April’s post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge reprises a post I wrote years ago and which only Melanie read. Until years later anyway when I was admonished by ‘Azzurosky’ for claiming Sybylla’s older admirer, ‘Goring Hardy’ was based on Banjo Paterson, but on reflection that is a claim by which I stand.
This week I have been on holiday in Bendigo for mum’s 90th birthday – which went very well, thank you – and now I am in Melbourne loading for home. I must say holidaying with family doesn’t seem to leave any more time for blogging, than does working.
by Bill Holloway
Making the case that My Career Goes Bung, far from being a ‘sequel’, is the ‘frame’ through which Franklin wishes us to re-view her adolescent masterpiece My Brilliant Career.Read on … (my apologies to the early birds who got this far and discovered I’d forgotten to provide the link).
Don’t worry, this is not a lesson, I just want to think out loud a bit about why fiction which may or may not be a direct transcribing of the author’s journals is my favourite type of writing. My starting point will be Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which I have just read – or re-reread, a lot of the situations seemed familiar – but where will we go from there? Rooney’s other works, An I-Novel, Miles Franklin, Eve Langley, Jane Austen (why not?).
Even before going on I realise I’ve left out Justine Ettler and her discomfort with the reception of The River Ophelia, paralleling Franklin’s discomfort with the reception of My Brilliant Career 90 odd years earlier, and with the same consequence. Sales were suspended.
Let’s say autofiction is a work where the author bases her – I seem to have only offered female examples – protagonist on herself but puts her in situations which the reader cannot know are real or fictional. By all means improve or dispute my definition, but that is where I’m starting.
The way the term is used tends to be unstable, which makes sense for a genre that blends fiction and what may appear to be fact into an unstable compound
New York literary critic Christian Lorentzen, 2018 (Wiki)
And the reason I like autofiction so much is: writers whose objective is to be writers don’t bother with too much story-telling, they just put themselves on the page with all the skill they can muster; the protagonist subjects herself to intense introspection; the writer is writing what she knows, no energy is spent on invention (where this leaves my other love, Science Fiction is a question for another day).
Sally Rooney (1991- ) has now released three works: Conversations with Friends (2017), Normal People (2018), Beautiful World, Where are You (2021). In Conversations Rooney takes her third year at uni (Trinity College, Dublin) and explores friendship, sex and love through the protagonist, Frances, her friend and lover, Bobbi, and an affair with the married, older actor Nick. I’m guessing she uses an ‘affair’ because she wishes to avoid the clumsiness of young love/first sex, though this is the first time Frances has had sex with a man.
Normal People I’ve lent to someone, my daughter probably, but basically Rooney offers an alternative coming-of-age (to Conversations), starting at the end of high school with Marianne and Connell, taking them to Trinity College, and then taking Marianne through some masochistic relationships without ever losing sight of Connell. One day a literary biography well tell us (or my grandchildren more likely) what truths, or not, this is based on.
Beautiful World, Where are You reads like a transcription of Rooney’s diary now she is a wildly successful writer, though no doubt she has just taken her present position and around that woven four different ways of dealing with being 30.
Minae Mizumura (1951- ) is a Japanese-American writer whose An I-Novel (1995) is mostly the thirtyish Minae and her sister Nanae talking on the phone about their life in America wishing they were in Japan. The I-novel is a Japanese form of autofiction dating back at least to the early 1900s. Of the novelists I’ve named only Mizumura and Justine Ettler used their own names for their protagonists, which for some (not me) is a necessary part of autofiction.
Justine Ettler (1965- ) wrote Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (1996) and then The River Ophelia (1995), though you can see they were published in reverse order. Marilyn is a straight autofiction first novel, but The River Ophelia is an astonishing exploration of Justine’s subjection to sadism. Ettler became so upset about the assumption that it was autobiography that she stopped both books being sold (see my interview with her).
Miles Franklin (1879-1954) wrote My Brilliant Career (1901) when she was a teenager, probably writing chapters and reading them out to amuse her friends as she describes in her subsequent works. Sybylla is Miles and Possum Gully is Thornford, the small farming community near Canberra (then a village) where she grew up, but the story is just a story, or sequence of stories, as Miles who was very prudish, imagines ‘love’ or more often the disagreeableness of ‘love’, and caricatures her family and fellows without thought for their reactions on seeing themselves in print.
Following MBC’s success, at least with everyone who didn’t know her, Miles wrote two follow-ups, The End of My Career (1902) and On the Outside Track (1903) both re-presenting the same ‘facts’ but framing MBC as a spoof autobiography written by a fictional author who just happened to have the same name, Sybylla Melvyn, as the protagonist of the new work. Very postmodern when Modernism had hardly got under way. Sadly, both were refused publication, and so Miles withdrew MBC from sale “until ten years after her death”.
The End was subsequently revised and published as My Career Goes Bung (1946) – more in my next post on the Australian Women Writers Challenge (13 Apr.) – and On the Outside Track was re-written as Cockatoos (1954), the best of her autobiographical works in my opinion, to fit in with the Brent of Bin Bin series (which is based on generations of Miles’ mother’s family).
Eve Langley (1904-1974), probably the most lyrical Australian author ever, wished to live in the Bush as a character out of a Henry Lawson story, and so she and her sister ‘Blue’ famously adopted men’s clothing and went out into eastern Victoria as itinerant farm workers. Eve kept a journal for every year and when, in dire straits in New Zealand during WWII she heard of the upcoming Prior Prize she wrote up her first journal as a novel, The Pea Pickers (1942), the story of a woman wanting the love of a man but determined to preserve her independence. One of Australia’s great novels won one third of first place, £100, promptly spent by her husband.
Her second journal became White Topee (1954) and the New Zealand journals (no.s 6 -12) were edited down by Lucy Frost from about 3,000pp to the 300 page and tremendously sad Wilde Eve (1999).
Ok, we’re nearly at the end and it’s reading a bit (a lot) like a lesson. Sorry. Let’s consider Jane Austen (1775-1817). I’ve loved Austen’s writing all my adult life. She doesn’t exactly write autofiction, and her works, brilliantly written of course, are not introspective. But I suspect that her first work, Love and Freindship, and also Sense and Sensibility, arose out of her time at boarding school, 1785-86. Silly girls telling each other stories of ‘love’. Pride and Prejudice is clearly Jane and (older sister) Cassandra given the romances that life (or their own preferences) denied them; the Austen parents lampooned affectionately as Mr and Mrs Bennet, and love sought, found, withdrawn etc. Then as Jane matures so do her heroines.
Re-reading, as you must when you’re your own editor and proofreader, suggests this conclusion: that earlier and many current writers, eg. Rooney, base characters on themselves, but that autofiction is the self-conscious placing of a character representing the author into a fictional setting, resulting in a close interrogation of the author’s character.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) were themselves pretty well inseparable but Sartre at least is not who this short work of autofiction is about, but rather de Beauvoir and her childhood friend, Elisabeth ‘Zaza’ Lacoin, given here the names Sylvie and Andrée. I mention Sartre because I became a Sartre fan at university and it is only through him that I have had any interest in de Beauvoir, who was of course a feminist icon and the author of The Second Sex (1949).
The Inseperables was unpublished in de Beauvoir’s lifetime, presumably because she did not wish it to be, but was found later amongst her papers. It is a slight work, 123pp without all the accompanying material – Introduction, translator’s note, Afterword (by de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter and executor of her will), and ‘Archive Material’, threatening to overwhelm the text and which consequently I have not read.
The story begins with Sylvie aged 9 and Paris under threat from the Germans. I think Hitler, Sylvie’s grandfather thinks Bismark (1870-71), but it is of course WWI. She is a good Roman Catholic child, at a Roman Catholic girls school.
The students sat around an oval table covered in black moleskin, which would be presided over by our teacher; our mothers sat behind us and kept watch while knitting balaclavas. I went over to my stool and saw the one next to it was occupied by a hollow-cheeked little girl with brown hair
and so she meets Andrée, who had been “burned alive” and missed a year of school and now wished to catch up by borrowing the notebooks of the best student in the class, Sylvie of course.
This is an account of the two girls’ friendship, far more intense on Sylvie’s side than Andrée’s, over the next fifteen years, in which Roman Catholicism plays an important part – Sylvie contrasting the fading away of her own childhood faith with Andrée’s need to retain hers.
After their first summer apart, near the end of the War, they return to school –
… I suddenly understood, in a joyful stupor, that the empty feeling in my heart, the mournful quality of my days, had but one cause: Andrée’s absence. Life without her would be death.
Sadly for Sylvie, Andrée’s most important relationship is with her mother, who only grudgingly tolerates their friendship. Sylvie is always headed for an academic life. Andrée, though Sylvie’s equal in class as well as a gifted violinist, is headed only for marriage to ai suitable Roman Catholic boy.
When, at 13, Andrée forms a relationship with the boy next door to their country property she is fully aware of the carnality and sinfulness of their “innocent” kisses. The boy’s father is spoken to and he is taken out of harms way. Sylvie is reluctantly invited to spend the holidays, to divert Andrée, but she never fully understands. Even into her twenties Sylvie is largely impervious to sexual attraction.
At the Sorbonne, Sylvie takes philosophy and Andrée literature. Sylvie “continued to respect Christian morality” and is alarmed by the way her fellows talk and act. She becomes friends with a young man in her class, Pascal, an observant Catholic with “with impeccable manners and … beautiful angelic face.” She introduces Pascal to Andrée, and soon they are going out.
With her older sister married off, Andrée is the focus of all her mother’s attention. She wishes to marry Pascal but it becomes clear that Pascal is as locked in obedience to his father as she is to her mother. It all ends in tears.
This reminds me of those Evelyn Waugh novels where motivation may only be understood via the Byzantine ins and outs of Catholic reasoning. So, for instance Pascal agrees with Andrée’s mother that he should be kept apart from Andrée due to the inherently carnal nature of their attraction. But does it remind me of Sartre or indeed, of de Beauvoir?
Sartre is difficult to read, though I remember enjoying his war-time novels. He examines himself constantly, repeatedly, hoping to make a small progress each time. At the heart of his philosophy, and I think of de Beauvoir’s, is the demand that we be responsible for who we are.
On its face, this is a simply written text, an account of the difficulties Andrée’s faith leads her into, and Sylvie’s reaction. Perhaps the best I can say is that Andrée wants to be the person, the woman, God and her mother want her to be, and she finds this impossible to achieve.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Inseparables, Vintage Classics, 2020. Translated Lauren Elkin. Introduction, Deborah Levy. Afterword, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir. 145pp
From Hazel Rowley’s Foreword to de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (here).
Jean-Paul Sartre was a guiding force and moral support for Beauvoir, just as she was for him. He encouraged her, in the true sense of the word; he brought out her courage. During their long years of literary apprenticeship—years in which they both produced draft after draft that would end up, like their other manuscripts, relegated to a drawer—Sartre saw that Beauvoir was at her best when she portrayed her own experience. “Look,” he told her one day, as they sat in a noisy, smoke-filled Paris café discussing their work, “why don’t you put yourself into your writing?” Beauvoir writes that she felt the blood rush to her cheeks. “I’d never dare to do that,” she said. “Screw up your courage,” Sartre said.*
That conversation resulted in She Came to Stay (1943). Inspired by the amorous trio Beauvoir and Sartre had formed with a young woman, the novel skated so close to real life that it shocked even their friends …
Why did I pick up/purchase – with my birthday gift voucher – this book? Because it was shelved next to Murakami? Well, that is how I came to see it; because it looked exotic, maybe; because I responded to the advertising on the back cover –
Minae Mizumura is one of Japan’s most respected novelists, acclaimed for her audacious experimentation and skillful storytelling
probably; because it brought to mind Jessica Gaitán Johannesson’s How We Are Translated, which I very much enjoyed, definitely.
An I-Novel was originally published in 1995 under the title Shishōsetsu from left to right. The word shishōsetsu designates a confessional autobiographical genre – the I-novel – that has played a key role in modern Japanese literature. The original, based on the author’s experiences growing up in the United States and Japan, freely mixes natural American English with Japanese.
At the time the novel is set, the 1990s, Minae, in her thirties, and her sister Nanae, two years older, have been living in the US, in and around New York and various university towns, since they were 10 and 12, when their father’s work as a manager for a Japanese company took him there and he subsequently transitioned to “local hire”. Much of the novel consists of Minae and Nanae talking, on the phone, in Japanese, but quite often using American expressions, which are rendered in a different typeface.
“Right? Mother could dress up all she liked to go to the Metropolitan Opera, and for all we knew the whole time people were looking at her and thinking, Oh dear, here’s another Oriental, ruining the atmosphere.” I opened my mouth to speak, but Nanae went on, “How would that woman know the first thing about opera? …”
Mizumura collaborated on the translation, but it is necessarily different from the original as we have much less Japanese than the Japanese have English. If you look at the page from the Japanese edition below, you’ll see that the original was more or less 50/50.. What I haven’t shown is that every now and then there is a black and white illustration, full page, with a cryptic caption – ‘University campus’, ‘Suburban house’, and so on. A Japanese thing?
… other times I wrote a mixture of kanji and hiragana. [gives examples] The rounded soft loveliness of hiragana was like the shape of a beautiful woman now reaching up, now bending down as she went about her work in the home.
My experience of Japanese in literature is limited to early William Gibson, Murakami and Sayaka Murata (Convenience Store Woman, Earthlings), all of whom have a certain edginess. Minae Mizumura on the other hand, for all the experimentation in her writing, is decidedly middle class, in her life, in her attitudes. So at one level this is the story of a studious, relatively lonely girl at school; never fully engaging with life in the US, reading all the Japanese classics at home; always planning to return to a Japan which seems less familiar each time she visits; moving on to college and then to grad school and working in a less than motivated fashion towards a PhD in … French!
She has various, mostly Japanese boyfriends, but even the most recent and most constant has returned to begin ascending the corporate ladder back home; and she is left with university life (she’s at an unnamed Ivy League university outside New York) which she avoids; her sister on the end of a telephone, at a time when long distance calls cost money, from her artist’s loft in SoHo; her mother run off with a younger man to Singapore; and her father in a home on Long Island, declining into senility.
And she finds that she, the youngest, has ended up head of the family.
Nanae is superficially more rebellious, wearing bright clothes, short skirts, coloured hair, becoming promiscuous, taking up sculpture. But as they talk and talk and talk Minae becomes aware that Nanae is, like her, both unhappy and dreaming of a return to life in Japan.
However, it is the other side of this work which makes it especially interesting – the discussions of writing in Japanese and English; Minae’s life-long engagement with the Japanese canon; elements of Japanese writing that an outsider can only suspect: the conflict between duty and feeling (giri and ninjō) – she references (Japanese author) Sōseki; the traditions of the I-novel, which in English may be considered autofiction, but which may also contain elements of “aspects of society”.
Aspects of society indeed. Minae and Nanae work their way down to what it is that makes America so uncomfortable for them, and the answer is, as it always is, race. The Japanese see themselves as special, but Americans are unable to distinguish them from Koreans or Chinese, they are ‘Oriental’ and in the end, they are ‘colored’.
Shouldn’t Japanese people at least be aware of what the West thought of us historically – as much as the West had ever bothered to think of us in return? Wouldn’t we then no longer be so self-deluded, telling ourselves that we, unlike other Asians, were essentially Western?
It is an interesting aspect of this book that it was written when Japan was at the height of its economic power – as were the William Gibson cyberpunk novels – and that Minae is conscious of this and discusses it. With China now so prominent it is becoming increasingly difficult to recall that there ever was such a time.
Both as a coming of age in a strange land, and as writing about writing, this is a striking work; and yes I enjoyed it and recommend it.
Minae Mizumura, An I-Novel, Columbia University Press, New York, 2021 (first pub. in Japanese, 1995). Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. 325 pp.
August is being is being celebrated by some lit.bloggers as Women in Translation Month. I did a search and came up with this from Scribe (here).