No One: A Novel by Gwenalle Aubry. 175 pgs. Tin House, 2012. $12.95
In 1977, French writer and literary theorist Serge Doubrovsky coined the term l’autofiction on the back cover of his novel Fils (Son): “Fiction, made up of events and facts that are strictly real.” Debrouvsky imagined l’autofiction as a new genre, a kind of life-writing in which author, protagonist, and narrator share an identity, but whose practitioners remain unfettered by autobiography’s traditional pact with readers. Since the publication of Fils, the word autofiction has passed into common usage in France, a generic descriptor for a host of literary works that play at the boundaries of fact and fiction. Although it remains a source of contentious critical debate, many writers (in France and abroad) now define autofiction as an anti-genre, a mode of writing that self-consciously resists categorization and seeks actively to destabilize the tenuous connection between autobiographical writing and the world it describes.
Gwenaëlle Aubry’s luminous novel, No One (winner of the Prix Femina in 2009 and the first of her books to be translated into English), resides somewhere in the margins of this unstable territory. Readers searching for creative thinking about form and genre will find much of interest in Aubry’s novel. In its stylized structure—its melding of form and content—and in the way it positions itself deliberately between fiction and autobiography, No One illustrates many of the theoretical pretexts that undergird French autofiction. But the book should also appeal to those unversed in such experimental modes. Aubry’s most significant achievement lies less in the theoretical concerns her novel raises than in the way those concerns emerge organically, in deeply moving moments, from the subject of her examination.
A lecturer in philosophy and author of five previous novels, here Aubry attempts to understand the life and death of her father, Francois-Xavier Aubry, a respected jurist and member of the Paris bar who suffered for much of his life from debilitating mental illness. The novel takes as its point of departure Francois-Xavier’s own attempted autobiography, The Melancholic Black Sheep. This posthumously discovered manuscript—written by a man who lived much of his life between delusion and reality and characterized by constant flirtation with the fictions a delusional mind produces—serves as the impetus for Aubry’s novel and as its structural lynchpin. In No One, Aubry engages her father’s self-defining fictions. She interweaves his words with her own, tracing “the map of his melancholia” through twenty-six alphabetically arranged ruminations with chapter titles that correspond to the various iterations of his fragmented identity: Artaud, Bond, Clown, Hoffman, Pirate, Zelig.
In Francois-Xavier, readers encounter a man who struggled unsuccessfully all his life to achieve a coherent sense of self. The particular disorder that afflicts him goes unnamed in the novel. However, its all-consuming manifestations—the erratic and delusional behavior it produces and the impact of that behavior on the lives of his children—reverberate through these pages. A man who writes “I have known no lasting happiness but that which comes from the existence of my children,” Francois-Xavier abandons his daughters at a young age and thereafter moves in and out of their lives, at times capable of living independently, at others completely debilitated by his condition. He cycles between periods of tenuous stability and dark melancholy, manic ups and suicidal lows. He disappears for long stretches of time, suffers confinement in clinics and institutions, and lives like a homeless man on the streets of his hometown.
In Aubry’s recollections and in his own writing, Francois-Xavier resembles a kind of chameleon, a figure whose presence manifests in a series of shifting masks that conceal, finally, an impassable void. Aubry describes him variously: “young and slim,” with “a moustache and a denim jacket,” “swollen with medication,” “white-haired, with a stick and a hat and his father’s clothes,” barefoot in “gray flannel trousers” and “thin, frighteningly so . . . almost disappeared.” In the novel, Francois-Xavier’s changing appearance mirrors the fluctuations in his mind, his struggle for a stable identity. This struggle plays out dramatically in excerpts from his manuscript. He defines himself in a shifting array of fantasies: as James Bond, applying to the “internal and external intelligence service;” as a clown “sweeping the courthouse steps,” where he’d “once been a trainee;” as a pirate, “with a patch on my eye, like Barbarossa”; as “an eternal five-year-old, a child at home, a hero to the outside world.”
No One‘s fragmented structure ingeniously mirrors Francois-Xavier’s own fractured psyche. While some readers might initially dismiss the abecedary arrangement as an arbitrary conceit, the form allows Aubry to approach systematically the unanswerable question posed by a figure whose identity never cohered. Aubry writes: “We seek out a form for what remains of him in us and has always been a temptation toward formlessness, a threat of chaos; we seek out words for what was always the secret, silent part in us, a body of words for a man who has no grave.” The rigidity of the abecedary structure becomes a kind of solution for the problem of this formlessness, the problem of a subject whose form remained forever unsettled.
Moreover, the structure suggests the embracing quality of the work, the attempt at comprehensiveness: a “portrait,” as Aubry writes, “from twenty-six angles with an absent center,” an exhaustion of the possibilities offered by language. Aubry resists the comfort of conventional storytelling and the novel succeeds beautifully as a kind of circular exegesis, a text braided through and around the text that preceded it. From A to Z, she traces her father’s fictional selves, delving into his manuscript for the referents with which he sought to understand himself: the eternal child and the pirate, James Bond and the clown, the black sheep. She extends these fictions too, finding resemblances to Francois-Xavier in film and literature: the mad poet Antonin Artaud, actors Dustin Hoffman and Jean-Pierre Leaud, a nineteenth-century explorer who shared his name, and (perhaps most aptly) to Woody Allen’s famous shape-shifter, Zelig. Francois-Xavier thus emerges as a composite of likenesses, a man caught in an uncertain space between the fictions his mind creates and the real world that reflects and multiplies them.
Necessarily, No One occupies this space too. The sense of uncertainty, of searching—between fiction and reality—for resemblances, for multiple iterations, finds its way, powerfully, into Aubry’s prose. Rendered exquisitely in English (one can only marvel at the work of translator Trista Selous), Aubry’s writing captivates with its focused precision and the sense of longing contained in each probing sentence. Single sentences run across multiple pages, branching out and doubling back, drawing together thought and memory, anecdote and dream-like speculation in a way that mimics the book’s broader project: this endless, grasping search, an attempt to give shape to an indefinable figure. In the following exemplary passage, Aubry describes her reaction to the news that her father had, once again, disappeared, leaving this time without even bothering to put on shoes:
I told the friend who was celebrating her birthday with me, my father has disappeared, he went off barefoot…I had just one phrase in my head he went off barefoot . . . that phrase and me, and those to whom I’d said it . . . those people weren’t helping me find him, turning away, embarrassed, tight-lipped, as if, before their very eyes, I had taken a bandage off a wound that wasn’t properly healed . . . I followed the phrase, or not even that, just the word barefoot, it was all I could see, dirty bare feet below frayed flannel trousers and all around, a mess of images, the stock character of the vagabond . . . the obscure, royal Wandering Jew, the deserted banks of the Seine at night and also, above all, human forms lying on the sidewalk, wrapped in cardboard and plastic bags.
The novel builds pathos in this way, in meticulous and exhaustive searching, circling around and expanding through repetition, in devotion to multiplicity, and in the sustained effort of its author. Longing and grief permeate these pages: the longing of a daughter to retain something of her vanished father, whose absence in death only heightens her awareness of his lifelong absence, and the grief of knowing that nothing remains of him but his writing, the fleeting solace contained in language. True to the spirit of autofiction, the novel blends the documentary and the imaginary, drawing attention to the porousness of generic boundaries. But like the best genre-blurring work, like Sebald’s Austerlitz or Duras’ The Lover, it does so in service of its subject, out of fealty to a kind of truth that neither nonfiction nor fiction can claim as its own. In No One, Aubry highlights the near impossibility of truly knowing oneself and, at the same time, creates a lasting testament to the redeeming labor of trying.