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Rick Moody on Gwenaëlle Aubry’s NO ONE

Gwenaëlle Aubry’s remarkable novel No One is on sale now–and you can read excerpts here and here–but perhaps the natural place to start is with the introduction that Rick Moody was kind enough to supply for our translation. Enjoy.

In case you dwell on the American side of the Atlantic, let me catch you up on a recent development in international literature—l’autofiction.

L’autofiction is the French term for the stylized hybridization of fiction and autobiography as applied in contemporary literature. It’s in relatively wide circulation, this coinage, dreamed up, originally, by one Serge Doubrovsky in 1977, perhaps as a term of self-discovery, or of literary politics. The movement waited for about a generation to lift off however. By now, l’autofiction is nearly pandemic, at least continentally speaking. An uncharitable theorist of contemporary literature would find in these particular tea leaves a draining away of the power of imagination, perhaps along the lines of David Shields’s recent manifesto on the value of non-fiction, Reality Hunger. But this reality hunger reading would be to dramatically miss the nuance in contemporary French literature—the way the writers of France occasionally situate themselves, paradoxically, oxymoronically, between autobiography and fiction, between genres, finding in this impulse the energy and liberty that is released by recombination. Autofiction is all about this nuance, this historical wisdom; it’s about exploiting the energy of uncertainty and possibility between the imaginary and the documentary, in the process staying close to the human intention that is language, which is not, after all, a creature of genres.

Gwenäelle Aubry’s No One coincides with this recent revolution in French contemporary writing. The title in French, which makes clear its multiple layers, is Personne, which literally means no one, but which also has traces of the Latinate persona, and the Etruscan phersu, mask, and the English person.

The story is simple. The father of the narrator of No One, the father of one Gwenäelle Aubry, is an intellectual of some heft and import who in the middle of his life’s journey becomes episodically, seriously, progressively, mentally ill. Not just a little bit mentally ill, but deeply, psychotically, unstably mentally ill, given to flights of free association and impulsive behavior of a kind that could jeopardize the maturation of his two daughters. The causative event of No One, the engine of its alphabetical recollections of his multiple personae, is Gwenäelle’s discovery, after the death of her father, of a self-composed manuscript that attempts to detail his life and times. Through this manuscript, (and in it and with it), she attempts to make peace with her father—after the fact of his death.

It’s possible that this is a precisely realistic account of Ms. Aubry’s life, and of her father, Francois-Xavier Aubry—this story as described. But if it were an entirely realistic account in, for example, the literature of the country where I am writing these lines, it would likely be organized in relentless dramatic scenes, involving Gwenäelle, her sister, and her mother (all but absent here), or perhaps a bevy of friends who exist so that Gwenäelle Aubry can talk to someone about all the horrible, strange, but ultimately loveable things that her father has done. We would get fully dramatized accounts, progressive stages of paternal unreliability, sentimental flights of description. This would be the reality programming edition of No One, perfectly calibrated for the tastes of voyeurs.

But this is not the account we have at all. The alpha and omega of No One is a life in linguistic traces. No One is not only aware of l’autofiction and of the whole way that French literature has played out recently, but is also fully cognizant of the philosophical and theoretical pretexts that undergird some of what autofiction wants to do. In particular, we might speak of the way the later work of Roland Barthes, particularly, A Lover’s Discourse (or Fragments d’un discours amoureux, as it is known on that side of the ocean), with its alphabetical organization of fragmentary meditations on love, prepares the way for Aubry’s work. No One would not exist in the particular form it is in were it not for Barthes, but, still, that is only to describe its most manifest layer, and its manifest layer is to miss so much of what is really going on in the grave, stately sadness of its pages.

No One therefore begins and with textual ramifications (with écriture), with a fragmentary but heavily quoted manuscript by Francois-Xavier Aubry, above which and beyond which exists the second text, the narrator’s own, by a lucid and wise French writer who also studied philosophy, and who knows her Barthes, and her Deleuze, and her French psychonalysis. But there’s even a third layer, too. The opening of No One features a recitation (a récit) of the facts surrounding Antonin Artaud’s incarceration, in the mid-forties, at the rather severe and draconian mental hospital known as Rodez. Artaud is a shadow character in Aubry’s novel, or a shadow text, so that this autofiction, if that’s what it is, is full of shadows, full of analogies, full of characters, full of texts, the apparatus of literature, even if its immediate concerns are the consciousnesses of two people, narrator and father. As such, it is short, it is compact, highly poeticized, highly philosophical, but with fields of implication that range distantly. Just as Artaud, these days, is considered a French poet, though most of what comprises his later output is in a poetical form because that is all that a paranoid-schizophrenic can manage late in life, just so is No One poetical, and compact, because that is what a grief-stricken philosopher and intellectual, Gwenäelle Aubry, can manage, when confronted with this father, real or imaginary, or neither, or both.

What makes this a great book, then, is first its recoiling from conventional storytelling. This is, rather, storytelling by implication, with a reliance on patient attention and on the particulars of language. And there is a certain kind of language required for such a task–the description of grief—a language haunted with loss, but one that is unsentimental and celebratory (in an unsimplistic way), one admirably obsessed with accuracy. As in this representative passage:

He had such a love of order and ritual, finery and ceremony, he had played so often with his own death, that I was convinced, when it came, that he must have tried to give it a form, to shape it in his own image and that of the life it had penetrated so deeply. In the little white room I opened boxes and files, flicked through his countless notebooks for the first time, found the blue folder and the manuscript it contained. And, on page 169, I read the words that gave his death a face: I’m hoping for a pretty death.

No One finds it pathos in this way, in the circling around, in a great many iterations of being and non-being, in returning and departing, darting and feinting into the father’s manuscript and the particulars thereof, and beyond that manuscript, as well. Perhaps we have to speak of a Venn diagram in which the narrator’s account and the father’s account collide in just the right way, where there is nothing to do but gaze mournfully at the collisions, les mots justes, of their points of view, wherein is heartache, the very considerable heartache, that must swamp the daughter of the terribly distant father. A specter of a father. No One does not describe sentimental incident, it describes moments of insight, in which the cloudy agent of forgetting creeps in and out, so that the effort to understand must be constantly repeated, even as there is a desire to notate and preserve. There’s nothing tidy about this grief. There’s no American style closure. Which makes No One all the more genuine, all the more lasting.

Aubry won the Prix Femina for the book you are holding, which is a belated, mid-career example of literary justice. The book could have come only at this instance in her career, when she’d learned what she had learned from her earlier work, able, in mid-career, to know what a mid-career novelist knows, which is wisdom and patience and relinquishment. A lot had to happen before this book could happen, and all kinds of struggle had to precede this hard, bright, gem. But No One also won the Prix Femina because France understands and supports the language of a broader conception of psychology, and especially psychology in extremis (see, e.g., Artaud’s late radio play, To Have Done With the Judgment of God, funded by the state radio), as it also understands that the form No One takes, this very French hybrid, is one direction where literature can go profitably. There is scarcely a better example of creative thinking about the form of literature now than what Aubry has composed here. It rises up out of the field of European contemporary writing with an uncanny clarity, and so we are extremely lucky now to have it, too, in English, in this fine translation by Trista Selous.

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  1. [...] Derived from the French term l'autofiction which was coined by Serge Doubrovsky in 1977 autofiction refers, as Rick Moody writes, to 'the stylized hybridization of fiction and autobiography as [...]

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