the tricks of its predecessor, the autobiographical first-person novel, if it's to succeed as a story. Characters need to be established, scenes described, dialogue created, a structure other than the purely chronological devised. Then we are on a slippery slope, because only so much can be truly remembered and all story-writing, no matter how tied to reality, depends on artifice and omission. Some great and much-loved memoirs have been built on this slippery slope - my own favourites include V.S. Pritchett and J.R. Ackerley - but the slope towards the novel steepens the more the writer invents. The mistake of James Frey and others was not getting off the slope quickly enough - or perhaps they were blind to a slope in the first place.

This year's Paris festival will discuss these and other issues related to biography and autobiography, and hear some of their finest modern practitioners. Paris is a fitting place for such a discussion. It was here in 1770 that Jean-Jacques Rousseau completed his Confessions, which begin with the famous sentences, 'I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself.' Rousseau confessed to many unflattering things, including the abandonment of his five illegitimate children. He is the father of the modern memoir, and those opening words remain its best manifesto.

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