philippe lejeune on diaries and fiction and patricia highsmith

Lejeune is a leading European critic and theorist of diary and autobiography. His landmark essay, “The Autobiographical Pact,” has shaped life writing studies for more than thirty years, and his many books and essays have repeatedly opened up new vistas for scholarship. As Michael Riffaterre notes, “Lejeune’s work on autobiography is the most original, powerful, effective approach to a difficult subject . . . . His style is very personal, lively. It grabs the reader as scholarship rarely does. Lejeune’s erudition and methodology are impeccable. 

—from the jacket copy for Lejeune’s On Diary


I’ve just Googled the word “antifiction” and found that it’s free, at least for literary theory. A hip-hop group has staked a claim, but that’s it. No competition. These days, the minute you invent a word, you have to take out a patent. Serge Doubrovsky thought he had invented the word “autofiction” in 1977, but in 1998 his little cousin Marc Weitzmann claimed that Jerzy Kosinski had already invented the concept in 1965, something that Philippe Vilain has just taken the time to disprove in Défense de Narcisse (2005). I tell this amusing story because I created “antifiction” out of irritation with “autofiction” (both the word and the thing). I love autobiography and I love fiction, but I love them less when they are mixed together. I do not believe that we can really read while sitting between two chairs. Most “autofictions” are read as autobiographies: the reader can hardly do otherwise. These are autobiographies that take twisting paths towards the truth. Sure, why not? But we have virtually no way of knowing where the twists are. So my personal preference is for texts that face up to the impossible truth—sometimes in oblique ways, as wesee in Georges Perec and others, but faithfully and without resorting to invention. Autobiographers are often suspected of having a weakness for invention, something that autofiction writers embrace on purpose but that autobiographers turn to out of naïveté. This is the slippery slope of memory, traditionally seen as a vice. We have Paul Ricoeur to thank for making a virtue of it under the lovely name of “narrative identity.” We are not mendacious beings; we are narrative beings, constantly reconstructing the past in order to fit it into our plans for today’s world. But even when guided by an ethical concern for truthfulness, that kind of reconstruction means flirting with invention. It seems to me that on that count, autobiography and the diary have opposite aims: autobiography lives under the spell of fiction; the diary is hooked on truth. 


Let me be clear: I do not mean that autobiographies are false and diaries are true. I am talking about the dynamics of these two writing postures, both of which are present in varying proportions in all personal texts. In a study on how a diary can “end,” I tried to show that the problem of autobiography is the beginning, the gaping hole of the origin, whereas for the diary it is the ending, the gaping hole of death. Any autobiographer can end his text by taking the narrative up to the point of its writing. His biggest problem is upstream: building something solid behind it. But the past puts up only minor resistance to the powers of the imagination. “Long ways, long lies” goes the proverb. The same cannot be said of the future. Diarists never have control over what comes next in their texts. They write with no way of knowing what will happen next in the plot, much less how it will end. The past is wonderfully malleable. It is relatively easy to ensure that it does not contradict you (although the truth does sometimes come back to bite people!) The future is pitiless and unforeseeable. You do not have any elbow room with the future. And the present—the diarist’s subject matter—immediately objects to anything that smacks of invention.


I found my ideas on the incompatibility of fiction and the present echoed in Roland Barthes’s last lecture course, La Préparation du roman (2003):


Can one make Narrative (a Novel) out of the Present? How does one reconcile—dialecticize—the distance implied by the enunciation of writing and the proximity of the present as we are swept along in it? (The present is what sticks to you, as though you had your nose up against a mirror.)


[Peut-on faire du Récit (du Roman) avec du Présent? Comment concilier—dialectiser—la distance impliquée par l’énonciation d’écriture et la proximité, l’emportement du présent vécu à même l’aventure. (Le présent, c’est ce qui colle, comme si on avait le nez sur le miroir.)]


Since Barthes is after literature at all costs, he solves the problem with the idea that there is an “art of the present” or “art of notation”: the “haiku.” It seems to me that he is only half right. The haiku is an art of the moment, not of the present. The moment is a piece of time wrested out of continuity, out of the constant flow that moves from the past towards the future (or vice versa!): it already has one foot in eternity. The present is that poor thing that runs along, this rocking motion that we each experience all alone. The haiku is rarely dated and is often impersonal. For Barthes, the haiku is a good image of the present, while the diary is a bad one. With its date, its details, its first person, its contingency, its solitude, the journal is something he has tried out and written off (in “Délibération”).


An imaginary reconstruction of the present could only be viewed and experienced as a lie, or insanity, and would be difficult to keep up over time. How could you adjust yesterday’s lies to match today’s realities, every single day? It would be a full-time job just keeping the two in parallel. They would soon diverge infinitely. Naïve fiction, or deliberate autofiction, are easy in a retrospective or summarizing autobiographical narrative. The diary makes it impossible, or at least very difficult: the diary is “antifiction,” in the same way that we say “antilock” or, let’s say, “antipest.” Which brings me back to my neologism. My purpose in cobbling this word together is not to create a new genre by drawing yet another pigeonhole in the current literary scene, but to refer to a constant property of this type of writing.


The fact that the diary is “antifiction” obviously does not mean that it is “antisubjectivity.” This distinction, which people are at pains to make when discussing an autobiographical narrative, goes without saying for the diary, which could not possibly be more subjective or less fictional. Nor does it mean that the diary is “anti-art”: it is a common error these days to confuse art and fiction. Catherine Rannoux recently published an interesting stylistic study under a strange title, Les Fictions du journal littéraire [The Fictions of the Literary Diary]. She analyzes dialogism and intertextuality in Paul Léautaud, Jean Malaquais, and Renaud Camus, three French diarists among the most intent on the pursuit of truth. But does language contain anything other than “fiction”? All language is shared and every narrative is a construction. What distinguishes fiction from its opposite, and gives the word its meaning, is that someone exercises the liberty of inventing rather than setting out to tell the truth (which may be a naïve project, but then life itself is naïve).


The word “autofiction” has had great success because some contemporary writers have been intent on being seen as artists (“I am a bird, see my wings,” said La Fontaine’s bat), as though the truth did not have wings too, as though trying to tell the truth were not a powerful constraint that could lead to the height of artistry. But with the diary one must seek artistry in something other than fiction, which leads us to the challenging of certain academic canons. The diary is a sort of “installation” that plays on fragmentation and the tangential in an aesthetics of repetition and vertigo that is very different from traditional narrative aesthetics.


So my neologism is a sort of plea. My entire background lies behind this little lexicographical adventure. I love reading fiction, but am incapable of writing it. As an adolescent, I kept a diary that disappointed me: I wrote about my life’s disappointments badly, but accurately. That is why, as an adult, I threw myself into autobiography as a subject of study and a personal practice: constructing a work of art in the field of truthfulness or delineating the truth through the work of writing. Or rather, both at once. That is what lay behind my theory of the “autobiographical pact,” which is clearly an “antifiction” pact. But one of the differences between autobiography and the diary is that in autobiography, antifiction is a commitment that must be made and kept. For the diarist it is a fundamental constraint, like it or not. All you need do is to make a commitment to keep a diary and the rest is decided for you. You’re already on board. It is like the law of gravity: inescapable. If you start inventing things, you are quickly tossed overboard. There is no need to sign a pact with the reader. It is a mystical alliance with Time. I have avoided defining the diary in terms of privacy or secrecy: that is an important dimension, but a secondary one that is optional and recent (dating from the late eighteenth century). The main thing is how the diary relates to time and supports truth-seeking. Since the 1980s, I have gradually disengaged from autobiographical construction. What I liked in Michel Leiris’s poetic writing was that he had stopped writing narrative and was looking for a sort of “perpetual motion” of writing the self that revolved around the present. But this was a vague, undated present. Although I have no intention of imitating it, the model offered by Claude Mauriac in Le Temps immobile has since come to fascinate me: in his diary of an autobiographical reading of his diary, the retrospective reconstructions are no longer destructive and overwhelming because they leave the diary intact while exploring it, and follow along smoothly as the exploration diary unfolds. The real problem is less the danger posed by the gaze of outsiders than that of writing in the face of tomorrow, in the face of emptiness, in the face of no one, in the face of death. Choosing to keep your diary secret is significant because when you do that, the vast emptiness of time opens before you. Stendhal observed that this frees you of the need to please or persuade. You cannot imagine the mentality of the people who will read you a hundred years from now: all you can do to please them is to try to tell the truth.


This little word “antifiction”—not a very attractive one, I must admit—seems to say something different from the English “non-fiction.” It is more combative and less soft. It is also more precise: it does not apply to all texts that contain no fiction (negative definition), but to a specific category of texts that adamantly reject fiction (positive definition). The  diary grows weak and faints or breaks out in a rash when it comes into contact with fiction. Autobiographies, biographies, and history books are contaminated: they have fiction in their blood. Of course I realize that I am exaggerating and over-simplifying.


There are shades of grey and nuances; it’s not always quite so simple. But “antifiction” is like a magnifying glass: the things it magnifies are real. To get back to where I started: look through the current “autofictions” for texts that are an author’s actual, dated diary. There are none. On the other hand, take Le Mausolée des amants, the diary of Hervé Guibert, who is a major autofiction writer in other texts, from Mes parents to Le Protocole compassionnel. His diary, which is a laboratory for his autofictions, unfolds along truthful lines, although Guibert erased the dates when he published it to make it literary.


The argument I have laid out is simple: now I have to back it up with evidence. I will then turn the debate around, because there is a sense of malaise in both directions. The diary repudiates fiction, but isn’t fiction also very uncomfortable when it tries to imitate the diary?


Evidence seems difficult to come by. Since I am stating a negative thesis, it should be up to my adversaries to give examples that disprove it. Michel Braud, a friend of mine who specializes in diaries, went down that road and came back empty-handed: there are a few autofictions that include the diary form, but he had to acknowledge that they were not real diaries. Even when they use the author’s real diary, it is always from a position of hindsight: the diary used is not a fiction, and the fiction is not produced under diary conditions. Gide’s Cahiers d’André Walter attribute an edited text from the actual diary of the (living) author to a (dead) fictional double, but these Cahiers are not the diary. This is an autofiction just like any other, not a fiction-diary. The latter would consist of someone keeping a diary in the real world of a life that he invents for himself. The only example we might find of that would be the product of insanity or lies.


On the insanity side, Patricia Highsmith’s wonderful novel Edith’s Diary (1977) springs to mind. It is not in diary form. In third-person narration with internal focalization, the novel follows the life of the heroine, a young woman who faces a series of misfortunes: a good-for-nothing son and a husband who cheats on her and then abandons her to start a new life, leaving her burdened with an ailing elderly uncle. We see her gradually change course and begin to “remake her life” as well, but we see it through her diary, bits of which are occasionally quoted. It has two registers: realism for certain aspects of life and fantasy for others, especially the son’s “success story.” This story starts out as a game, but she gets caught up in it and it begins to develop independently of reality, soon leading to the exact opposite and to the final catastrophe. This psychopathological study is of course a novelist’s invention, not a real document. But I have come across something similar: three datebooks from 1989 to 1990 that were purchased in a second-hand shop and deposited with the Association pour l’Autobiographie. The diarist, a woman of about fifty, sometimes had two sons and was going to a notary to divide an estate worth billions, and at other times lived alone and tried to get work as a cleaning lady.

* “La journal comme antifiction.” Poétique 149 (Feb. 2007): 3–14. Originally presented as the opening address for the “Diaris I Dietaris” colloquium, Department of Catalan Philology, University of Alicante, 10 Nov. 2005.




—from Philippe Lejeune, On Diary (selections); edited by Jeremy D. Popkin and Julie Rak, Katherine Durnin, translator (2009).