The non-fiction novel?

Judith Armstrong reflects on different genres of history and the process involved in writing her recent book on Australian translator, Dymphna Clark.

Novel of AdulteryHaving been lucky enough to publish eleven books in Australia, the UK and the US – five while teaching at the University of Melbourne, six post-academia – I might be called promiscuous in relation to genre. I have edited and translated, in addition to doing original research. Over time though, my work evolved from books that were clearly non-fiction into more fluid genres.

My Ph.D/ (‘The novel of adultery in French, Russian, English and American literature in the second half of the nineteenth century’) was published as The Novel of Adultery (Macmillan, 1976) with all quotations from the original languages rendered into English. The Unsaid Anna Karenina (1988) also Macmillan, grew out of a theory course I taught for some years. The Christesen Romance (MUP, 1996), complete with footnotes, a bibliography and an index, was a ‘proper’ biography of Nina Christesen (founder of the Russian Department at Melbourne University) and her husband Clem, who founded the journal Meanjin. It was nominated for the Age Book of the Year (non-fiction).

After I left the university to write full-time my new-found freedom ran unexpectedly into issues of categorisation. A genuine novel, The French Tutor (Text, 2003), posed no problems, nor did three further ‘novels’. Yet I realised even then that they could have been labelled speculative biography, life-story and/or memoir.

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 3.39.37 PMAfter that, in 2011 and 2016, imbued with a greater sense of intention, I wrote two deliberately biographical novels, aware that if anyone thought they were pure biography, that person would be mistaken. The earlier book, War and Peace and Sonya (Murdoch Books, 2011, reprinted in London by Unicorn Press 2015) was a study of Sonya, the wife of the writer Tolstoy; though it was based on extensive research and a close reading of Sonya’s diaries in their original Russian, it was correctly catalogued as a novel because I also made up conversations and speculated on the thoughts, emotions and suspicions inhabiting Sonya’s mind.

These excursions were based on what she herself recounted of her daily life and her relationship with her husband and her many children in over 700 pages of diary. Tolstoy’s voluminous writings, if closely and frequently studied, could and did throw a desperately needed light on his wife’s understanding of a difficult husband and marriage, her close readings (for editorial purposes) of his own novels a flash of enlightenment to her. When my book came out, it certainly looked like a novel: it was a paperback, and it displayed on the cover a charming, introspective-looking young woman in a gorgeous nineteenth century dress; it seemed to find no trouble finding a home in the Fiction section of bookshops and libraries. Nevertheless, it was often referred to in general commentary as a biography, which made me feel uneasy.

The second, Dymphna (Australian Scholarly, 2016), centred on the wife of the historian Manning Clark. It had a genuine photograph from the family album on the cover, but no index or footnotes – only a Preface explaining the hybrid method of rigorous research coupled with intuitive interpretation – which I loved but was coming to believe lay more and more under siege.

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 3.40.08 PMYet I had travelled to Canberra to do the research: the archive in the National Library of Australia was sparse, mainly a collection of letters and cards, but there were six valuable professionally recorded interviews. Mark McKenna’s biography of Manning Clark, An Eye for Eternity, provided a thoroughly reliable chronology. Dymphna’s helpful eldest son, Sebastian, and his wife Elizabeth, one of Dymphna’s interviewers, read the manuscript more than once, correcting matters of fact, but never questioning a methodology whose research of ‘the facts’ more or less stopped there. I chose not to interview any of her other four remaining children, or their wives and progeny; this was not their story, it was mine.

As Helen Elliott wrote in a discerning review published in The Australian, ‘Armstrong knows that there are many possible versions to one life and all are true’. This was just one of them. Hilary Mantel has said of her Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which put vividly before us the persona of Henry VIII’s Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, that what she writes is but a case, or a proposal, or a proposition. After ten years of research she could certainly have produced a purely factual biography, but she chose not to. My position was similar, even if the time-line was not quite so extended, nor the acclaim so dazzling.

On the other hand, given that Dymphna Clark died only in 2000, and that many of her descendants are still alive, my speculative interpretations were consciously rigorous; I genuinely felt as though I was making in-depth discoveries which rang absolutely true, at least to me. It also became apparent to reviewers and interviewers, all of whom acknowledged even if indirectly the difference between category and genre. The former obeys the rigid rules of an ‘either-or’ procedure, in which the criterion is verification; the former always sees a ‘both-and’ vision, perhaps this, maybe that, as the most inclusive of the myriad ways in which a book can be written about a (historical) person.

Yet there remained extraordinary difficulty in getting the word ‘novel’ accepted with regard to Dymphna. Insisting on the correct generic nomenclature even had a negative impact on sales and perceptions. Following three excellent print reviews and a national radio interview, many people wanted to obtain a copy either from a bookshop or a library, but several individuals whom I knew personally reported vain searches.

Their puzzlement sent me looking too, but I often failed to find my book under New Release Fiction. Not only was Dymphna most commonly located in ‘Biography’, again raising the spectre of false claims, even there it was not to be found in the obvious place, that is, naturally, under ‘D’ for Dymphna. It turned out to be a moot point whether she was put under ‘L’ for Lodewycks (her maiden name) or ‘C’ for Clark, according to the prescriptive rules of the biographical system. When I pointed out the problem to one librarian, she removed the book and sent it away for re-labeling. By the time it returns, potential readers will no doubt have moved on.

It adds up to an irritating shemozzle on the marketing side, but one which points to more urgent and important issues. What exactly is the status of ‘biographical fiction’? Given its hybrid nature, should it continue to be forced, like Cinderella, into a shoe that does not quite fit either foot? Does this occur because it is seen as an open invitation to write without criteria or self-censorship?

As a practitioner I strongly reject this last suggestion. I choose to be constrained by three essentials: probability (the narrative should make enough sense to convince readers that the unverifiable past could have been as recounted); imagination, or perhaps sensibility, which should make the ‘what (is purported to have) happened’, vivid and experientially realistic; and a third criterion which goes back to the Russian Formalists and their useful distinction between istoria, or story (‘The King died. Then the Queen died’) and siuzhet, or plot (‘The King died, and the Queen died of grief’). Mostly, biography is written as ‘story’. The finished product is justified by footnotes and facts usually – though not necessarily – told in chronological order. Biographical fiction refuses to eliminate romance from research, speculation from fact, and proof from insight, but it must pass all these possibilities through the judicious but invisible filter of personal rigour.

Then what we will have will constitute a new, third category, which the American critic Linda Hutcheon suggests calling ‘historiographic metafiction’. Unsurprisingly no publisher, bookshop or library has taken up this tongue-twister. Nor has any double-barrelled encapsulation – creative biography? non-fiction novel? – become mainstream. It’s so much easier to stick to our familiar, neat pointers – Fiction this way, Non-fiction over there.

No one of course questions the writing choices of Hilary Mantel, but how many Booker Prizes would it take to officially baptise a third option, the fertile middle-ground between straight history and products of pure imagination. Let’s call it – well, there lies one of the problems. But even a baby without a name can thrive.


Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 3.45.28 PMJudith Armstrong was born in Melbourne, and has an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Melbourne. Appointed to the Department of Russian, she taught the literature, history and culture of pre- and post-Revolutionary Russia, initiated several interdepartmental courses, and produced five book-length publications as well as many journal articles. She became a Reader, Head of the Russian Department, and member of the University Council. Leaving the university in order to write full-time, she has published six books of fiction and non-fiction and written numerous reviews and articles for newspapers, magazines and opera programs. No doubt her greatest claim to fame was an invitation to write on adultery in
Anna Karenina for the Oprah Winfrey website.

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