A Life: Fact, Fiction, Faction, Friction . . .
Some days ago, I posted an entry on an article by Professor Eli Park Sorensen (Seoul National University) concerning 'true' and 'false' autobiography that introduced the strange, troubling case of one unusual man's 'autobiography':
Binjamin Wilkomirski's "Fragments: Memories of a Childhood 1939-1948" provides an intriguing example of this problematic[, namely, how to define the genre of autobiography]. Written from the perspective of a very young child, the text was immediately hailed by numerous critics and scholars as an exemplary Holocaust memoir upon its release in 1995. When it was demonstrated some years later that Wilkomirski's text was in fact a fabrication -- i.e. when it was proved beyond doubt that the author was not a Holocaust survivor; that he had spent the war years not in Auschwitz but in Switzerland; and that he was not even Jewish -- the author withdrew from public, and his memoir was removed from the bookshelves.In effect, Wilkomirski wrote a work of fiction, thinking that he was writing an autobiography. By contrast, it seems, another writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, has written a work of autobiography, thinking that he was writing fiction:
What makes this case so compelling is that Wilkomirski seemed to have been genuinely convinced of the authenticity of his story -- a tragic or tragically deluded figure, rather than a deliberate fraud. Years before writing his book, Wilkomirski had been seeing a psychiatrist with whom he managed to "recover" a series of fragmented memories that kept troubling him. Wilkomirski attempted to reconstruct these traumatic, incoherent and hazy memories by voraciously reading Holocaust memoirs and history books, as well as undertaking several research trips to Poland and Latvia; all this, he claimed, to confirm that what he vaguely remembered from his childhood was indeed real.
By the time he wrote "Fragments," Wilkomirski possessed a considerable knowledge of Holocaust history, having amassed a vast library of reference material related to the period. Retrospectively, one might say that whereas his trauma seems genuine, he discovered the wrong autobiography, someone else's life. (Eli Park Sorensen, "Fraudulent memoirs and the autobiographical pact," Korea Herald, June 16, 2013)
Book 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's "My Struggle" -- published in English last year -- begins with an arrestingly beautiful reflection on death which moves seamlessly into the life of a troubled child . . . . Just as Book 1 of "My Struggle" was about death and family, so too is this second volume, subtitled "A Man in Love." In it, the master theme of death remains hauntingly present, but it comes to be paired with another: birth and what precedes it. While "A Man in Love" tells of the rapture and intoxication of love, it also turns a cold and at times clinical eye on romantic ecstasy and the marital equation, relating in painstaking -- at points agonizing -- detail the fading of the first flush of love, the cooling and contracting of feeling.These two books, Wilkomirski's and Knausgaard's, are apparently opposites, yet also twins, entwined by the same two questions: is this fact, or is this fiction; is this fiction, or is this fact? Wilkomirski's memories are not his own, so the early life he constructed, and believed in, is fiction, yet the memories are filled with facts from his extensive reading of holocaust literature and are therefore in some sense factual; Knausgaard's fiction is his own life, so the fictional work he has constructed, and believed, perhaps, to be fiction, is an extensively factual account, despite its aim as fiction, and it thus perhaps qualifies as memoir, autobiography. These two books converge, subjected to scrutiny focused by the two questions, perhaps because they are not quite what they claim to be.
Whereas Book 1 was concerned with childhood and adolescence, with learning what death is and what living can be, Book 2 centers on what its narrator calls "the middle of life." He is careful to point out that while his age (mid-30s to 40) reflects a chronological or probabilistic midpoint, he means the midst of life as much as its midpoint. He is not only well advanced in life, he is surrounded and at times submerged by it, with a growing family: a wife and three small children, each wonderful, each with problems, each with demands. And he is, as we all are, in the midst of life's minutiae -- from cigarette rolling to coffee drinking, diaper changing to dish washing. This wealth of hyper-realistic detail places us in the midst of a life, and gives relief to its moments of passion and despair, insight and confusion, anger and love. Not only this, however, it also presents to the reader the real struggle: how to take all this shifting, teeming minutiae and in it find, and give, meaning . . . .
[I]mmediately striking . . . is . . . the ways in which fiction is born of fact, and the question whether this is fiction at all . . . . [T]he narrator of "My Struggle" has the same name as the author and seems to have lived much the same life, to have been preoccupied by much the same concerns and to be, as . . . narrator, in search of a subject for his story, which subject turns out to be that very search . . . . Knausgaard, it appears, has not [changed a great deal -- invented or amalgamated places . . . , people . . . and events] -- and this has led to threats of legal action on the part of family members and a level of national and international attention such that a number of Norwegian companies have declared Knausgaard-free days during which debate is to be suspended in the name of some modicum of productivity. (Leland de la Durantaye, "Inside Story: Book 2 of 'My Struggle,' by Karl Ove Knausgaard," New York Times, June 21, 2013)
Incidentally, there's yet another, somewhat disturbing, if superficial, connection between the two writings -- Wilkomirski believed himself to have written a book of his experience as a victim of Nazi persecution, and the Norwegian title of Knausgaard's book is, provocatively, perhaps offensively, Min Kamp, precisely the Norwegian translation of the German title Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler, both meaning "My Struggle" . . .