If memory is unreliable, is there really any difference between a novel and a memoir? The answer is more complicated than you might think.
A novel is a complex text composed of many interconnected parts: plot, setting, characters, theme and style. But what if those parts don’t fit together?
As we learned in a previous post, “What is a Novel?” the accepted definition of a novel is: “an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals with human experience through a connected sequence of events.” Our latest contender for shortest novel ever written, Scars on the Soul by Françoise Sagan, is long (longer than I thought when I selected it, it turns out). It deals with the human experience, and does so through a connected sequence of events — two separate, fully disparate sequences, as we’ll soon see.
Scars on the Soul is complex, but it’s artificially complex. That isn’t a meaningful statement in and of itself; as works of fiction, novels are artificial by their very nature. But here’s the problem: The narrative of Scars on the Soul consists of a short story interwoven with a memoir. It’s simultaneously a work of fiction and a work of nonfiction.
Even so, it checks all the boxes — it’s an invented prose narrative, it’s long and complex, and it deals with human experience through a connected sequence of events. Does that make Scars on the Soul a novel … or is it something else entirely?
In order to figure this out, let’s ask an obvious question that seems to have an obvious answer: Are memoirs nonfiction or fiction?
Called “that most deliciously ambiguous of genres” by Laura Dietz, the literary category known as “memoir” is surprisingly enigmatic. In her article, “Since when were memoirs non-fiction?” Dietz explains, “Reading memoirs leaves you exposed. It’s a game, sparring with the author: you think you can take me for a ride? … What’s the truth? Whatever the author says it is. Memoirs will get away with whatever they can.”
The history of the memoir genre is inextricably intertwined with the autobiography category. While a biography is a history or account of the life of an individual, the term “autobiography” was a facetious neologism coined in 1797 by William Taylor to describe biographies written by their subjects. It entered the lexicon as a valid literary term in the early 19th century and has been used unironically to this day. Then in the late 20th century, the memoir genre abruptly split off from biography and autobiography to become a literary subcategory all its own.
On The Masters Review blog, Kimberly Guerin acknowledges that the line between autobiography and memoir is hazy. “Autobiography can be difficult to differentiate from memoir (it is interesting to note that Amazon puts them in the same category), and often the terms are used interchangeably.”
Are memoirs and autobiographies essentially the same thing?
Not according to writer Ian Jack, who noted back in 2003, “Writing one’s own personal history used to be called autobiography, Now, more and more, it is called memoir. The two words are often used interchangeably and the boundary between the two forms is fuzzy, but there are differences. An autobiography is usually a record of accomplishment. … Deeds, fame and an interesting life are not necessary ingredients of the memoir. The memoir’s ambition is to be interesting in itself, as a novel might be, about intimate, personal experience. It often aspires to be thought of as ‘literary,’ and for that reason borrows many of literature’s tricks — the tricks of the novel, of fiction.”
Interestingly, the dictionary definition of memoir encompasses biography, autobiography and the distinct memoir genre itself. However, calling a narrative a “memoir,” as the term is commonly understood by writers and readers today, indicates that it’s vastly limited in scope compared with a narrative labeled “biography” or “autobiography.” Instead of attempting to recount the entire story of an individual’s life from birth to the present moment, memoirs tend to focus on a single story from that individual’s life. This single story usually takes the form of a sequence of events that occurred within an isolated period of the writer’s life, or a collection of non-sequential events that share a connecting theme.
There’s also a notable difference in writing style between the genres.
“What marks the difference,” according to Jack, “between memoir and autobiography, is that old division in writing between showing and telling.”
Biographies and autobiographies tell, memoirs and novels show.
But there’s a problem with all that “showing.” In order to create vivid imagery and detailed descriptions where only vague memories remain, a memoir writer must necessarily start guessing, supposing, and even making things up. “Who can remember with any exactness how things were with themselves and others 50, or 40 or 10 years ago? And yet the novelistic detail,” writes Jack, “is what matters so much in the writing of the modern memoir.”
What’s the breaking point between creative memory reconstruction and outright lying? Is a story still nonfiction if it’s mostly made up?
Nicole Dudukovic Ph.D., writing in Psychology Today, seems to think not. “Remembering by its very nature is a reconstructive process that often leads to distortion. We piece together our memories from the fragments of life’s events that we’ve retained. We don’t have exact copies of events stored in our brains. … If our autobiographical memories are always reconstructed and influenced by our current perspective, is writing an accurate memoir ever possible?” She adds, “Perhaps the memoir genre is a dying breed and memoir writers would be better off labeling their work as fiction.”
Even literary agents approach memoirs as if they were novels. As Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest notes, “Memoir is tricky because it’s the only nonfiction subject that must be treated as fiction. That means you have to write the entire manuscript (and revise it) before submitting. You would eventually write a synopsis — not a book proposal.”
It turns out that whether memoirs are fiction or nonfiction is a moot point when it comes to Scars on the Soul; the book is too long to be the shortest novel ever written. At 117 pages, I was willing to let it slide into the running, but I hadn’t counted on the tiny font and minuscule margins publisher Penguin Books employed to keep printing costs down. With an estimated 36,000 words, or a little over 100 pages in a standard paperback, the text doesn’t come anywhere close to the brevity of the other books we’ve considered so far.
But the question remains: What is this book?
Is Scars on the Soul a novel? A memoir within a novel? A short story with autobiographical annotations?
Is it a single complex narrative, or a composite of two simple texts?
In order to explain the structure and plot(s) of Scars on the Soul, it’s necessary to first describe author Françoise Sagan. Born Françoise Quoirez in southwestern France in 1935, Sagan gained fame abruptly and at a very young age when she published what’s still her best-known novel, Bonjour Tristesse, in 1954 when she was just 19 years old. She wasn’t a one-hit-wonder by any means, building a literary career that included more than 20 novels, 9 plays, and at least 15 autobiographical texts, several of which were only published after her death. However, her reputation as a literary wunderkind and bad girl often overshadowed her writing.
Sagan makes mention of this reputation many times in Scars on the Soul, writing, “Not that this image hasn’t had its uses, but I’ve nevertheless spent the best part of eighteen years hidden behind a screen of Ferraris, bottles of whisky, gossip, marriages, divorces, in short, what the public thinks of as the artist’s life. … I haven’t often been taken seriously and it’s understandable; but it should be realized that it was difficult in 1954 (my hour of glory) for me to choose between the two roles offered to me: scandalous writer or conventional young girl. I was, after all, neither.”
Written from 1971 to 1972 when Sagan was in her mid-thirties, Scars on the Soul is filled with autobiographical asides like this. The book appears, at first glance, to be a conventional novel, albeit a very short one. Arranged into 21 brief chapters, the central narrative of the book focuses on the foibles of the van Milhem siblings, a middle-aged brother and sister from Sweden who fairly ooze with aristocratic indolence and sex appeal. As they languidly face perpetual penury in an easy-going, fantasy version Paris and its environs, rousing themselves only occasionally to cobble together an income via the ancient art of the gigolo and courtesan, Sagan constantly interrupts their story to critique the narrative, inform the reader what she’s been doing and thinking about as she attempts to write the very story now being read, and philosophizes about the contrast between her fictional France and the real world.
After warning the reader that there will be no sex in the book (an amusing lie), Sagan adds, “Neither will there be the least trace of autobiography, not a single amusing anecdote. … By avoiding the particular, I shan’t be in danger of lying. The worst I shall do is get my quotations wrong.” (Another amusing lie.)
In fact, the book gradually becomes nothing but autobiography, once you consider the old authorial canard, “write what you know.” Sagan knows “Ferraris, bottles of whisky, gossip, marriages, divorces,” and this is what the van Milhems’ lives are all about.
“There are moments when I’m on the point of writing, ‘But I digress,’ an old-fashioned courtesy to the reader, but pointless in this case, since my purpose is to digress,” Sagan warns the reader after yet another authorial interruption. Later, she cops to the fact that what we’re reading isn’t a real novel, but something else entirely: a “novel-essay.”
The dialectic between Sagan as “author” and the text as “story” does indeed resemble the conventions of an essay. She posits many explanations for her own actions and motivations as a storyteller (of fiction) and as a person living in the real world (of nonfiction). The two threads, the thesis and antithesis of fiction and nonfiction, never come together in anything resembling synthesis until the end of the book, when Sagan abruptly inserts herself into the fictional world of the van Milhems and becomes a character in her own story. “I’m beginning to mix everything up, Eleanor [van Milhem] and myself, her life and mine, and this is only natural, such being my intention, as the faithful reader will discover should he reach the end,” she writes.
This latter development mirrors the structure of my own book, False Memoir: Based on an Untrue Story, which uses the concept of author insertion, as practiced by authors such as Sagan and Kurt Vonnegut, to drive the narrative in unexpected directions. While my book is a novel with memoir-like elements, all but the final chapter of Scars on the Soul is a back-and-forth dialogue between a traditional short story and a memoir written in the form of an essay.
Final judgement: Scars on the Soul isn’t the shortest novel ever written (it’s too long), and it isn’t even a novel. Nor is it a memoir. I’m going to agree with Sagan and call it a “novel-essay.” It may be a strange hybrid of fiction and nonfiction, the likes of which I’ve never encountered before, but it’s also one of the most readable and enjoyable “complex” books I’ve ever explored.
Maybe complexity isn’t the main thing. Maybe it’s all about genre. We’ll explore this idea in the next contender for world’s shortest novel: Koula by Menis Koumandareas.
Don’t forget to check out my extremely short novel (or extremely long short story?) The Drowned Town. Right now, it’s free to download and read. What do you think? Is it really a novella, a short story, or something else?