In the final pages of her recent autobiographical novel The Double Life of Liliane, Lily Tuck seems to tell us how we should be reading her book. She is writing about her university days as a student of the literary theorist Paul de Man. One day in class, de Man says:
Autobiography occurs when it involves two persons building their identities through reading each other. This requires a form of substitution – exchanging the writing “I” for the written “I” – and this also implies that both persons are at least as different as they are the same…In this way, I consider autobiography as an act of self-restoration in which the author recovers the fragments of his or her life into a coherent narrative.
The Double Life of Liliane (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015) is a coming-of-age story of the author’s childhood and youth, ending while Liliane/Lily is still a college student. Born in Paris just before the Second World War to German parents who had both left their Jewish roots behind them, Liliane is precocious, observant, and skeptical – and she has decided at an early age that she wants to become a writer. At the outbreak of the War, when the French government sends her father, Rudy Solmsen, to a detention camp, Lilian and her mother Irène flee to Lima, Peru, where some of Rudy’s family lives. After the war, Rudy (who eventually joined the French Foreign Legion in Algeria as a pathway to French citizenship), Irène, and Liliane reunite briefly in Paris, but the parents soon divorce and Irène takes Liliane to New York City, where Irène will eventually remarry. The double life referred to in the title, while vaguely referencing the quote from Paul de Man, refers to the transatlantic life that Liliane leads as she shuttles between her parents (Rudy becomes a prominent movie producer in Rome).
Tuck’s book is a complexly structured narrative that continually doubles back on itself, digresses, and, to an unknowable extent, blends fact with fiction. In a piece over at Literary Hub that Tuck wrote about the book, she uses the term “auto-fiction,” confirming that the book is a blend of autobiography and fiction, and she cites the influence that W.G. Sebald has had on her. Sebald’s books clearly empowered Tuck to embed photographs within her book, to use digression as a way of introducing historical and literary issues, and to encourage the reader to look for allegorical references in even the most innocent-looking passages. That said, Tuck’s primary goal in The Double Life of Liliane is personal, not historical. She wants to understand the familial powers that shaped her (or tried to shape her), and to accomplish that she extends her examining eye to the larger ecosystem of the parents, brothers, sisters, in-laws, and close friends of her parents.
Tuck’s writing is crisp and seductive and I devoured the book in two brief evenings. It’s an engaging page-turner, albeit one with some depth and ambition. The Double Life is written in the present tense, which gives the book an in-the-moment immediacy. With appearances by the likes of Alberto Moravia and Josephine Baker and locations that include Paris, Rome, St. Moritz, Lima, Manhattan, it could easily have devolved into a name-dropping, celebrity autobiography. But Liliane is always wary about the glitz and polish of society, especially when it comes to men (including her father). What makes The Double Life such a curious autobiography is that it is written in the third person and yet so much of what we come to learn about Liliane we have to infer from what she thinks about other people. For example, here is Liliane reflecting on the situation her mother found herself in after Rudy is interned in 1940.
[Irène] has said yes often – too often – when, probably, she should have said no. She blames the war. She blames having been left on her own, having to fend for herself. And she was too young, she was too…she cannot think of the right words to express her indignation, her sense of injustice of what happened to her. Of being abandoned.
Her husband was gone. A prisoner, he was interned in a godforsaken village in the Loire Valley, soon to be sent back to Germany or who-knows-where in North Africa. On her own for the first time in her life, she had to ask for help from people she did not particularly like or trust. She had to depend on their goodwill, on their advice. She had to rely on them for money. For papers. For gasoline for the car, so that she, too, could leave. And nothing, she learned, came free.
Keep in mind that Liliane is barely two years old when this event occurs, so Tuck’s perceptions of her mother at that time are either completely made up or she is paraphrasing what her mother said at a later date. Nevertheless, it is clear what lesson Liliane is learning here as she thinks about her mother: a woman must learn how to be independent. Dependency comes with a cost.
There are roughly two dozen photographs included in Tuck’s book. The copyright page tells us that about three-quarters of the images come from Tuck’s own collection (and, by all appearances, these seem to be actual family snapshots), but a half dozen or so come from public domain sources or a photo agency. These latter images, which include such things as an airplane flying above the alps or a boys choir or an equine jumping competition, don’t really add to the reading or visual experience of The Double Life. Sebald, of course, used (and abused) photographic images from a variety of sources; but he also had very different intentions in mind. Even though Tuck freely acknowledges that some of her autobiographical reflections are fictionalized, I think she still wants us to believe that her portrayals are accurate, even if some of the particular details are fudged. In this instance, her decision to include photographs from stock agencies and other sources seems to send the wrong message.