If I were to open by describing my setting as a desk piled high with old issues of The London Magazine, the wine red May 1960 issue face down on top, rust-brown rimmed teacup marking the narrow No Man’s Land between the pile and my laptop, you would assume I were telling the truth. If I were to add that the red reminded me of blood spilled last week in rage, and the brown rimmed cup of the plughole down which that blood spiralled, you would assume I was either lying or mad. Let us call the first nonfiction and the second fiction. To do so is to say that nonfiction is a form for the quotidian, fiction for the deranged. But our little fiction is built from real details, facts, which can in turn be inhered from fictive obsessions. To segregate them is like trying to separate blood from water.
If dividing truth and fiction in these two sentences proves difficult, what about for a book of thousands of sentences? What about Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn? These books bring the methods of fiction to nonfictional experiences undermining the ostensible truthfulness of criticism, history, memoir, philosophy, and travel guide. In this way they differ from so-called autofiction like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle or Rachel Cusk’s Outline, in that both these books lack a nonfiction parent genre from which they stray; without prior knowledge of the biographical subject, one could mistake both for works of fiction.
This other genre has been called creative nonfiction, and I have to agree with Geoff Dyer on this, who said that if ‘literary’ and ‘fiction’ are the two most depressing words in the English language, then ‘creative’ and ‘nonfiction’ are the ‘two most depressing in the American language’ (Paris Review, Issue 207, Winter 2013). As a disdainer of critical edifices, which risk becoming ‘opaque generalisations’ (Nabokov’s response to George Steiner’s essay on Ada), I prefer to examine these works individually to see how each brings fiction to bear on the particular pressure of its own factfulness.
But Beautiful consists of seven sections, each about a different jazz artist including Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk. These are difficult to categorise: neither short stories, nor biographies, but something in between. Each recounts a moment, sometimes a series of moments, in the musician’s life. Some are imagined, some recreate documented incidents; others fall somewhere in between, building on existing photographs to give movement, words, sounds, and smells, to static images. Dyer’s poetic style changes between each part, striving to embody in words the individualistic sound of each man’s music. Lester Young’s ‘wispy, skating-on-air tone’ produces images like the following: ‘he could see the moon clear through the broken windows at the front of the building. It was framed so perfectly by the window that it seemed as if the moon was actually inside the building: a mottled silver plate trapped in a brick universe.’ Such images seem to float up from a memory of the music and represent an attempt on Dyer’s part to make the writing into what it describes: jazz. But Beautiful is criticism as art, an ideal of George Steiner’s view as quoted by Dyer, that ‘the best readings of art are art.’
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich is history without the historian. Alexievich presents direct testimony from her interviewees, including scientists, locals forced to evacuate their homes, widows of the soldiers who died in agony after the clear-up, and a hobo who has moved to the surrounding area since it has become overgrown with wildlife in the absence of human inhabitants. She has compared her work to the documentary Shoah, but we see Claude Lanzmann onscreen, hear his questions; in Chernobyl Prayer only the answers are there. We do not know what Alexievich asked to elicit such responses, nor to what extent she edits them. They are not structured as building blocks for an argument, but as a kaleidoscope of impressions. The resulting ambiguity is reminiscent of short story collections like Varlam Shalamov’s recently retranslated Kolyma Stories, in which one theme is relayed through multiple perspectives with the reader left to decide their respective fallibility and conclusiveness. Chernobyl Prayer cannot be counted as strict history; it is a palimpsest of memories which creates an atmosphere of surreal horror. The intangibility of radiation produces images which seem to come from technological folk tales: soldiers fell and bury trees, houses, wells, and gardens, all of them possessed by the invisible enemy; a pregnant wife stays by her dying husband, Vasya, in his hospital bed having lied to doctors about being with child, and after Vasya dies, she dreams of him ‘all in white, and he’s calling Natasha’s name. Our little girl, who still hadn’t been born. She is big already, and I am puzzled at how she’s grown so much.’ When Natasha is born she has cirrhosis and congenital heart disease and dies four hours later. The mother believes that her daughter formed a buffer for the radiation, sacrificing herself so she could spend Vasya’s last days by his side. This is history as it happened to ordinary people, before it could be called history, when it was just what was cursed, resisted, suspected, dreamed, imagined, blotted out.
Of the books selected, Bluets is perhaps the furthest from what is usually termed nonfiction. In some bookshops it has been placed in the poetry section, because its form, 240 sections ranging from a sentence to a page in length are elliptical, even gnomic, meditations on Nelson’s obsession with the colour blue. It’s not exactly something you could imagine next to a Churchill biography or Freakonomics. She ranges from melancholy (‘the blues’) to porn (‘blue movies’), through Goethe’s Theory of Colours by way of Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour. Nelson is obsessed with how we perceive people and objects and how these perceptions are emotionally reconfigured in ways that produce love, art, and music, as well as the most damaging self-deceptions, griefs, and hatreds. Her breakup with the mysterious ‘prince of blue’ drives the book and compels her to collect blue objects and begin correspondence with ‘a man who is the primary grower of organic indigo in the world, and another who sings Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” in heartbreaking drag’. At points Bluets is closer to theology than to any other genre. The book is a search for truth and its method is Joseph Joubert’s: ‘Truth. To surround it with figures and colours so that it can be seen.’ Nelson at first attempts to fill the absence at the book’s heart by obsessing over blue things, blue people, but she comes to an uneasy recognition of the necessity of loss, expressing herself in religious terms: is God one who rushes to fill an empty space, or is ‘the emptiness itself God’?
WG Sebald is one of the precursors to the contemporary vogue for books which merge fiction and nonfiction at invisible margins. His Rings of Saturn is probably the closest of his works (excluding literary criticism) to a traditional nonfiction genre: travel writing. It is a first-person account of a walking tour through Suffolk which ranges far in its thinking, encompassing Thomas Middleton’s Garden of Cyrus, Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, the Taiping Rebellion of 1851-64, and the Voyager Golden Record. As a travel guide it is highly eccentric: several of the locations which form significant parts of the book are not even in Suffolk, Amsterdam for instance, or not visitable: the home of the poet Michael Hamburger. But Sebald’s focus is not on what is, but what has disappeared. The eponymous rings are ‘in all likelihood […] fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.’ Everywhere Sebald travels, his mind turns in circles over thoughts of destruction and decline: he meets a gardener at Somerleyton Hall who was a pilot in the RAF during the fire bombings of German cities, he notes how the decline of the herring industry, caused in large part by the dumping of industrial pollutants into the North Sea, has damaged the economies of the towns through which he travels. For the most part Sebald adopts a melancholy tone in these descriptions, but there is also a subtle humour at work, as for instance when he stays in a formerly grand hotel in Lowestoft recommended by a turn of the century guidebook. The food is said to be ‘of superior description’. Not so anymore: ‘The breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish had been partly singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it’.
Yet inherent in the very existence of this book is the idea that destruction is the basis of creation: ‘Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create.’ This reminds me of the paean to violence by counter-revolutionary thinker Joesph de Maistre: ‘From the lamb [Man] tears his guts and makes his harp resound…from the wolf his most deadly tooth to polish his pretty works of art, from the elephant his tusks to make a toy for his child: his table is covered with corpses’. But Sebald seldom relishes destructiveness. One of the most unsettling moments in the book comes when talking about the Voyager Golden Record, which was sent into space to introduce humanity and its achievements to other lifeforms and contains the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Blind Willie Johnson. The first words aliens will hear from mankind are those of then UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who as Sebald explains, was a war criminal, responsible for the administration of concentration camps in Croatia during World War 2.
The coexistence of destructiveness and creativity in Sebald is akin to the symbiotic relationship between fiction and nonfiction in all of these works. If as I said at the start, fiction is a form of madness, the fictioneer a murderer of truth, then its blood waters the garden in which it spills. Brute facts alone do not always get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes they need also to wield the artist’s scalpel.
Words by Mathis Clément
To discover more content exclusive to our print and app editions, subscribe to The London Magazine today from just £17.
To enter our current Short Story Prize, go here.