To disentangle true from false

Dear Delphine,

Based on a True Story (2017, tr. George Miller. Original: D’aprés une histoire vraie, 2015) is an atmospheric book that revolves around a woman who may or may not have been taken hostage by another – and by her readers.

The narrator is a middle-aged woman who lives in Paris with her two teenage children. Like you, she is a writer, also named Delphine, and has had a huge success with an autobiographical novel. Because of that, Delphine begins to receive a series of anonymous letters accusing her of lying and of exposing her family. Around this time, while at a party, she encounters an enigmatic woman, L., who works as a ghost-writer and seems to be an admirer of Delphine’s work.

Overwhelmed by the response to her latest book, Delphine starts to suffer from writer’s block, and this situation slowly progresses toward depression. Meanwhile, her relationship with L. moves beyond a friendship into something quite creepy. L. is just the sort of woman Delphine always wanted to be. Not only that, L. seems to have a gift for turning up just when Delphine needs her, and for saying just what she wants to hear.

Furthermore, L. is intent on getting Delphine to write again. However, the two women disagree on the nature of the book Delphine should write next: L. is adamant that it should be another autobiographical work (“That’s what readers expect of novelists: that they’ll lay their guts out on the table”), whereas Delphine feels creatively drained from her latest success, which had felt like “a book beyond which there was nothing, beyond which nothing could be written”.

L. won’t get no for an answer, and she goes to considerable lengths to influence Delphine’s writing. Our narrator becomes paralyzed by her friend’s insistence and criticism, and L. seizes the opportunity to take over her life: L. moves to Delphine’s apartment, starts to handle her correspondence, and, since her friend cannot write anymore, even signs her name on checks and answers emails for her.

By then we already know that there is something very wrong with this relationship. But it continues to get creepier and creepier: L. starts to dress like Delphine, and even acts as her double at literary events. Very much like a toxic partner, L. takes advantage of the fact that Delphine is at her most vulnerable, and erodes her trust in herself, in her friends, and even in her husband. L. manages to completely isolate our narrator from any contact with the outside world – and, uncannily, all of that happens with Delphine’s consent.

However, rather than a naïve victim, it feels like our narrator is L.’s accomplice in her debasement: Delphine seems to be striving toward her own annihilation, and her overture to this enigmatic friend is only an expression of her death drive. By the end, it is unclear who is using whom, who will destroy whom. Delphine, as a narrator, is as unreliable as her mysterious friend.

The highlight of the book for me was its atmosphere: the sense of dread and disquiet that increases through the gradual accumulation of details about the two women’s relationship. It plays out very much like a passive-aggressive seduction game, where our narrator becomes slowly entangled in L.’s web – which, as far as we know, and in a strange way, may well be Delphine’s own web.

Yours is a character study embedded in a slow-burning thriller that reads like an extended argument on truth, authenticity, and the nature of fiction. By giving not only your own name but also your personal attributes to your narrator (a middle-age woman living in Paris who achieved success with a book about her family), and by mentioning a true story in the title of the book, you permeate the story with a sense of ambiguity: throughout the novel, you make the reader repeatedly ask what the truth of the matter is.

As a response to the readers reaction to Nothing Holds Back The Night (2014, tr. George Miller. Original: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit, 2011), you throw them into the core of their own obsession with truth: following the beaten track of autofiction, you blur the lines between real and imaginary; memoir and invention; authenticity and falsehood; author and narrator; private and public personae; and, finally, you blur the very relationship between author and reader.

By the end, we cannot help but ask ourselves who is L. anyway? As Delphine’s life becomes entwined with L’s, their identities not only mingle, but are threatened by each other. Is L. a real person? She seldom interacts with other characters and her friendship with the narrator remains a secret they share. Perhaps L. is only a figment of Delphine’s delusional imagination. An hallucination, maybe? Or is she Delphine’s alter ego? The mask she assumes in order to write  – in this sense, her ghost-writer? Perhaps L. was Delphine’s way of fulfilling her desire to “be someone else. L. revived the unfulfilled hope of being more beautiful, wittier, more confident, of being someone else, in short”. Or perhaps L. did really exist, and was your friend, too. Does that even matter? Who is preying on whom then? Who has the power to tell the story – and what that power entails? Which is the true story the book was based on? Perhaps that story has more to do with your readers than with an enigmatic woman named L.

But those questions remain unresolved. We are made complicit in the search for truth in a narrative that is constantly eluding it. In relation to Delphine and L., we are both voyeurs and partners in crime – and we are also their prey.

Yours truly,

J.


C W Eckersberg – Kvinde foran et spejl. 1841

“Perhaps that is what any encounter is, whether of lovers or friends: two forms of craziness that recognise and captivate each other.” ― Delphine de Vigan, Based on a True Story

Look around! You writers are the product of shame, pain, secrets, collapse. You come from the dark, nameless places, or you’ve been through those places. You’re all survivors in your own way, each one of you as much as all the others. That doesn’t give you unlimited rights. But it entitles you to write, believe me, even if that makes waves.” ― Delphine de Vigan, Based on a True Story

Writing is a weapon for defense, shooting, alarm. Writing is a grenade, a missile, a flame-thrower, a weapon of war. It can lay things waste; it can also rebuild.” ― Delphine de Vigan, Based on a True Story

“I challenge all of us – you, me, anyone – to disentangle true from false – it could be a literary project to write a whole book that presents itself as a true story, a book inspired by so-called real events, but in which everything, or nearly everything, is invented.” ― Delphine de Vigan, Based on a True Story


About the book

  • Bloomsbury, tr. George Miller, 2017, 384 p. Goodreads
  • Originally published in 2015
  • Original title: D’après une histoire vraie
  • My rating: 3,5 stars
  • The novel was made into a film, directed by Roman Polanski (2017, IMDb)
  • I read this book for Paris in July

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