Book Review: No One (Personne) by Gwenaëlle Aubry
What first intrigued me about No One (Personne) was the first line of the back cover synopsis: “No One is the portrait of a man without a true self.”
I really love a book that explores and plays with layers of identity and reality – Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy is one of my all-time favorite books – so I was of course immediately intrigued. And while the book didn’t turn out to be in the Austerian vein of brain-teaser experimental semi-surreal meta mysteries (because probably no other books are), Gwenaëlle Aubry explores questions of self-identity and self-knowing in a completely different way. No One is wholeheartedly realist, infused with philosophy and pushing at the limits of language, not examining the notion of being without a “self” in a theoretical, metaphorical, or experimental way, but in a psychological reality, through someone whose bipolar disorder has rendered him so. No One is part memoir, part highly-stylized fiction, and part Barthesian wordplay; Aubry won France’s prestigious Prix Femina for it. It was translated into English last year by Trista Selous.
What is l’autofiction?
No One is considered a work of autofiction. Basically, autofiction is the French term for the stylized combination of autobiography and fiction, a recent trend in French literature that is quickly gaining momentum. Rick Moody describes this trend in his introduction to the English translation as
“the way the writers of France occasionally situate themselves, paradoxically, oxymoronically, between autobiography and fiction, between genres, finding in this impulse the liberty that is released by recombination. Autofiction is all about this nuance, this historical wisdom; it’s about exploiting the energy of uncertainty and possibility between the imaginary and the documentary.”
No One is part autobiography because it is the story of Gwenaëlle Aubry’s late father, told through her own experiences and her father’s writings. Playing with fiction allows her the freedom to organize these fragments, these memories, in whatever way she desires. It allows her to omit whatever she does not want to share. It is highly stylized because Aubry has imposed an alphabetical dictionary form to her memories, which is emblematic of the impulse of autofiction to explore complexities of language, the human impulse to make sense of, to try and find order in the chaos of mental illness, and the personal impulse to organize and understand grief.
No One is the unique depiction of a woman’s strained relationship with her father, a Parisian lawyer and professor afflicted with bipolar disorder, providing glimpses into each of their personal struggles to know themselves as well as their collective struggle to know one another. After her father’s death, Gwenaëlle finds his handwritten autobiography that he has titled “The Melancholic Black Sheep” and left the direction “to be novelized.” In 26 vignettes, structured alphabetically, Aubry intertwines her own voice with her father’s in an attempt to know him, or, at the very least, to understand why he was unknowable, even to himself. The fragmented style reflects the memories she has of him, large gaps missing because of large absences from her life, and it also reflects his unpredictability and constant shifting of identities, with the image of the black sheep constantly reappearing. The novel features chapter titles that alternate between humor and sadness, even perhaps manic and depressive: “Bond, James Bond,” “Clown,” “Hoffman, Dustin” and “Departed,” “Traitor,” and “Void.”
In the first chapter, Aubry says “You can’t lose a father, particularly a father who was lost, or lost himself. It was perhaps while he was alive that we lost him, that we no longer knew who or where he was. Now that he’s dead we gather up what he left, the crumbs and pebbles strewn through the forests of his anxiety.” Her fragmented style accomplishes so much metaphorically: it allows us, too, to know him only through those crumbs and pebbles, to experience the same gaps and absences that she does.
If No One were a typical memoir, we might get fleshed-out characters, (relative) chronology, and fully described scenes, but as a highly stylized piece of autofiction, what we get is a very different sort of memoir which still conveys just as much, or more, emotion. Rather than characters, chronologies, or descriptions, Aubry gives us allusions, free associations, and scattered, fragmented details and excerpts. The structure, the attempt to order chaos, references Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse (Fragments d’un discourse amoreux) which features fragments of texts organized alphabetically, and the poetics and philosophy which infuse the novel are influenced by the likes of Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, and Antonin Artaud. What is perhaps the most interesting about the depth to her words is that rather than conventional story-telling, describing something, she uses 26 different angles to push the limits of language and describe nothing, giving a shape and a form to an absence. The original French title also plays on this notion: Personne, which is French for “no one,” is also extremely close to the English “person” or “someone.”
Sometimes, as I mentioned in my post about gimmicky novels, a conceit can overtake the book. However, in this case, the mere fact that the novel’s subject matter of grief and mental illness required an ordering concept in order to be written about is enough to warrant it. And the structure itself illustrates so many of the things Aubry describes in her elegaic prose that we, as readers, would not be able to understand so viscerally otherwise. The sections vary from poem to prose poem to short detailed narratives and although they each have a distinct topic, there are many recurring images and emotions that tie them all together into one portrait (or non-portrait).
My favorite vignette: “T: Traitor”
In most of the chapters, the title appears frequently throughout. In “T,” not only does the word “traitor” appear, but the chapter is composed almost like an anaphoric poem, with each stanza presented as a toast, beginning with the word “to.”
“to voices that say ‘I’ without trembling, to changeless, gleaming portraits in their worked frames, with mocking smiles, proud of their resemblance to themselves
to linear narratives, to familiar alphabets
to lives framed by two dates and which unfold from one to the other without rebirths or disappearances”
When she arrives at the word “traitor,” she interrupts the poem for a moment to wonder if she is the traitor for manipulating the words he had directed her “to novelize,” writing instead about her reading of his words, about their “mingled lives.” For me, this chapter is the most poignant, the most emblematic of her thwarted attempts to understand “all of him that is unknown to me and always will be.”