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The novel as a ragbag or can you write fiction about anything?

January 17, 2012 40 comments

I’m not a thorough follower of literature news but I’ve been thinking of Claustria by Régis Jauffret as soon as I’ve heard about this book. Let’s say it right away: I haven’t read it and I don’t intend to. Hopefully nobody will choose it as a birthday gift or feel the urge to lend it to me. Claustria has just been published and critics highly praise its literary value, which I won’t and can’t contest but its concept has been nagging at me ever since I’ve heard about it. Indeed, Claustria is a novel based on the Fritzl case:

The Fritzl case emerged in April 2008 when a 42-year-old woman, Elisabeth Fritzl (born April 6, 1966), stated to police in the town of Amstetten, Austria, that she had been held captive for 24 years in a concealed corridor part of the basement area of the family home, a condominium-style apartment complex built by her father, Josef Fritzl (born April 9, 1935), and that Fritzl had physically assaulted, sexually abused, and raped her numerous times during her imprisonment. The incestuous relationship forced upon her by her father resulted in the birth of seven children and one miscarriage. (Wikipedia)

Claustria intends to describe what happened from inside, imagining the daughter’s feelings, the life of her children who were kept in a cave with only the TV as a window to the outside world. According to the critics, Régis Jauffret really managed to change it into fiction, comparing the situation of this children to men in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Here’s Télérama’s review, Libération’s article and the one published by Les Inrockuptibles. Sorry, everything is in French.

So why does it bother me? Novelists have always done this; after all, The Red and the Black and Madame Bovary are based on true stories too. I’ve read Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti and I wasn’t the least troubled that she used real facts to write crime fiction. However, I was ill-at-ease with David Peace’s Nineteen Seventy Seven when I read Max’s review.

What’s the difference? I think it’s because it comes so shortly after the real case and that this case is very public. When Emma Bovary’s story was hardly a few lines in a newspaper in a country where most of the population was illiterate, the Fritzl case was everywhere on TV and in newspapers.

The novelist Régis Jauffret doesn’t hide that his novel has been directly inspired by this affair, so there is no doubt about it. The humorist Pierre Desproges used to say On peut rire de tout, mais pas avec tout le monde (One can laugh about anything, just not with anybody). I think that one can write about everything but not in any form. I can’t help thinking that the novel is a very convenient form. You don’t have to be thorough about what you write. You don’t need to care about accuracy like a journalist should. You don’t need to conduct any proper investigation and ponder what you write. Hey, it’s fiction, remember? How handy.

But this case is so recent that everybody has it in mind and I’m afraid the reader doesn’t distance themselves enough to remember that what they’re reading is fiction. How can Régis Jauffret be sure that what he invented doesn’t become the truth? I believe that it’s too early to become fiction and that any book about this should be an essay or a documentary written by a journalist.

The protagonists are still alive and yet become raw material for a novel. Don’t they have a right to sink into oblivion to move on with their lives? There was an interesting article about TV documentaries that dig into criminal cases. Years after, people have had a fresh start or sometimes are still in prison and their case is brought up again on TV. New neighbors or new friends who didn’t know about their past are now aware of it, sometimes with disastrous consequences. They paid for what they did when a judge sentenced them. Do they have to pay for it all their lives?

Let some years pass by and then write a novel about it. But now? I think it’s unethical and that’s why I’m ill-at-ease. Deep inside, I think writing this novel is wrong. And I was glad to hear a journalist and critic strongly criticizing that approach to the case too. (France Inter, Le masque et la plume) Apparently, writing about news story is a trend in nowadays French literature. They all refer to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. But wasn’t this book writtern after a long investigation and isn’t it tagged as non-fiction?

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