Home > Personal Posts > The novel as a ragbag or can you write fiction about anything?

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

January 17, 2012 Leave a comment Go to 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?

Categories: Personal Posts
  1. January 17, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    What an interesting post – I have Univers, univers by Jauffret and have been meaning to read it for ages (and not getting there, same old story!). There was a similar reaction to Emma Donahugue’s Room among some readers when it was published a year (or almost two now?) ago. It’s also based – but far more loosely – on the Fritzl case. She took the premise of a small child growing up in one room with a mother who, it eventually transpires, is being abused in a similar way to the Fritzl daughter. As you can see, this novel takes a different approach to the ‘case’ highlighting only one aspect, whereas the Jauffret sounds like it attempts a direct transposition of the facts. I can understand your qualms – the case is so very sensational that real life is bound to dominate the reader’s imagination, which must surely make it awkward for an author to suggest anything rich or complex about the situation. Plus there’s this uncomfortable feeling that the author is taking advantage of people’s misery and media sensationalism to further his own ends and make a quick buck too.

    On the other side, I don’t doubt that half a dozen true crime authors are scribbling away at the Fritzl story as we speak, and it may be that a treatment by a literary author would approach the story with more sensitivity and cleverness. And it’s such a powerful trend in publishing these days (and in cinema too) to seek the ‘ready-made audience’. You should hear my son moan about films and their tendency to resurrect old favourites – the A Team, Sherlock Holmes, etc – and produce movies that have nothing to do with the charm of the original. Alas, the prospect of making money is so important these days that all sorts of unethical things are done in its name.

    Finally, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was indeed marketed as non-fiction – but the huge success of the book made the little town famous for decades and brought coach loads of sightseers to come and gawp, which you may imagine the residents resented fiercely!


    • January 17, 2012 at 2:56 pm

      I didn’t know about Emma Donahugue’s novel. Seems an international tendency.

      I don’t know if a “literary” writer will automatically be cleverer in his/her approach as a crime fiction writer. Some are very subtle. Has anyone read Black Dahlia by James Ellroy? It’s on my shelf but I haven’t read it yet.

      I’m not sure either that Jauffret is a very mainstream writer. It’s not a novel striking low instincts and aiming at making a lot of money. (You know, that kind of books with sensational covers)
      From what I read, he has managed to avoid voyeurism and has achieved a great book. He has already written such novels before; I haven’t read them and don’t intend to either. From what I hear, Claustria is very challenging emotionnally; the descriptions of the abuse and sufferance are almost unbearable. (A journalist said she couldn’t read it before bedtime). If I am to feel that uncomfortable while reading, I want it to be worthy. That means reading Primo Levi, for example.

      Well, there have been a Da Vinci Code tour and an Amélie Poulain tour in Paris too. I guess you can’t avoid that but I imagine that the residents minded the publicity.


  2. January 17, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    David Peace has been criticised on precisely this front. He’s very inspired by the work of Gordon Burn, but Gordon Burn is generally much clearer on the line between fiction and non-fiction.

    I read an article a while back by a policeman who worked in West Riding during the 1970s, the period of Peace’s first two novels of the Red Riding quartet. He said that Peace’s novels were a travesty, an abuse of people yet living and the work they did to try to bring a brutal killer to justice.

    Given Peace portrays the local police as brutal and corrupt there’s an element of he would say that, wouldn’t he, to the policeman’s account. Against that though is that he was there, Peace was just a child. Peace also is writing fiction, but so closely based on real events it’s easy to confuse the two. His football novel has been similarly criticised.

    Does that make Peace’s work illegitimate? I don’t think so, it’s plainly labelled as fiction. It does make it problematic though. The people he writes about are in many cases still alive, or if dead have family who’re still alive. The veil of memory hasn’t yet been drawn over them.

    I don’t think that Peace is wrong to write what he does, but I absolutely admit if I had family who’d died in that place at that time I might feel quite differently on the point.


    • January 17, 2012 at 2:42 pm

      I understand all the arguments. My brain understands them but my gut feeling is that it’s indecent. (I’m not quite sure that the word has the same meaning than indécent in French) Perhaps I wouldn’t find it so indecent if it weren’t about abuse and rape.

      In David Peace’s case, 30 years had passed between the events and the moment the book came out. Things had time to cool off. Here, we’re talking about something that happened in 2008. But it doesn’t mean that the novel vs journalism issue is solved.


  3. January 17, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    I saw a similar discussion last year regarding Donoghue’s ‘Room’. The point was made that the merit of a novel does not derive from the base material. (Although with ‘Room’ it is easier: its claim to literary value has been contested.) I tend to agree that the subject matter is besides the point. Another example is Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ which many people would not consider reading, although perhaps prepared to accept that the work represents something above prurience .

    However, my instinctive reaction is similar to yours. I have read ‘Lolita’, and appreciated it, but I won’t read ‘Room’ and I would not be interested in ‘Claustria’ either.


    • January 17, 2012 at 3:50 pm

      “The point was made that the merit of a novel does not derive from the base material.”

      I agree with that. Unequivocally. I’m comfortable with Lolita, it came out of Nabokov’s mind. It can’t be mistaken with anything else than a novel.

      What I disagree with is the ethics of writing a novel about such a case so shortly after it happened. I wouldn’t feel ill-at-ease with a journalistic enquiry as it’s supposed to be objective and to relate facts and not extrapolate on attitudes and feelings.

      My reaction to this is irrational, in a way. That’s why I wrote this post. I kept thinking about this book because it’s in every newspaper, magazine and on the radio. I wanted to discuss this with other readers to try to understand why I have such a strong aversion to it.


  4. January 17, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    Questions regarding the morality of books are intriguing, but there’s no one answer as we bring ourselves to the reading and our own set of moral values. I wouldn’t read this book either. No desire to for many reasons. The post makes me think of Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates–another novel I have no interest whatsoever in reading.


    • January 17, 2012 at 6:12 pm

      I can’t explain right why I’m so decided against it. I feel there is some dishonesty in the approach but not done on purpose. Well at least, to my set of moral values. Shall I call it bad taste?

      You’re right of course, there isn’t only one answer and each book is different. You can’t forbid this writer to choose this case for his book and I don’t wish his novel to be censored or anything.

      There’s some trend for gory or dark subjects in French literature and when I read reviews, most of the time I end up thinking “I don’t want to read this no matter how well-written it is.” That’s why I read so little of today’s French literature.


      • January 17, 2012 at 11:02 pm

        I’d say poor taste. I also had a problem with American Psycho, and there was quite a row over that book when it was published. It was fictional, so it’s not the same thing.

        Perhaps part of the bad/poor taste element is that the people in the case under discussion (the Fritzl case) are all alive as others mention. 50 years on, I doubt you or I would feel the same. Also, of course, while the author may feel very genuinely inspired and driven to write a fictional account, nonetheless, because it’s so topical, the monetary issue rises up. Yet plenty of True Crime authors write books based on recent crimes. They of course present the case, the trial etc.

        No I haven’t read The Black Dahlia but I thought Ellroy’s My Dark Places was amazing.


        • January 18, 2012 at 10:13 am

          Did I just find a Noir classic that you haven’t read? 🙂


          • January 18, 2012 at 7:21 pm

            Actually I have problems with the whole Black Dahlia thing. There are so many true aspects of the case that have faded from view, and all that’s left is this mythic crime. The Black Dahlia (Elizabeth Short) was involved with some very shady characters. She went into hiding briefly before her death and even tried to disguise herself by dyeing her hair. I refuse to read a fiction book about the case and only non -fiction. It reminds me of the controversy surrounding “Anastasia” the so-called only surviving member of the Romanovs. If you see the film (Ingrid Bergman) or read articles about the woman who claimed to be Anastasia, you’re left with the idea that she may very well have been the real thing. Read a non fiction book about it, and you realise that there is no way she was a Romanov.

            Same thing with the Black Dahlia. If you read the short articles then the real story is short-changed. That’s why I don’t want to read a fiction book about Elizabeth Short.


            • January 19, 2012 at 9:20 am

              I get your point and I’d have the same reaction if I wanted to know the truth.
              When I read The Black Dahlia, all I’ll be looking for is a good book. Now I’m slightly inconsistent, I know.
              In the end, I think the bad timing is what bothers me most.


  5. January 17, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    Well, it is slightly repulsive. In the case of Peace I think that’s partly why he does it. He wants to provoke the reader, to make them uncomfortable, and he succeeds. Sure that’s 30 years ago, but not to those who lived it and are yet with us. To some of them it’s always fresh.

    Perhaps the difference though is that Peace ultimately is writing about a horrific reality, but he’s not profiting from something currently in the news. These other authors arguably are, are profiting from current tragedy. That is slightly distasteful.


    • January 17, 2012 at 6:17 pm

      My problem is really that it is published so shortly after the case went public. There is no hindsight and it is fresh in memories.
      I don’t think the author intended to profit from that case to make money and it looks like it exactly because it’s still fresh news.


  6. January 17, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    I haven’t heard anything about this book. I’m not keen on it and it seems unethical. But then the case of Maksisk writing a novel about something he did is not much better.
    I have Room here but hadn’t heard it was based on that case as well but from all I know, it’s very different from the real case. I can’t help thinking someone wants to make money when writing about something like this but to really judge one would have to read the book and it’s not a topic I would like to explore.


    • January 17, 2012 at 8:41 pm

      I thought you’d heard about it. You’re right I ought to read it to know if he avoided sensationalism but I won’t waste my time with a book I’m not inclined to read.


      • January 17, 2012 at 9:17 pm

        Sometimes we can just trust our feeling and not explore something in avery deatil. I am convinced that there would have been a way to write about this without everyone knowing immediatley what it was he was writing about. Maybe he feels sorry by now. On th other hand, I would have bigger problem being in the press the whole time than seeing an author write about me. I’m really not sure the non-fiction approach, unless explicitly approved by the victims, is any better. No, I think rather the opposite. In a novel there is always doubt but people belivee journalists and non-fiction writers. Not sure I can express this right.


        • January 17, 2012 at 9:34 pm

          He’s not sorry at all, he tells about it in the foreword, if I understood correctly.

          When it’s journalism, isn’t it easier to go on trial of you’ve been wronged?


    • January 18, 2012 at 7:24 pm

      I don’t know Caroline. When I read the Masik book, I suspected there was some biographical elements to it, and writers often take real-life experiences and then fictionalise them. No crime there unless they’re sloppy and get sued.


  7. January 18, 2012 at 12:49 am

    I’ve read a book by Jauffret called Histoire d’amour. Uncharitably I’d described it as a novel about a man who stalks and repeatedly rapes a woman. Certainly I felt it was Jauffret’s intent to provoke and challenge, to make the reader feel uncomfortable about their morality and humanity. I imagine the new novel will be the same. Possibly he’ll now even get something translated into English.

    A further point about Peace. He was successfully sued for libel by Johnny Giles, former manager of Leeds Utd, for his portrayal of him in his work of fiction The Damned Utd. The publisher had to remove all reference to Giles from future editions of the novel (I don’t know how much he appears in the original). Giles said that he sued more on behalf of Brian Clough (a man he admits to not liking), whom the novel is about and who could not sue himself, being dead.


    • January 18, 2012 at 10:40 am

      Did you like the book? He’s known to be a good writer.

      When I read your message, my first thought is “I don’t want to read that”. And then I wonder: Why not when I loved The Killer Inside Me? Do I unconciously think that it’s suitable for a crime fiction writer and not for a novelist?

      Thanks for the info about Peace.


      • January 18, 2012 at 11:45 pm

        The book was ok. The reservations I had about it were less to do with the contents, than the fact that it was incredibly repetitious. I would neither recommend it nor not recommend it.


        • January 19, 2012 at 9:02 am

          Thanks, no need to rush for it then.


  8. leroyhunter
    January 18, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    It’s years since I read it, but I remember The Black Dahlia being an exceptional piece of work. Ellroy has admitted he wrote it as a way of addressing (at a remove) his feelings about the murder of his own mother (which he subsequently wrote about in the book Guy refers to, My Dark Places).

    Likewise I thought Peace’s Damned Utd was quite an achievement, to create and sustain the unique interior voice in the way he did, to write so comfortably about the time (1970s) and milieu (English football). Giles did indeed sue, but only when the film was in the pipeline and the book became much more widely known. In the novel he’s never named, but referred to as “Irishman” and portrayed as being devious, conniving and selfish. Now, it is generally accepted that Giles had a role in Clough’s downfall at Leeds (which is the main storyline of the novel) and that he was a large presence at the club and not above maneuvering events to suit and/or protect his interests. Despite that I can see why anyone would object to being portrayed in the way he was in the book. Is Peace therefore wrong to have taken the approach he did? I honestly can’t decide. The court thought he was wrong, but my confidence in English libel laws and their application is less then total.

    I doubt I would read Room or the Jauffret book (were it to be translated) as they do seem…sensationalist, in poor taste as Guy says. Is that a fair standard to hold the writers to? I don’t know. Why did Gordon Burn write about Fred and Rose West? Why did Arendt write about Eichmann? Why did Capote turn to murder when looking for a new way of expressing himself? In Cold Blood appeared pretty soon after the events it described, yet was lionised on publication (and since – it’s a great book). Do our qualms “go away” if the work that results meets some standard of quality that we define?


    • January 18, 2012 at 5:59 pm

      I have to read The Black Dahlia, it’s been on the shelf for years.

      Reading your comment about David Peace, I realize that for me, his books would be like pure fiction. I’m French, I discovered the story of the murders in Yorkshire when I read Max’s review and since I have no interest in sports, the stuff about football seems to be happening in a parallel world. That’s the thing about distance and time. When it happened decades ago or in another country and one has never heard of the case, it’s easier to accept the book as fiction. One has no previous information or opinion about the case, no personal reference to it.

      The Capote was published before globalized mass media and Internet. Do you think that back in Europe people had heard about that murder? I am tempted to read it.

      Do our qualms “go away” if the work that results meets some standard of quality that we define?

      I think yes. If the Jauffret had been badly written, the critics would raise the moral issue. As it is “art”, they don’t. (well, except that journalist on the radio this other night) There’s no definite answer to this.


      • January 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm

        I suppose I tend to want to read non fiction when it comes to books about real-life people and crimes. There are a few exceptions, but when I read a fiction book about a real person, then I have questions about how much of it was real anyway, so I might as well pull out non fiction to begin with.


      • leroyhunter
        January 19, 2012 at 12:36 am

        I’d be amazed if the Clutter murders (the centrepiece of In Cold Blood) made the news in Europe. Capote apparently found the story buried inside the New York Times, which suggests it was a “small” big story when it happened.

        I agree with what Guy’s point that there’s no one answer, and I agree with you that the quality of the book goes a long way to determining the reaction. The problem with that second bit is that it can be so subjective – huge numbers of people obviously think Room is a worthwhile read.


        • January 19, 2012 at 9:08 am

          Literature is art. It’s subjective in essence.
          Perhaps the fact that it wasn’t a big story before the book counts too. There isn’t this undercurrent feeling that the writer profits of the misery of others.


    • January 18, 2012 at 7:29 pm

      Leroy: the thing that struck me as odd in My Dark Places–remember when Ellory’s mother is murdered, according to the police report there’s a tampon shoved up inside her vagina? Remember how the police reconstructed her last night–she had gone out on a date with some man and they’d been to a drive-through restaurant (the waitress remembered them). The police concluded that she’d had consensual sex, but didn’t seem to find it odd that the tampon was inside the victim. I’d argue she was raped.


      • leroyhunter
        January 19, 2012 at 12:13 am

        My memory of the book was that Ellroy essentially didn’t believe the police report but couldn’t find any new or alternative information given the distance in time. I may be misremebering but I thought the police report was seen to be a whitewash, and discredited as such.

        Incidentally, I read a book about the actual Dahlia case by a retired LAPD detective named Steve Hodel, whose father was a doctor and knew the victim well. A fascinating if somewhat obsessive trawl into the case – which he reckons he has solved. The cast list includes John Huston and Man Ray (who were family friends when he was a kid).


        • January 19, 2012 at 3:06 am

          I read one too, Leroy which pointed to Short’s gangland ties and argued that her death was a “message” to another gangster.


    • January 19, 2012 at 10:12 pm

      Leroy have you read the essay written by Martin Amis about his cousin who was one of Fred West’s victims? Amis came in for a lot of flack about the essay and he was accused of ‘exploiting’ his cousin which was, I thought, ludicrous. The essay is ome of the most marvellous I have ever read.


      • leroyhunter
        January 20, 2012 at 11:10 pm

        I’m aware of it but haven’t read it Guy. Isn’t it a chapter in his book Experience? I’m not sure.


  9. January 20, 2012 at 5:56 am

    Well, I won’t be reading that then 🙂


    • January 20, 2012 at 9:41 am

      Especially since you haven’t tried Romain Gary yet 🙂 (one track mind, I know, I know…)


  10. January 22, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    I fell this seem like a quick buck on the writers behalf some people love thes horrorfic stories straight away I fell sorry for the family having it rake up in a book in a novel must be awful just as there trying to adjust to a normal life ,all the best stu


    • January 22, 2012 at 10:34 pm

      Well, I’m a little sensitive so I’m not tempted to read it.


  11. April 14, 2012 at 3:03 am

    I haven’t heard of this one, but completely shared your reaction to Emma Donoghue’s Room, mentioned by others in the comments. Haven’t read it, never wanted to read it, was sickened by the idea of it. Like you, I struggle to rationalise this reaction, as I am aware of the counter-arguments.

    I think you’re right that time is a factor. Right now I don’t have any problem with novels about September 11, and indeed there have been plenty of them. But if someone had rushed a novel out in time for the Christmas 2001 sales, it would have been very distasteful.

    By the way I have to admit, in the case of Room, I was swayed by litlove’s excellent review recently. But I still don’t think I’ll read it. I guess in a way it’s like Brussels sprouts – it’s not a matter for the mind but the taste buds 😉


    • April 14, 2012 at 6:08 pm

      The Good Life is about September 9/11 but there is no voyeurism.

      There are enough books to read to forget the ones that don’t appeal to us, whereas our reluctance is rational or not.


  1. April 7, 2012 at 10:17 pm

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