icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

From Phyllida's Desk

Beautiful Metaphors, Ugly Memoirs

Colm Toibin, in a review of a biography of E.M. Forster, derided the idea of the "honest novel" (as the biographer, Wendy Moffat, described Forster's Maurice): "novels should not be honest. They are a pack of lies that are also a set of metaphors … they are not forms of self-expression, or true confession."

For Toibin, as for many critics, Maurice, the only novel in which Forster wrote explicitly of his same-sex desires, is also his worst. His other novels, in which his desires are "disguised" or transformed into the "metaphors" of heterosexual attraction, are better works of fiction.

We all remember the debacle of the phony memoir, A Million Little Pieces, and the universal condemnation of its author, James Frey, when the "facts" of the story turned out to be inventions or exaggerations; the "memoir" was really a novel. Some of us may believe, as I do, that the idea to publish Pieces as a memoir was originally the editor's or publisher's, a way to achieve the bestseller status that is rarely within the reach of even the best works of fiction.

Whether we approve of this strategy or not, it's interesting to remember that Frey subsequently published a genuine novel, that it received good to excellent reviews—and that what most of us remember about him, if we remember anything at all, is the scandal of the fake memoir.

So what could be worse than phony memoirs? A novel written in the form of memoirs? Memoirs that could not be real because they take place in a fantasy world?

That's what I've been e-publishing these days, and I have to ask myself why. The short answer is that this stuff is already written; it seemed like a good idea, while my third "real" novel is still a bunch of half-baked metaphors bubbling in my brain, and while I'm inundated with many other projects, to put some "new" fiction out there with my name on it, even if it's not my most up-to-date work.

But there's more to it than that.

The series of novels that I call Eclipsis: Lady Amalie's memoirs is my own attempt at "honesty." And while I agree in principle with Toibin's assessment of "honest" novels, I also think there's sometimes a need for them. As Moffat writes in her biography, it gave Forster great pleasure in his later years to know that he had this secret manuscript, one that told his own truth, which would be revealed only after his death.

For me, it’s more complicated. Forster had become paralyzed as a writer, unable to produce any more "metaphorical" novels, to labor over works that so disguised his real feelings that they became uninteresting to him as a writer. And there was no way to publish a "homosexual" novel in his lifetime without causing the sort of political firestorm that Forster could not have endured.

But I live in different times. I've been writing from the beginning of my late-start "career" about the same thing: the woman married to a bisexual husband, living in an m/m/f ménage. Sometimes that's the "point" of the story, as in my first published novel, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander. Sometimes it's incidental, as in Pride/Prejudice. In that story, the focus is on the two bisexual lovers, Fitz and Charles. As each man marries a woman for love, and as the married men resume their relationship with each other, by the end of the story both wives are living in an m/m/f ménage.

Here, with Lady Amalie, I've gone back to my first attempts to write directly about the situation. But here the emphasis is on the woman, the stories told in the first person, from the point of view of the narrator, Amelia Herzog. Amelia's early life is in some ways much like Forster's, cut off from "normal" sexual relationships because of being "different." In Amelia's case it’s her telepathic abilities that create the barrier. Hearing people's private thoughts, thoughts the other people can't know she shares, makes genuine emotional intimacy impossible for Amelia. And without that intimacy, there's no way for her to enjoy sex or to experience romantic love.

On Eclipsis, where Amelia arrives at the age of thirty-five, the one person she can love and trust—and who loves her—is a formidable, dangerous nobleman and military leader, a same-sex oriented man in his early forties with a fondness for barely-legal sixteen-year-old boys. It's a wish-fulfillment fantasy of course, but there's more to it than that. Amelia has been stunted emotionally by her psychological isolation on Terra. Once among her own kind, telepaths and aristocrats, her true nature begins to unfurl, opening up in the light of acceptance. And she's not a saint, or a wimp, or even a very nice person. Perhaps she's been damaged and scarred; but perhaps, as it feels to me writing this, she's simply free to be herself, and to be honest. Amelia, as she becomes Amalie and then Lady Amalie and finally, by the end of Wedding, 'Gravina Aranyi, grows in self-confidence and self-awareness. She is, in the words of her husband, a "termagant," an angry, bad-tempered, sarcastic, intelligent and sensitive bitch of a performer. Like her creator.

All novels, whether literary fiction or genre, are governed by rules that we writers break at our peril. Edmund White said that a Hollywood producer once told him why his first novel, A Boy's Own Story, could never be made into a big mainstream movie. Not the homosexuality, but because of the "horrible ending," in which White wrote honestly of his betrayal of a high school teacher. It's an episode that even now, years after my reading it, makes me wince. Hearing White refer to it in a public conversation last week provoked me to make one of those "tsk tsk" sounds—an involuntary reaction of disgust and condemnation. And I'm a writer. I get it. I admire White's honesty as a writer even as part of me still hates that unhappy teenage boy who ruined the life of a man offering (in a misguided way) only friendship and kindness.

And that's what I'm doing here, with Lady Amalie and her "memoirs." It would be nice to think I'm writing "bi-positive" stories as some kind of public service, but if good fiction isn't honest, it most certainly is not altruistic. I admit to being amazed that not all women are turned on by bisexual men, but my writing isn't a serious attempt to change people's attitudes.

Writing about "my" marriage to my fictional husband and his male companions is, like Forster with Maurice, a way for me to make my fantasies as real as possible, by writing them into stories—novels. And the fantasy doesn't work if it's about someone else. Although Phyllida has a great many similarities to me, she's not an exact replica. And Elizabeth Bennet is eternally herself, whether in Austen's classic or in my pastiche. It's only with Lady Amalie and her memoirs that I can be totally myself in almost every detail.

If Toibin's despised "self-expression" and "true confession" don't make for good novels, I'm hoping that they might appeal to the baser instincts we satisfy with memoirs, reading the ugly truths of other people's lives that illuminate—by contrast, we hope—our own virtues.
Be the first to comment