By Joanny Moulin
We are witnessing the rise of ‘fictional biographies’, or ‘biographical fictions’, which Alain Buisine has conceptualized by coining the word ‘biofiction’, in a 1991 article in the Revue des sciences humaines (vol. 4, n° 224, 1991). In his 1941 essay “Epic and the Novel”, Mikhail Bakhtin described what he called the phenomenon of “novelization” of other literary genres. Today, as if by some quirk of literary history the wheel had finally come full circle, the novel seems to undergo a ‘biographization’, and literary science, now extremely well armed — and perhaps over-armed — to analyze the novel as the fictional genre par excellence, finds itself grappling for adequate methodological tools, in the absence of a fully-fledged theory of biography. The examples of biofiction in contemporary literature are so many that it is hard to know where to start or which to pick. No doubt as a sign of the times, the 2014 Prix Goncourt was awarded to Lydie Salvayre for Pas Pleurer, a biofiction where she relates the life of her own mother during the Spanish War, and the Renaudot went to David Foenkinos for Charlotte, a verse-biofiction of Jewish painter Charlotte Salomon, murdered in Auschwitz in 1943, at the age of twenty-six. The 2015 Renaudot and Goncourt des lycéens awards winner is Delphine Le Vigan, for D’après une histoire vraie, a novel staging a fiction writer turning to non-fiction to overcome her blank page syndrome.
If one was to select, with heartrending arbitrariness, only two remarkable examples, one in Britain and one in France, perhaps it would not be unwise to mention William Boyd’s Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart (2002), and Benjamin Jordane, L’Apprentissage du roman (1993). Any Human Heart presents itself as the diary of Logan Mountstuart (1906-1991), a fictitious writer, which whom Boyd follows up on the hoax biography of an American artist in The New Confessions. In his peregrination, Mountstuart meets and interact with both fictional and real-life characters, famous writers and other celebrities. The pleasure one derives reading this biofiction, brilliantly demonstrating the compatibility of the two modes of reading, is the same as with a conventional novel, redoubled by a challenge comparable to the one exerted by a biography, as the reader’s appetite keeps being whetted by the outside-text historical references.
L’Apprentissage du roman is a different case, for Benjamin Jordane is a fictitious author, invented by Jean-Benoît Puech, who went so far as to co-edit with (fictitious) Yves Savigny an anthology of biographical essays (by real and invented authors) on Jordane in 2008. The story behind Jordane’s L’Apprentissage du roman is worth summing up. Puech, born in 1947, was twenty-one in 1968, the year of ‘The Death of the Author’. He was an admirer of Louis-René des Forêts (1916-2000), a friend of Raymond Quenaud, lionized by the formalist Young Turks of the journal Tel Quel. In spite of all the Nouvelle critique dogmas he was being taught, Puech wanted to meet des Forêts in flesh and blood, and he did so, and wrote a diary about their conversations and correspondence. When Puech asked permission to published this diary, allegedly in 1989, Louis-René des Forêts adamantly refused to grant it. So he started changing all the names to get round the interdiction, including his own, and chose the first name of Jacob’s younger son, Benjamin, and an equally biblical family name. Only seven years later did he blow the hoax, publishing the original version of the diary under his own name as Louis-René des Forêts, roman (2000) on the year of Louis-René des Forêts’s death. Puech’s other invented author, Yves Savigny, published in 2010 Une biographie autorisée. Jean-Benoît Puech says: ‘Savigny becomes my biographer, he becomes for me what I have been for Jordane’ (in Les nouvelles écritures biographiques, eds R. Dion & F. Regard, 2013).