Interesting theme flogged to death?

This is my review of D’apres une histoire vraie by Delphine de Vigan.

Having written a fictionalised memoir of her bipolar mother’s life which ended in suicide, the award-winning author Delphine Le Vigan is well–placed to muse on the borders between reality, perceived truth and creative invention. In “D'Après une histoire vraie”, this theme is interwoven with the psychological drama of a vulnerable author finding her life being insidiously taken over by a charismatic but probably unstable individual who wants to go beyond being a ghost writer to control the life of a successful author. The inspiration for this comes at least in part from Stephen King’s novels, quotations from which, including “Misery”, at the beginning of each section give broad hints as to where matters are heading.

In giving the novel’s narrator her own name of Delphine, the author suggests a degree of autobiography, but although she herself may well have experienced a period of “writer’s block”, it is to be hoped that the bulk of the story is “made up”. Overwhelmed by the success of her novel revealing intimate family details, which has upset some relatives, bombarded at book signing sessions by fans whom she has given the confidence to unburden their own troubles, it is not surprising that the fictional Delphine is finding it impossible to write. With hindsight, she attributes her decline to the malign influence of her enigmatic friend “L” who at first seemed such a kindred spirit, so eager to help manage her life.

The tense, claustrophobic relationship rapidly established between Delphine and “L” is heightened by the absence of other characters. As regards Delphine’ family, this is conveniently explained by her childrens’ studies at distant colleges while her lover spends long periods on work projects in the States. While Delphine initially wants to write creative fiction, the ever more dominating “L” is determined that she should focus on real experiences, however painful, arguing that this is what people wish to read about and now expect from her. This seems a somewhat sterile argument over a false dichotomy, since apart from the facts that most fiction, however fanciful, is triggered by something "real", and that people see reality very differently, it is inevitably altered through a writer’s descriptions and interpretations into a “form of fiction”. A book may claim to be “a true story”, but even when “inspired by real facts” may in practice be largely invented. The author makes this point several times, and to some extent shows it to be the case in the twists of the plot but this is not enough to carry the novel.

Although this book has been highly praised, neither the ideas about the nature of fiction, nor the psychological drama are handled with the the mind-bending subtlety for which I hoped. The decision to present a retrospective acount of events with indications of what was about to happen may feed a sense of “reality” but combined with excessive repetition makes for an often tedious read. Whenever the suspense does begin to ramp up, it tends to become rapidly over-melodramatic, collapsing all too predictably into disappointingly banal or even ludicrous explanations. Although the novel benefits from a twist towards the end, the author does not seem to know when to stop – the last two chapters in particular seem counterproductive.

This is a relatively easy read in French, with a clear style and many useful idioms and clichés for a student of French – also a good source of discussion for a book group.

I am tempted to see Polanski’s film on this, since I suspect that the director of “Rosemary’s Baby” will know how to create a real sense of menacing suspense, perhaps at the expense of the literary arguments.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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