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Where do I end and my stories begin? The tricky business of writing fiction about your own life

Detail from MC Escher’s Drawing Hands
Detail from MC Escher’s Drawing Hands (1948) Credit: © The M.C. Escher Company, The Netherlands. All rights reserved. www.mcescher.com

In the autumn of 1817, a year after Byron separated from his bluestocking wife, Annabella Milbanke, he moved to Venice and began an affair with Marianna Segati, the wife of his landlord, a draper. “Her great merit is finding out mine,” he wrote to his publisher in London, John Murray. “There is nothing so amiable as discernment.”

Murray used to share Byron’s long gossipy letters with the coterie of writers who showed up at his office in Albemarle Street. News of other relationships followed, and eventually Murray suggested to Byron that he “give me a poem, a good Venetian tale describing Manners formerly – from the Story itself – & now from your own observations & call it – Marianna”. It was a suggestion that eventually produced a small masterpiece, Beppo (1818). Byron took the plot from Marianna’s husband, who used to visit the poet and his friends at the palazzo he later rented outside Venice, and tell them stories.

Around the same time, Murray was hesitating about publishing Manfred, Byron’s metaphysical drama, because it gave autobiographical hints about the author’s passion for his own half-sister, Augusta. Various contradictory forces were beginning to converge. Byron also began writing his memoirs “without any intention of making disclosures or remarks upon living people, which would be unpleasant to them…” (Or so he promised; six years later, after his death, Murray burned those memoirs in the same office without having read them.)

Portrait of Lord Byron in Albanian dress, 1813 Credit: Culture Club 

Byron’s appeal, as he knew perfectly well, had always depended to a certain extent on the character of the author. London was small enough, and his audience large enough, that the fantasy of meeting him played a part in how his books were received. But in Beppo he started to make a game of it – by teasing readers with glimpses of his failed marriage, when he praised women who don’t “deal (thank God for that!) in mathematics”:

Why I thank God for that is no 
 great matter,
I have my reasons, you no doubt
 suppose,
And as, perhaps, they would not highly flatter,
I’ll keep them for my life (to come) 
 in prose…

All of these games and problems will seem familiar to readers of Rachel Cusk or Karl Ove Knausgaard or Olivia Laing… or Philip Roth or Nora Ephron or Tobias Wolff. Before autofiction we had Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood (1966), and a few hundred years before that came the roman-á-clef – such as Glenarvon, written by Byron’s ex-lover, Caroline Lamb in 1816. Ever since the invention of the novel form, we have had fictions pretending to be memoirs. The different terms suggest slightly different styles or points of emphasis, but they all try to wrestle into some kind of shape the uncomfortable relationship between truth and stories.

Philip Roth revisiting his childhood home of Newark, 1968 Credit: Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

A few weeks before Portnoy’s Complaint came out, in 1969, Philip Roth took his parents to lunch. He wanted to warn them about the kind of attention that was heading their way. Even though his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, had won the National Book Award, his next two suggested a writer still finding his feet. But he’d already had indications in the run-up to publication that Portnoy’s Complaint – about the sexual fantasies, frustrations and experiments of a highly Oedipal Jewish kid from New Jersey – was going to be different, and he worried that the taboo-breaking, confessional tone would involve his family in some of the backlash. He remembered his mother’s response: my poor boy, she thought, has delusions of grandeur. When the book comes out, and nothing happens, he’s going to be so disappointed.

In the end, whatever disappointment he felt had little to do with a lack of attention. But success of that kind changes you (Roth later said about Portnoy, “I was on the brink of swapping my identity for his”), so it changes what you write about and how you write it. His response to the experience, Zuckerman Unbound, appeared 12 years later. In it he imagines himself as a writer named Nathan Zuckerman, whose recent Portnoy-style novel Carnovsky has turned him into a figure for the gossip pages – there are ridiculous tabloid stories about how he sleeps with movie stars, which he resents. At the same time, Zuckerman Unbound is partly about Roth’s own relationship with a movie star. It’s the kind of teasing Byron learned to do in Beppo; and for the rest of his life, Roth continued to use Zuckerman, in novels such as I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000), to raise questions about the line dividing life and fiction.

Roth has a number of rules for the games he plays – which you can work out sometimes from the novels themselves, as part of the game. Don’t put yourself in a book to make yourself look good. Niceness, he writes, is even worse in writers than in other people. You also have to undermine every stand or view a novel seems to take. Part of the point of these meta-games is to suggest a kind of realism: how difficult it is to arrive at the real truth, the straight story, since it will always be mediated by someone and contradicted by someone else. Which doesn’t mean that all accounts are equal, just that all accounts have consequences that tend to affect the people involved.

When Lisa Halliday wrote about her own relationship with Roth in Asymmetry (2018), she chose fiction and split the narrative into different parts and perspectives. The book also plays with a literary alter ego, Alice, whose affair with a famous elderly writer toys with the reader’s appetite for gossip about Roth (“Who did this to you?” she asks, when she sees all the surgical scars mapped on his body. “Norman Mailer,” he replies). At the same time the novel as a whole asks questions about who has the right to tell other people’s stories.

Karl Ove Knausgaard photographed by Rii Schroer for the Daily Telegraph in 2018 Credit: Rii Schroer 

Ten years ago, Karl Ove Knausgaard was a well-regarded Norwegian novelist who felt trapped in the narrow routines of middle-class married life, looking after his young children, writing. Then he began My Struggle, about the death of his father. In it, he seemed to abandon any idea of a fictional veil, though in fact the opening volume involved much of the kind of careful revision that he eventually learnt to resist. “When I was writing,” he told The New Yorker, “I felt very strongly that I had made my father into something like a character in a novel, and that I had manipulated people so that they could feel what I felt, or what I wanted them to feel, in relation to him. I felt that I was cheating.”

But the books also had very real consequences for those characters, as he describes in the sixth and final volume (published only two years after the first, in 2011, as if there were some correlation between speed of composition and truthfulness): “This novel has hurt everyone around me, it has hurt me, and in a few years, when they are old enough to read it, it will hurt my children.”

The novelist Adam Foulds, in his preface to a recent edition of Thomas Mann’s 1924 The Magic Mountain, talks about “the raw, irreducible strangeness, that sense of a lump of radioactive psychic matter” that a fictional dream should have. But it’s also a good description of the quality fiction should have, and one source of that “raw, irreducible strangeness” is the writer’s personal life. The level of radioactivity can be measured by the danger of handling it in public. Rachel Cusk suffered from the fallout after publishing Aftermath in 2012, an account of the break-up of her marriage. “The arrows hurled at [Cusk] may also have something to do with the form she has chosen for her reflections,” observed Lisa Appignanesi in an admiring review in The Telegraph. “Rather than fiction we are, as she herself emphasises, in the world of fact.”

Cusk offered this justification: “An account of real events arouses you more physically: it actively engages your fears, your capacity for courage or terror, your outrage, your jealousy, your sympathy.” Or, as Byron had put it 200 years earlier, in a letter to John Murray: “There should always be some foundation of fact for the most airy fabric – and pure invention is but the talent of a liar.”

Byron was talking about the historical background to a drama he was thinking of writing, Marino Faliero – “This was the thing that most struck my imagination in Venice.” But when the facts involved his own life (to come, in prose), his publisher Murray burned them. And Cusk seems to have learned a similar lesson. Her next three books were all presented as novels. “Somehow, one felt,” wrote Alex Clark in The Guardian, “Cusk stood accused of selling her life and her brain, and her subsequent trilogy, in which the writer effaces herself and thrusts forward others’ words, can stand as a response to that.”

Ben Markovits Credit: David Rose 

Last year I published a novel called A Weekend in New York, about a tennis player whose German-Jewish-Texan family visit him in New York whenever he qualifies for the US Open. A former student of mine runs a bookshop in East Grinstead and asked me to talk to her reading group, so I did. (One of the things you should learn as a writer is never to visit a book group – they have people in them who will tell you what they actually think.) I explained the family background behind the novel, which was more or less my own family background, and added that even though I am not now and never was a professional tennis player, I used to (very briefly and badly) play basketball for a living. Tennis struck me as a sport that comes closer to the life of a writer than basketball – it’s more solitary. Failure leaves you with nobody else to blame.

Then the discussion began. A woman said, “I didn’t like any of the characters in this book. And I don’t think they loved each other either.” There’s not much you can say to this but I tried to say it anyway – that love and intimacy are actually a form of close attention that can shine its light on unpleasant things, too. Afterward, on the depressingly quiet train ride back to London, I thought about what everybody had said. (People also disagreed with the woman.) A novel exposes you in various ways, not just personally – it’s an attempt to put a world together, and so it reveals hundreds of instincts and theories you have about what the world is like. Some of those you’re conscious of, others not.

The idea that I didn’t love or like my family wasn’t one of my worries – I knew that much wasn’t true. If anything, I and the characters in my book seem too deeply involved in the lives of their parents and siblings. But the woman’s response also struck me as genuine and worth thinking about. There’s a kind of progress a writer tries to make toward greater truthfulness (which Knausgaard refers to as one of the goals of My Struggle), which isn’t that different from the progress a weightlifter tries to make towards heavier weights. More is better, but it also seems perfectly reasonable, if you’re watching the performance, to wonder how necessary the effort is. Any response a writer makes to criticism is bound to have some alloy of defensiveness in it, and this is the form mine took.

Sitting on the empty train, I remembered that line in Hamlet, when Polonius asks the young prince what’s in the book he’s reading. “Slanders, sir,” Hamlet replies, and then goes on to repeat what the writer says about old men, their wrinkles, their grey beards, their weak hams. “All which, sir,” he adds, and this is the bit I remembered, “though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down.”

Benjamin Markovits’s latest novel 
is Christmas 
in Austin (Faber, £16.99)