Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Summer of France: Based on a True Story


Rounding out my Summer of France is Delphine de Vigan’s “metafictional thriller,” Based on a True Story. This French bestseller is the story of “a friendship gone terrifyingly toxic.” There was a film adaptation in 2017, directed by Roman Polanski, which was not well-reviewed. I may watch it anyway.

In the novel, a writer (also named Delphine) is finishing up the book events related to her most recent publication, an autobiographical novel which enjoyed great success. She’s exhausted and lacking inspiration for her next book. She begins to receive unpleasant letters accusing of her of being opportunistic and untruthful about some facts from her childhood. Of course, her novel was just that—a novel, and Delphine (the author in this novel) grows tired of always fielding questions about whether the fictional events and people she wrote about have solid basis in “reality.”

Around this same time, she meets L., a mysterious person from her past (or is she?)—someone from her school days who has read everything Delphine has written, and who begins to wiggle her way into all aspects of Delphine’s life. She’s Delphine’s biggest fan and her most ardent critic. She tries to show Delphine the way out of her writing slump. But is it the right way?

If this setup rings vaguely familiar, you may be recalling Stephen King’s Misery and in fact, de Vigan uses quotes from King’s novels at the beginning of each of the book’s three sections. And the similarities are there; L. is a fan in the way Annie Wilkes was a fan: both have particular expectations for future work by their favorite authors, both walk a tightrope between sanity and insanity. But where King’s novel descends fairly rapidly into horror, Based on a True Story treads more cerebral ground. And I loved it for that.

This is a page-turner for writers. As their relationship evolves, L. and Delphine have many conversations about fiction and the process of creating it. When we use autobiography, what are the difficulties and obligations? Is there anything that could truly be called fiction? What do we owe readers? Ourselves? I may have written about this very topic myself, here. The women attend films together, they discuss other books they’ve read, they talk about Barthes—all the while contemplating Delphine’s next novel.

(L.) “’Yes, you talked about a trajectory that passed through different points and said it would be hard to go back to fiction now. I read your last book with that in mind, the idea it had within it another, more important, more dangerous one.’

(Delphine) I was starting to feel hot.

I explained to L. that I’d been wrong. I’d done that interview in early August, several weeks before the book came out. I’d had no idea what would happen, what the book would stir up. I thought I’d foreseen its consequences, but I was wide of the mark. I didn’t have broad enough shoulders for it. I wasn’t up to it—it was as simple as that. That was why I now wanted to go back to fiction, to tell a story, invest in characters, owe no debt to reality.”

As the novel proceeds, readers are left to piece together Delphine’s reality (and L.’s). There are insinuations of childhood trauma and psychiatric difficulties. There’s a divorce and children leaving for college. And of course, there is Delphine’s oeuvre (fittingly enough, a French word for work) and her current inability to produce new writing and how that affects and depletes a writer.

Meanwhile, L. becomes more and more suspect—as a friend to Delphine, as a character—as she becomes more important to Delphine. She expands into Delphine’s life, taking up space and as a reader, we aren’t sure how to read her. Or Delphine, for that matter.

(Delphine) “If you don’t grasp the little grain of madness in someone, you cannot love them. If you don’t grasp their point of craziness, you miss out. Someone’s point of craziness is the source of their charm.

I immediately thought of L.

I thought of L., who had perceived my point of craziness, and vice versa.

Perhaps that is what any encounter is, whether lovers or friends: two forms of craziness that recognize and captivate each other."

So, yes, this novel has many mysteries but mostly, it’s a deep exploration of the act of creating fiction. How it isolates us while we strive for connection, how we violate ourselves in the quest for understanding, how we come out the other side as if emerging from a fever dream. It’s a novel I’d be inclined to read again because at the end, I felt I was just beginning to understand.

“But you know, I’m not sure that the real is enough. The real, insofar as it exists at all, for it to be possible to recreate it, the real, as you put it, needs to be incarnated, transformed, interpreted. Without perspective or a viewpoint, at best, it’s boring as hell, and at worst it’s completely anxiety-producing. And that work, whatever the raw material, is always a form of fiction.”

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka