If you've read or heard about the Swedish author Karl Ove Knausgaard's book My Struggle, in which he presents the events of his life in novelistic form, then you might be familiar with the concept of autofiction. Another excellent example of autofiction, which published last week, just got a big review in the New York Times Book Review--in which they describe the book as "a tremendous feat of emotional and artistic discipline."
Fellow Swede Tom Malmquist has written In Every Moment We Are Still Alive, the story of a man whose world has come crashing down overnight: His long-time partner has developed a fatal illness, just as she is about to give birth to their first child; and his father is diagnosed with cancer. While this does describe the events of Malmquist's life, he writes about them as if he were writing a novel. The front page New York Times review states, "'In Every Moment We Are Still Alive' is narrated in a vivid present tense that collapses the distance between the time of narration and the harrowing events of the story."
We asked Tom Mamlquist why he decided to present the events of his life as autofiction.
"What is autofiction?" by Tom Malmquist
To me, identifying my book as autofiction is partly a way of acknowledging the limitations of memoir – even the most autobiographical writing is still fictional in some way. The story I tell in In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is true: the book is about a man named Tom who has a daughter named Livia and a partner named Karin who dies. That describes my family. But the truth I tell is my truth, the truth of my own perceptions, experiences, emotions. And paradoxically, by thinking of it as a fiction, I’m able to get closer to that subjective truth, the truth I own. If you asked my mother what happened, her story would be different in subtle, but important, ways.
My background is as a poet, and both of my previous books were poetry collections. To me, poetry takes the emotions and amplifies them — the smallest perception expands out to become its own cosmos. In prose, I feel the opposite dynamic — a world of perceptions and relationships gets condensed, shrunken down to a more manageable scale. And when I was writing this book, in order to fit the enormity of my grief into a story, that’s what I needed: a way of containing the chaos, shrinking it down until I could get a grip on it. That’s how I became able to deal with it, and begin processing what had happened.
Once I had brought my experiences down to a scale where I could deal with them, I had to find a structure for the book. I decided to write it in five parts, with a scene at the core of each one revolving around a particular one of my five senses. For instance, in the first part, set at the hospital, I focused on my sense of smell. My partner Karin and our newborn daughter Livia were at opposite ends of the hospital, nearly a kilometer apart — Karin on life support, and Livia in an incubator. As Livia’s blankets were changed, I’d carry the old ones over to where Karin was, and vice versa, so that they were able to smell each other’s scent.
In terms of literary aesthetics, these five senses combine to create the sense of a body, for the metaphorical human being whose experience the book documents. I needed this, in my sadness, to write the book. Karin’s body no longer existed — it had been cremated — so I could never hug her again, never feel her with my five senses. At the same time, Livia began becoming aware of her body, discovering the world with her five senses. The ghostly longing between these two poles — life at one extreme, in all its diversity, and death at the other, as consummate emptiness — is one of the central themes the book explores.
This book was not easy to write. Often, I would break down when I tried to face a particular memory. As much as this let me know I was on the right track, it was immensely taxing on a physical level. My next book, which I’m working on now, is much less personal — a true crime story, told with a poet’s touch. In many ways, it’s nice to be moving on. But I could never have moved on without first creating In Every Moment We Are Still Alive, and I don’t believe it could have been anything but autofiction. I needed to create meaning out of the meaninglessness of what I’d experienced. And if my story can make someone else feel less alone — well, that’s all I could have asked for.