I recall reading a review by Elaine Blair of Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline in the New Yorker a few years ago. Blair says, Cusk has written admiringly about Karl One Knausgaard, and her proposed cure for the trouble with fiction sounds like a gloss of his. ‘Autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts,’ she told the Guardian.” Blair goes on to say that some writers are hewing closer to the author’s subjective experiences, of effacing the difference between fiction and their own personal lives.
But Blair also points out that “Cusk’s shorthand doesn’t begin to account for the variety of literary experiments we’ve been seeing from novelists like Knausgaard, …. and W. G. Sebald.” As a writer, I’m all for any kind of improvisation on the novel, or any other kind of narrative. I’ve read the first volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle and found it interesting but not compelling. However, I’ve devoured all of W. G. Sebald’s “fictions,” novels that are truly novel in that he has invented a hybrid form. He incorporates travelogue, biography, memoir, speculation, and literary criticism into the narrator’s perspective: often a wandering and thoughtful observer of his surroundings.
Vertigo was the first of Sebald’s books that I read. In order to enter his world, I had to disregard most of my preconceptions about what a novel should be. Initially, I was attracted by his playfulness and the tongue-in-cheek tone, as well as by the sly humor and wit. I also felt there was something else lurking there. Just as the narrator has a paranoid fear of being watched or followed, I felt followed by something in the book that I couldn’t quite identify, some truth or knowledge, as often happens with good poetry where meaning seeps out of the poem’s borders. Sebald’s approach explodes for me the myths I’ve created about novels needing to incorporate dramatic scenes, etc., all of the various workshop admonitions about narrative arc and development.
Cusk’s “novel” does follow a traditional narrative in that it incorporates scenes, dialogue, etc., though, apparently, it fits into the category of what is now called autofiction—fictionalized autobiography. I am concerned with the idea that some writers may rely more on their personal experiences to create “fictions” than employ their imaginations. Contemporary life is already too one-dimensional and focused on surfaces. Most people aren’t aware of their dreams and the unconscious. Or they deny that anything other than the day’s residue is being circulated in these nighty dramas. What a loss!
As Carl Jung pointed out in Man and His Symbols, “Imagination and intuition are vital to our understanding” (82). He goes on to say that it isn’t just poets or other artists who employ these ways of perceiving, but they are also essential to scientists. He emphasizes that the rational intellect isn’t the only way of knowing or understanding ourselves and the world (inner or outer) and claims that “the surface of our world seems to be cleansed of all superstitious and irrational elements” (86). This observation is even truer today than when Jung wrote this piece in 1961 near the end of his life.
If our novels are limited to portraying our everyday experiences, the chitchat that goes on in our living rooms and other social settings, then we are missing a whole level of vitality and knowledge. It’s the imagination in conjunction with the unconscious that produces myths, symbols, and alternate views of reality. Not that our personal experiences can’t be imbued with these elements, but if they are the sole basis for our fictions, then we are deprived of something much richer and more worthwhile.