Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Like a Fading Shadow works an ingenious variation on integrating autobiography and fiction, separating them into independent strands and then braiding them. Intertwined but distinct are an account of James Earl Ray’s flight to Lisbon after murdering Martin Luther King, an account of Muñoz Molina’s traveling to Lisbon for his first novel thirty years ago, and an account of writing the Ray novel and thinking about writing and the past in the present. Two-thirds memoir, one-third fiction: the work begins with the third memoir-of-writing narrative, but nothing in the opening insists on the non-fictive memoirishness of this section. It could as well be metafiction. The opening line suggests a fantasy of fiction making as virtual reality: “I awake inside his mind. . . . ” The interleaved structure emerges only gradually. Experiencing this novel without forewarning, to feel how it unfolds when the reader is not looking for or expecting the joins and shifts, is of course precluded by the advertising campaign that makes its structural features a lure.
But that does not quite work either. The collection’s third story throws in a wrench with the declaration that the lover, last seen drowning in Lake George, is invented. But the stranger on whom he is based is real. Or so it seems. Maybe. What is real, what is not, rather than the naïve query of stupid readers, alternates, hesitates, returns, deliberately called into question. The author protects herself from naïve identification of all the narrator’s “I” statements with the author—maybe it’s true, maybe not– without giving up the special biographical interest that derives from identifying the author with the narrator. Thirty years ago, in Immortality (1990), Milan Kundera complained that readers care now only about authors’ biographies, not their works. Mash-ups of life and fiction have the cake they eat. The first story, that began with “[m]y grandfather” the famous writer, passes through “my” pre-laser vision surgery to “my first-ever short story,” to end in front of a door that may or may not open, but when it does (and it will), “you won’t know what you will come across until you enter.” That opening door accesses both imaginary worlds and the real futures that lie before everyone, “you” all. As the fiction plays back and forth with an asserted reality that belongs extra-textually to the name on the title page, it invites imitation. Can I turn some fragment of my experience into a significant figment that I could call a story?
But the uncommon flavor of Tolstaya’s work is vividly displayed in a story called “Judith with the Sword.” Tolstaya’s Judith is a marble statue that a painter assigned to buy a bedroom set for his wife drags home from Moscow to his provincial town Ryazan (does it exist? 122 miles southeast of Moscow, with a museum, a cathedral, a monastery, and a park). The movers break the tip of her sword, his wife leaves him, and takes the children; he remains with his statue, and does not dust under the wardrobe. That story is the filling between narrative layers that begin “at the end of the 1980s.” Interviewed, the narrator-writer proposes a twentieth-century Russian epistolary history, written in a real letter for every year, even the years when letters lied because everyone always lied then. That declaration provokes an unknown man to donate the saved letters of a chatty transit ticket collector; the letters are returned as useless, but this tale, now retold, was remembered, though all the names have been forgotten. The story ends with everyone gone, inexplicable love alone remaining, and a gnomic sentence, a command, addressed to whom? “Stay silent, but stay.” Addressed not to the reader, nor to the characters, but perhaps to one reader whose identity we do not know and do not share and who may not even read the story. Perhaps to the dead. Grammatically, the addressee is love, enfolded in the untold stories, but separable from them. Fittingly, the line sits alone on the last page, facing the rest of the story, but not part of it.
In “Emanuel,” Tolstaya introduces someone who knows all about the other side of the curtain, who also has been there, before her. In 1757 (the year William Blake was born), he revealed that the Last Judgment and Second Coming had already occurred: Emanuel Swedenborg, metallurgist, chemist, visionary, titled Swede, saw heaven and hell in enlightenment London. Minor details differentiate Tolstaya’s account from a standard potted bio. When after his vision of 1745 Swedenborg begins to write “with inhuman speed,” the cliché acquires hesitation-inducing detail, viz. “in Latin, with a quill.” His account of the hereafter displays not just exhaustive, but “exceedingly” exhaustive “and boring” detail.
In Kundera’s fiction, his named “Kundera” has (deliberately) no character at all. Muñoz Molina is also more effective describing anything but himself and his feelings. Tolstaya’s unnamed narrator jets like the fountains at Versailles with character and created characters. Materialistic, rooted in smells and textures and grit and grime and pain and sloppiness and prickles, her world spills over with drunks in the train station and uncooperative cab drivers and a blind man eating pizza, memories, dreams, reflections. The voice at once engages and withholds—you have all of me, and nothing at all. These artificial autobiographies, Kundera’s, Muñoz Molina’s, Tolstaya’s, create ample opportunities for critics awaiting the “real” memoir, ready to feast when it appears, disappearing into mirrors reflected in mirrors. Whatever the future of the technique, Tolstaya’s version creates a desire to hear what she will say next—whoever she is, to whomever this voice belongs.