Sunday, September 27, 2020

Top 10 books of autofiction


Top 10 books of autofiction

From Karl Ove Knausgård to Marguerite Duras, the French author Nina Bouraoui celebrates the writers whose stories are told without invention

Nina Bouraoui
Wed 16 September 2020


n autofiction is a work of truth; the author is not hiding behind an invented character, she is that character. The character’s spiritual and philosophical quest is the author’s own; the “I” of the narrative is the author, recreating the world according to his or her own experience.

She delivers the truth, without altering or falsifying the facts, as if putting together a police report. The power of autofiction comes from its universality. When she tells her own story, the writer describes an expanded world, one that unites us all.

The writer’s own story is the human story, with the same structure and complexity. Autofiction doesn’t arise from the urge to invent, to create a fictional other and tell a tale according to the rules of a particular form. It’s more a way of experiencing the Other as a being similar to oneself: “when I speak of myself, I’m speaking of you.” It may not be the absolute truth the author is telling, but it is her truth as she lived and experienced it.

Towards the end of the 1990s I was asked by the French writer Christine Angot to write an autobiographical novel for her series of autofictions with the general title of Sujet (Subject). I had just started therapy and the analysis spilled over quite naturally into my writing.

I was driven by a genuine craving to write about my origins, my identity, my dual nationality, my sexuality. I felt that in getting to the heart of my own truth, I was also touching on what seemed to be a universal truth. After that I wrote three auto-fictional novels, bringing together my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.

In 2008, I came back to the more traditional novel, inventing characters and stories that weren’t part of my own experience. I wrote All Men Want to Know 10 years later, perhaps as a response to the times. On the one hand gay rights had become more widely recognised and defended, at least here in the west, but at the same time, we were witnessing a rise in verbal aggressions towards minorities in France, as well as a surge in violent homophobic assaults.

I can lay claim to having a triple status: I’m a woman, I’m of mixed race and I’m gay. With the rise of the extreme right, I felt it was important to tell my parents’ story: a French woman marrying an Algerian man, my mother’s arrival in Algiers after 1962, a time when the French were all leaving Algeria; our life there, full of beauty, poetry and sometimes, danger; the discovery of my sexuality. It takes courage to step outside of the norm and become the person you are. I wanted to affirm once and for all that one’s sexuality, one’s identity has a story of its own, that it doesn’t arise from nowhere, that it is not something one chooses.

I feel affection and admiration for all writers of autofiction and for the books they write. It takes a certain kind of courage to deliver up the truth about oneself. I see it as a kind of political act, too: in declaring who you are, you’re also saying something about other people and about the world we inhabit.

1. To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life by Hervé Guibert, translated by Linda Coverdale
Guibert is the father of autofiction, the master of finding that perfect balance of truth and beauty. In this book, he tells the story of his illness, Aids, in the late 1980s. He tells of how life with the virus became an existential adventure, how it affected a generation, how it stole his friends and lovers, and how writing was for him a bulwark against death and destruction. It’s the story of an era, a turning point – when Aids transformed our relationship with desire and sexuality forever.

2. Mars by Fritz Zorn, translated by Robert and Rita Kimber
Zorn could be Guibert’s brother. A somewhat mysterious figure, who only wrote this one novel, Zorn writes of his strict, repressive upbringing and denounces the hypocrisy of bourgeois Zurich. He writes in clinical, icy terms of his cancer, in which, to his great surprise, he found a kind of salvation. This is a book about the prison of the family and the veiled violence within it. A masterpiece.

Marguerite Duras.

 Essential reading … Marguerite Duras. Photograph: INA via Getty Images

3. Practicalities by Marguerite Duras, translated by Barbara Bray
Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand this great writer. In Practicalities, Duras tells of her childhood in Indochina, her relationship with alcohol, her experience of the second world war, of religion, love and the solitude in which books are born. She writes about the places that mattered to her – her house outside Paris, her apartment on the Rue Saint-Benoît. This is Duras as seen by Marguerite, an intimate and major work.

4. A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgård, translated by Don Bartlett
Norwegian writer Knausgård has constructed an autofictional edifice. The master of detail, he writes not only about life as it is being lived, but also about the roots of that life: childhood, adolescence, the death of his tyrannical father. Knausgård’s work, considered by some to be sensationalistic, is the ultimate in provocative, brutally honest autobiographical writing.

Annie Ernaux

5. Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux, translated by Tanya Leslie

This short work tells the story of a woman’s great love. Ernaux’s unadorned prose lays bare the madness of love and the workings of the flesh: expectation, physical tension, surrender – written, as always, with consummate skill. Ernaux never tired of writing of passion and lost love, of the female body and its vertiginous relationship to the male.

6. Incest by Christine Angot, translated by Tess Lewis

With great courage, Angot writes of how an incestuous father ruptured a soul’s equilibrium to the core, fracturing its relationship to love, to the world (in this instance, a conflicted relationship with a woman) and to other people. A work unequalled in its power to give strength and comfort to all abused children.

Françoise Sagan.
 Françoise Sagan. Photograph: Thomas D McAvoy/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

7. Toxique by Françoise Sagan, translated by Frances Frenaye
In 1957, Sagan was involved in a car accident and spent several months in hospital recovering from her injuries. During that time, she kept a journal in which she reflected on pain, writing and morphine. This previously unpublished journal throws light on the work of Sagan, who almost died at the height of her fame and who found herself caught in the infernal cycle of drug dependence.

The story of a generation (the 1980s again) and the key to all of Ellis’s work. This is Ellis from the inside: the origins of Less Than Zero, the success of American Psycho, an overview of our time, Ellis predicting the end of the novel, perhaps, and revealing his desire to tell it all the way he sees it.

9. MD by Yann Andréa

A love story about a young reader (Yann Andréa Steiner) and his passionate admiration for a woman who writes: Marguerite Duras. This is their story, set in Paris and Trouville, told in words and silence. A window on the world of Duras: a world of books, films, plays – and alcohol. Yann Andréa was Duras’s young gay companion, her first reader and her great love.

10. Consent by Vanessa Springora translated by Natasha Lehrer The autobiographical account of a woman, who at the age of 14 was allegedly groomed by a man in his 50s, the writer Gabriel Matzneff. It tells the story of an adult’s hold over a young girl barely out of childhood. This extraordinary book could not have appeared without the #MeToo movement and the power it gave to women to speak out.



French publishing boss claims she was groomed at age 14 by acclaimed author

Vanessa Springora

French publishing boss claims she was groomed at age 14 by acclaimed author

Vanessa Springora describes relationship with Gabriel Matzneff, then 50, in new book

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
Fri 27 Dec 2019 15.57 GMT

The French literary world is in shock after a leading publishing director, Vanessa Springora, alleged in a new book that she was groomed into a damaging relationship from the age of 14 with an acclaimed author who was 50.

White by Bret Easton Ellis review / Sound, fury and insignificance

Bret Easton Ellis


White by Bret Easton Ellis review – sound, fury and insignificance

Bitter rants and petty score settling drive this attack on political correctness in the Twitter age 

Anna Leszkiewicz
Wed 24 Apr 2019 07.30 BST


or reasons clear only to himself, Bret Easton Ellis opens his new book with an image of himself hunched over a screen, pulsating with uncontrollable fury. Minor incidents with strangers on social media had meant an “overwhelming and irrational annoyance started tearing through me up to a dozen times a day”. Alongside this anger came “an oppression I felt whenever I ventured online”. Worst of all, these feelings “could become addictive to the point where I just gave up and sat there exhausted, mute with stress”. But, he adds darkly, “silence and submission were what the machine wanted”.

It’s impossible to read the rest of the book without this image of Ellis – sweaty with rage, contorted over a keypad, humming with paranoia about the demands of “the machine” – coming to mind. Because White, a collection of eight essays that respond to contemporary culture, has all the sound, fury and insignificance of a misguided rant posted at 3am. Except, inexplicably, it has been given the dignity of print publication.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard / Review


A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard – review

A national obsession in Norway, this autobiographical epic is somewhat indigestible

Michel Faber

Wed 25 April 2012


he corpse in A Death in the Family belongs to the author's father, and this book – marketed as fiction, but obviously memoir – is the first instalment of a six-volume fictionalised autobiography that has been phenomenally successful in Norway. The series has been bought by almost half a million of the country's five million inhabitants, necessitating some workplaces to declare "Knausgaard-free days" on which employees were cajoled to talk about something else.

Old favourites / ‘Practicalities’ by Marguerite Duras


Old favourites: ‘Practicalities’ by Marguerite Duras, translated by Barbara Bray (1987)

Rob Doyle
Sat, Jan 26, 2019, 06:00

Rob DoyleWhen she was in her early 70s, the French novelist Marguerite Duras spoke to the writer Jérôme Beaujour about a range of subjects and memories that preoccupied her. Her musings were transcribed, Duras edited them and the result is this consistently interesting book of miniature essays, autobiographical fragments and aphoristic reflections. Although Duras insists on the work’s limitations - “At most the book represents what I think sometimes, some days, about some things . . . The book has no beginning or end and it hasn’t got a middle either” – for my money it’s at least as valuable as the fictions that ensured her renown. In a sense, it’s a pity that authors must first prove themselves with the kinds of work – novels and short stories – that we consider the imprimatur of talent, before the publication of books like Practicalities becomes feasible. Relieved of the obligations of narrative and setting, such secondary works offer a more direct intimacy with an author’s consciousness.

Practicalities might have been titled “Marguerite Duras Talks About Whatever Comes Into Her Head”. The sections bear titles by turns prosaic and suggestive: “The telly and death”, “Alcohol”, “Men”, “The pleasures of the 6th arrondissement”, “Hanoi”, “The smell of chemicals”. Duras reflects on her past work – such novels and films as The LoverModerato Cantabile and Hiroshima Mon Amour. She writes bluntly about her alcoholism – “What stops you killing yourself when you’re intoxicated out of your mind is the thought that once you’re dead you won’t be able to drink any more” – and voices a provocative vision of the relations between men and women and the murky nature of sexual desire. She recounts a sexual encounter she had with an older boy when she was four years old and another with a much older man on a train to Paris when she was a teenager, while her family were sleeping next to them. While the musings are personal rather than abstract, Practicalities hints at a broader truth: after the youthful romance of creative expression fades, writing is a vocation that makes no easy accommodation with happiness.


Mars by Fritz Zorn / In defense of illness as metaphor


By Willard Gaylin
January 17, 1982

MARS By Fritz Zorn. Afterword by Adolf Muschg. Translated by Robert and Rita Kimber. 241 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


FOR a person to have to face death from malignant lymphoma is a tragedy under any circumstances. For a 32-year-old ''adolescent'' whohas never lived, made love, experienced friendship, achieved success, found comfort or known pleasure, it is a particularly grievous tragedy. ''Mars,'' which was published in Germany in 1977 to some intellectual acclaim, is the autobiographical account of a young Swiss raised on the Gold Coast of Lake Zurich who attempted to find some meaning in his existence by writing candidly about it in the months that preceded his death. In that better world of the cinema, he would have left us an illumination that not only served his purposes but transformed his death into a final bequest for all who are suffering and dying. But life is not the movies, and cancer does not confer acuity or wisdom - only pain, suffering and despair. And Fritz Zorn was singularly untalented. With Fritz Zorn being a pseudonym (meaning ''Angry Fritz'') and the author now dead, a reviewer is released from the normal compassion toward the dying and solicitude toward the innocent.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Christine Angot / The Challenge of “L’Inceste” and “The Incest Diary”

The Challenge of “L’Inceste” 
and “The Incest Diary”

By H. C. Wilentz
February 14, 2018

In November of last year, as charges of sexual abuse filled the news, the English translation of “L’Inceste,” by the French writer Christine Angot, arrived in American bookstores. First published in 1999, the book describes, with unsparing precision, a woman’s incestuous relationship with her father, which began when she was fourteen and continued into her late twenties. The narrator, also a middle-aged writer named Christine Angot, embarks on an obsessive relationship with a woman (her first), suffers a manic-depressive breakdown, and recalls, in the process, her father’s abusive coercion. In interviews, Angot has repeatedly—if obliquely—claimed this experience of incest as her own. She told a French journalist that, when she was twenty-eight, she attempted to file charges against her father, but the officer said that too much time had passed. "The only thing worthwhile is literature,” she told the writer. “Justice, the police, it's nothing.”

In France, the book sold seventy thousand copies in the first three months of its release—a huge number there—and vaulted Angot to literary celebrity. French Elle published a joint interview with her and Michel Houellebecq, accompanied by a photograph of the two writers in bed: the irreverent darlings of the fin-de-millénaire Parisian literary scene. Today, Angot remains a prominent public intellectual, notorious for her operatic outbursts. On a recent TV talk-show panel, Angot had a furious disagreement with Sandrine Rousseau, a politician who had recently accused an M.P. of sexual harassment, which left both women in tears. Earlier this month, she lambasted the recent crop of actors who have disavowed their work with Woody Allen, dismissing them as hypocritical opportunists who should have refused to act in his movies from the start.

Sophie Okonedo interview / 'I have to go across the Atlantic to get work'


There could be so many more risks taken in using new people. The tried and tested becomes very boring' …
Sophie Okonedo. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian


Sophie Okonedo interview: 'I have to go across the Atlantic to get work'

Sophie Okonedo is one of Britain's most accomplished and acclaimed actors – but most of her job offers come from the US, where last month she won a coveted Tony award for a Broadway role. So why is the UK neglecting its black stars?

Mark Lawson

Friday 4 July 2014


ew British actors have had a rave review from Barack Obama. But there – on Sophie Okonedo’s mobile phone, when we meet in a cafe near her north London home – is the 44th president of the United States, revealing, in a dressing room at the Ethel Barrymore theatre on Broadway, that he and Michelle had “enjoyed so much” watching her play a poor Chicago mother in the recent revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1950s play A Raisin in the Sun, in a cast that also included Denzel Washington.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

A Raisin in the Sun review / Denzel Washington shines in a bracing revival


A Raisin in the Sun review – Denzel Washington shines in a bracing revival

Ethel Barrymore theatre, New York

This compelling staging of Lorraine Hansberry's play, which forecast America's profound social transformations, boasts taut performances from Washington and Sophie Okonedo

Tom Sellar
Friday 4 April 2014


ifty-five years after its Broadway premiere – the first for a play by an African-American woman – A Raisin in the Sun has returned to the Ethel Barrymore theatre. One way to watch this star-powered revival with Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo is to measure the distance from 1959, when Lorraine Hansberry's stately play forecast the profound social transformations to come from America's burgeoning civil rights movement. Acknowledging this history, director Kenny Leon prefaces the evening with a short audio clip in which Hansberry speaks of the need for a theatre that can illuminate the nation.

A Raisin in the Sun certainly fulfills that mandate, with its bracing story of WalterYounger's hope-hungry family on Chicago's South Side. Yes, the drama creaks in places, and overwrought characters speak in lyrical crescendos found only in plays of the era. But this compelling version of a repertory staple shows how clearly Hansberry can still call to us across the years. A black president may occupy the White House today, but plenty of Walter Youngers remain foreclosed in their dream houses.

Sophie Okonedo on Broadway / 'We try out different things every night'

'I need the iron to be real and hot' ... Sophie Okonedo in A Raisin in the Sun

Sophie Okonedo on Broadway: 'We try out different things every night'

In A Raisin in the Sun, her New York theatre debut, the Hotel Rwanda star likes to keep Denzel Washington guessing – neither of them knows what the other will do next, she says

Alexis Soloski
10 April 2014

When Sophie Okonedo learned that the director Kenny Leon had cast her in the Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, she commenced a series of high kicks.

Hansberry's play, about an African-American clan crowded into a cramped apartment on Chicago's South Side, was named after a line in the Langston Hughes poem Dream Deferred; when we speak a few days after the show's triumphant opening, Okonedo describes her Broadway debut as a "dream come true".

After Earth / Review


After Earth – review

Philip French
Sunday 9 June 2013

Little is expected now from the once fashionable director of such movies as The Sixth Sense and Signs, and this dystopian SF movie is his most conventional to date.

Will Smith plays a general living in a gleaming new city created in outer space after Earth became uninhabitable. Ordered by his beautiful wife (an ill-served Sophie Okonedo) to bond with their depressed son ("He doesn't need a commanding officer, he needs a father"), Smith takes the lad on a flight to another planet. On the way they run into an interstellar storm, crash-land on the abandoned Earth, and the boy (played by Smith's real-life son, Jaden) must make a hazardous journey to find a beacon that will bring assistance to his injured dad. It's dull stuff, indifferently staged, with heavy-handed references to Moby-Dick.


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Sophie Okonedo drops her OBE for services to drama at Prince Charles' feet


Actress Sophie Okonedo was left scrabbling at Prince Charles’ feet
after her OBE dropped off her chest yesterday.

British actress Sophie Okonedo drops her OBE for services to drama at Prince Charles' feet

ACTRESS Sophie Okonedo was left scrabbling at Prince Charles’ feet after her OBE dropped off her chest yesterday.

00:00, 18 DEC 2010
UPDATED09:34, 27 JAN 2012

The 41-year-old Oscar-nominated star of Hotel Rwanda was being honoured for her services to drama when the mishap occurred.

Sophie said: “It was embarrassing. I’m just glad I didn’t trip over.”

Also honoured at Buckingham Pal­­­­ace was bomb expert Karl Ley, 29.

He received the George Medal for clearing more roadside bombs than anyone in history. The dad of three, from Sheffield, defused 139 dev­­ices during one tour of Afghanistan.


Question Time / Sophie Okonedo

Sophie Okonedo stars in Skin, a new film about apartheid in South Africa. 
Photograph: Gareth Davies/Getty Images


Question Time: Sophie Okonedo

Sophie Okonedo on growing up with a huge afro and a Jewish mum, her new film Skin, and why she's excited about playing Winnie Mandela

Hannah Pool
16 July 2009

In your new film Skin you play Sandra Laing, a black woman born in 50s South Africa to Afrikaner parents. Does her story tell us anything about race today?

Oh God, don't ask me questions like that. I don't know. What interests me is that I've been brought up in a white family, and, being black myself, I can really relate to that side of it – questioning your heritage and where you're from; asking, "Is this really my parent?" Particularly when you're young, and everyone says, "That can't be your mum." Nowadays everyone's mixed race, it's not such a big deal, but in the 70s when I was growing up it was more unusual. I used to say, "Mum, am I adopted?" So I can really relate to that – knowing something's not quite right but not being quite sure what it is. My mother's Jewish, so my family is Jewish, and it was hard to believe this young girl with a huge afro had a Jewish mum. But nowadays, anything goes.