Book review: Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story – when friendship turns sinister

Within a relatively simple narrative lies a concern that lends additional weight and interest to Delphine de Vigan’s narrative, and this concern centres on the identity of L.

The shadowy L is the sort of woman who fascinates the narrator until their relationship becomes obsessive. Getty Images
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Delphine de Vigan is preoccupied by the nature of literary and autobiographical truth. In Nothing Holds Back the Night (2013), de Vigan offered an apparently factual account of her family history, intertwined with long passages of fictional creation, which then modulated into an ostensibly conventional form of memoir about her mother's journey to suicide. The book was met with a great deal of acclaim, much critical consternation (was this a novel? a memoir? a work of autofiction?), and an enormous – and enormously responsive – array of readers. And the effect, for de Vigan, proved devastating.

If, that is, we are to believe the description we are offered of her emotional state at the opening of her new work, Based on a True Story (translated from French by George Miller), in which the narrator (a version of de Vigan) finds herself overwhelmed by the effects of having "written a book whose impact I couldn't have foreseen". She is dismayed by the "collateral damage" it has caused within her family. She is exhausted by encounters with readers ("I hadn't imagined that some would cry in front of me, nor how hard it would be for me not to cry with them"). She feels that a terrible reckoning – "a thorough stocktaking, if not a settling of the score" – is on its way. And she is haunted by questions about the future of her career ("What are you going to write after this … What can you write after this?"), and about whether she has cast herself into literary stasis by composing "A book beyond which there was nothing, beyond which nothing could be written".

In the midst of this period of turmoil, de Vigan attends a party at which she encounters a figure who is referred to only as L. Initially, L looks as if she will bring to de Vigan’s life a sense of intimacy and reassurance; a vicarious apprehension of the attributes de Vigan feels she has always lacked (“L was perfect … I felt intimidated by such a calmly assured woman. L was exactly the sort of woman who fascinates me. L was impeccable, with her smooth hair and perfectly filed vermilion nails that seemed to gleam in the dark”); and an uncanny ability to intuit her private anxieties. When de Vigan tells her about the emotional toll the publication of her book has exacted, L responds by saying that “you must sometimes feel very alone, as though you were standing completely naked in the road” – a phrase de Vigan recognises, having used it (in conversation with somebody other than L) only a few days earlier.

Following these initial and unsettling encounters, the women become fast friends. But the intensity of L’s affection for de Vigan assumes an increasingly sinister and obsessive character. They experience a froideur arising from a disagreement about what de Vigan ought to write next (L wants de Vigan to write the truth about the consequences of publishing her last book; de Vigan wants to write something closer to pure fiction). As the novel progresses, L becomes a debilitatingly disruptive presence in de Vigan’s life. She starts to dress like her. She attempts to assume her identity by offering to handle her correspondence. Eventually, she works her way into every aspect of de Vigan’s life so comprehensively as to threaten to destroy her.

Within this relatively simple narrative lies a concern that lends additional weight and interest to de Vigan’s narrative, and this concern centres on the identity of L. Is she a real person? Is she a kind of everywoman (“L” teasingly invites “elle”)? Or is she a figure of projected fantasy, the product of de Vigan’s ravaged imagination? It is telling that she seldom interacts with other figures in the book. And when she does, it is often to behave in the kind of way de Vigan might like to, were she possessed of a different kind of character.

De Vigan keeps these questions arrestingly unresolved, and integrates them with her broader story with elegance and subtlety. She is also capable of writing with vividness and precision (“L’s body balanced on a bar stool was like static choreography that dispensed with music and attracted glances”). Cumulatively, and despite de Vigan’s tendency to use the occasional inert or inattentive phrase, these qualities result in a novel that is conceptually bold, intellectually engaging, often aesthetically rewarding, and almost always near-preposterously absorbing. Based on a true story this book might be. But in its strongest moments, it embodies the singular strengths of fiction.

Matthew Adams is a regular contributor to The National.