The Diary as Radicalisation of French Autofiction

‘between the desert and the sea’ (Hervé Guibert, Voyage avec deux enfants)

This is a paper that I presented at the conference on ‘Autofiction: Theory, Practices, Cultures – A Comparative Perspective’, at Wolfson College, Oxford, 19–20 October 2019. I expect to develop this idea of diaristic writing being a means of ‘radicalisation’ for the later generation of French autofiction, with readings from writers such as Christine Angot, Camille Laurens, and Chloe Delaume.

In this paper I shall make a single, broad claim about the development of autofiction in French: I shall argue that autofiction moved from having an orientation towards autobiography, to having an orientation towards the diary; that this shift roughly coincides with a new generation of writers who came to prominence in the 1990s; and that the change can be seen as a radicalisation of the practices and desires of autofiction. This is not just a question of whether autofictional works use the form of an autobiography or a diary, but rather, whether they use autobiographical modes of writing or diaristic modes of writing, each of them with their own practices, values, and preconceptions about truth and the sort of life that is worth writing. These two modes can result in many different written forms, and even co-exist in a single work.

I’ll also discuss one book to illustrate this point, Hervé Guibert’s Voyage avec deux enfants — Journey with Two Children.1 This was published in 1982 and has not yet been translated into English. It’s not particularly well known among Guibert’s works, but a couple of critics have remarked that its complex use of diaristic writing allows him to carry out his own, characteristic type of autofiction for the first time. But before I discuss this work, I’ll first say a few words about the overall development of autofiction in French, and also address some critical work that is far more sceptical than I am about the relationship between autofiction and the diary.

Autofiction in French

I recently had the chance to take a broad view of the development of autofiction in French, as I contributed a chapter on autofiction to the new Cambridge History of the Novel in French. I avoided making any new claims, but I did give more or less emphasis to certain parts of the established literary history. In short, I found that Serge Doubrovsky’s role has been exaggerated, partly because of the need to keep telling the story of how he invented the word ‘autofiction’ itself; I found that Roland Barthes’s role has been underplayed, and there’s undoubtedly more work to be done here; and I also found that Hervé Guibert is a crucial figure in a shift from one generation of autofictional writers to another.

The earlier generation consists of writers born before the Second World War, including Roland Barthes, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, and Serge Doubrovsky. These writers participated in a general exclusion of the psychological and writing subject in the 1960s, and then a return of the subject in the 1970s and 80s through various innovative forms, drawing mainly on autobiography and the novel. For this generation, the combination of truth and fiction was always paradoxical, and a theoretical problem.

For the generation born after the War, including Guibert, Christine Angot, Philippe Forest, Camille Laurens, and Chloé Delaume, the combination of real life and fiction is less of a theoretical problem, it comes more naturally to them, they’re more likely to perceive life itself as being suffused with fiction, and they’re more personally implicated in the process and results of their writing. I’m also proposing now that the work of this later generation involves more diaristic writing, although this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s in diary form: for example, this would include works where they write an ongoing account of some sort of personal project or experiment with an unforeseeable outcome, and where the writing process itself is a significant part of the experience.

But the chronology here is complex: Guibert, who was born in 1955 and died in 1991 from complications related to AIDS and a suicide attempt, now appears as an autofictional writer in keeping with the later generation, with diaries featuring heavily throughout his work, yet his literary experimentation with truth and fiction goes back to his collection La Mort propagande (Propaganda Death) published in 1977, the very same year as the creation of the word ‘autofiction’ with Doubrovsky’s work Fils. One reason for this complicated chronology is that autofiction was not just created once and then imitated, but was invented over and over again by different writers in the course of their own experimentation. The work that I’ll be discussing, Journey with Two Children, is one of these individual discoveries of autofiction.

Diaries and autofiction

But first I need to address some objections to my claim that autofiction has come to be associated with the diary. In fact, the two main critics who have touched on this question have come to almost the opposite conclusion: that the diary is fundamentally inimical to fiction. These two critics, Michel Braud and Philippe Lejeune, both approach the question with certain preconceptions, even a certain ideology that is common in the academic study of life writing.

This ideology is most obvious in Lejeune’s article, ‘The Diary as “Antifiction”’, first published in 2007.2 He admits that he created the word ‘antifiction’ to characterise the diary because of his ‘irritation’ with autofiction itself.3 This is typical of a certain hostility towards fiction in general from the field of life writing, a sense that it threatens the continued existence of nonfictional forms. Lejeune concedes that autobiography tends towards fiction because of the need to create a structured narrative of past events and to impose a coherent form on one’s personality, but sees the diary as resisting this tendency. Or as he puts it, ‘autobiography lives under the spell of fiction; the diary is hooked on truth’.4 His argument regarding the diary runs as follows: because the diary is written in ignorance of how events will eventually turn out, it is impossible to mix fiction with truth because these lies — as he sees them — would quickly become unsustainable. The only exception would be for cases of madness, or pathological delusion.

The article by Michel Braud from 2002, ‘“Le Texte d’un roman”: journal intime et fictionnalisation de soi’ (‘Diary and Self-Fictionalisation’), is also limited in a similar way by a narrow conception of fiction.5 He identifies two apparently autofictional diaries, but in both cases they were not genuinely written in an autofictional mode as diaries of present events. One of these, by Jean-Bênoit Puech, takes an existing, truthful diary and rewrites it, semi-fictionally, for publication. Another work, by Christophe Deshoulières, was written in diary form but actually covers a period one year in the past, rather than the present. In both cases the fictionalisation is applied to past events whose development and conclusion is already known to the author. Using these two works as examples, Michel Braud assumes that the creation of a fictional, or even semi-fictional work requires that the author have an oversight of the structure and conclusion of events, which precludes the composition of an autofictional diary in the present. Braud arrives at a similar conclusion to Lejeune: the diary is not only poorly matched with fiction, but it is positively antifictional, and especially opposed to the perceived threat of autofiction, since it ‘asserts that a literature based on the relation to reality is possible after all’.6

Essentially, these critics are excellent readers of conventional diaries but poor readers of autofiction. They’re right that the vast majority of diaries maintain a close adherence to the truth, or at least, the subjective truth of the diarist at that moment. They’re also right that the diary in general has a symbolic connection to truth, as photography does, but this can still be incorporated in autofictional texts (as indeed photographs can). And it’s certainly difficult to write a diary that is partly fictional, but it’s evidently possible, especially if we allow fiction to mean things other than the fabrication of a counterfactual sequence of events. But it’s precisely this plurality of types of fiction that the two critics overlook, and which autofiction has revealed. This plurality includes, but is not limited to: the fictionality of our lives governed by competing narratives, the fictionality of our phantasies, and the fictionality inherent in the distancing and transformations of the literary writing process itself. All of these can be explored in the diary, without the need for the narrative coherence and closure of a novel. Admittedly, my own claim relates to a broader concept of diaristic writing rather than the diary in a narrow sense. And yet Guibert’s work, which I shall now discuss, demonstrates that even this sort of diary has a huge potential for autofictional experimentation.

Guibert’s diaristic writing

Guibert found fame and commercial success in 1990 when he published his book À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie (To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life), which relates his experience of living with AIDS. He is probably still best known for his books on this subject from the last couple of years of his life, and these works are important for his development of autofictional writing. Indeed, he claimed that writing about AIDS allowed him to ‘radicalise a little further yet certain systems of narration, of relationship with the truth, and the exposition of [his] self’7 (and this is where I took the idea of a ‘radicalisation’ of autofiction from for the title of this paper). Yet Guibert’s overall project to reveal himself completely, through a complex play of truth and fiction, goes back to his first book publication in 1977.8 Several of his works use diaries, or are adapted from his principal diary, which was published posthumously under the title Le Mausolée des amants (The Mausoleum of Lovers). He refers to this diary as the ‘spinal column’ of his project, and the other books as ‘appendices’ to it. The 1982 work Voyage avec deux enfants is structured around a complex diary-writing project, and it also allowed Guibert, for the first time in his career, to achieve just the sort of ongoing fictionalisation of himself that some critics have considered impossible.

The central experience related in the book is a trip to Morocco taken by Guibert, another young man, and two adolescent boys aged around 16 years old. Guibert takes a sexual interest in one of the boys, called Vincent, with whom he would later have a relationship, and who also features in several other works, including the 1989 book Fou de Vincent (Crazy for Vincent). Guibert exaggerates the youth of the boys, and paedophilia is presented provocatively as one of the book’s themes. The ethics of Guibert’s attitude towards paedophilia, and of his uncritical use of North Africa as a sexualised oriental setting, is an important question that would warrant a paper to itself, but I won’t be addressing that here.

The book consists of three parts. Part One contains diary entries written before the trip. Part Two is the diary of the trip itself. Part Three is a single, undated passage acting as a sort of epilogue. But it’s more complicated than this. The diary entries in Part One cover the period when the idea of the trip was conceived and when preparations of various sorts were being made. These entries are not printed in strictly chronological order, but have been slightly re-arranged to suit the artistic coherence of the book. Some comments from the author in parentheses help to explain these editorial decisions. There are also a couple of undated entries copied from a more distant period in the past, which are included because of their thematic relevance.

When the author is just eight days away from the start of the trip, he decides to start writing a diary of how he imagines the trip could go. He takes eight sheets of paper, marks them with the dates of the eight days of the trip and writes as if he were already there. This ‘diary of anticipation’ gives free reign to his imagination, and develops into a sort of fantastical story: one of the boys has been bitten by a dead man and develops a fever, a witch doctor conducts a strange and erotic ritual involving a two-headed snake, the boy wanders off in a delirium, and is eventually found in the desert. This is presented as a fiction, although it’s also a phantasy (in the psychoanalytic sense) that reveals something about Guibert himself.

In Part Two we find the diary of the real trip, which is much simpler, at least with regard to the structure of the diary. The undated passage in Part Three relates how Guibert returned home to find himself now obsessed with Vincent. He asks Vincent to send him a letter. The letter that Vincent sends back to him relates an aimless trip that he has made to the Paris suburbs, but Guibert describes this letter in a way that clearly functions as a mise en abyme, effectively a summary of his own book:

He himself didn’t know why he had left, to what end. And then, suddenly, he knew, and he wrote it down: it was just to be able to write, to be able to write to me that he had left, so that this letter could be written and posted before the dawn, […] as it was impossible for him to write to me from his home.9

This passage, standing as a description of Guibert’s book, certainly doesn’t answer all the questions we may have about it: why is it structured in this complicated way, and what is it’s relation to truth or fiction? But it tells us several things: the journey and writing project were undertaken without a clear understanding of their nature, or their eventual conclusion. These things are only discovered in the course of the project itself. One of these conclusions — both for Vincent’s trip to the suburbs and Guibert’s trip to Morocco — is that the details of the journey are inconsequential, but the journey was still necessary for allowing writing to happen and the literary work to appear. And it could not take place at home, both literally and figuratively: the book requires the real travel diary found in Part Two, but Guibert also needed to strike out from his familiar mode of writing to find something new. So, taking our prompt from this mise en abyme, let’s return to the start of the book, and look more closely at the ongoing indications of Guibert’s experience of the writing project.

A note tells us that the plan for the journey dates back to the 14th of March, but the entries are not in strict chronological order, and so the first entry is from the 19th. This entry provides a description of his initial, very general imagination of the trip: it depicts a scene ‘between the desert and the sea’,10 where he watches the boys playing, and feels at ease in his body, which is normally a source of anxiety for him. From the outset, this places his phantasies at the centre of the project, phantasies that reveal his desires and fears. Several further entries relate his preparations for the trip: some banal, practical steps, but also gathering books about travellers, explorers, flora and fauna, as a spur for his imagination, and developing his phantasies in more detail.

After a few pages, we find the entry for the 14th of March, when Guibert’s friend first invited him on the trip. Guibert writes: ‘I was so grateful that I could have kissed him. This invitation was a gift: although I didn’t know it, he was also offering me a book, which had not yet been written’.11 It’s strange to find this comment in a diary entry, that he didn’t yet know that he was being offered a book, this book that we’re reading, and it suggests that some subsequent editing of the entries has taken place. We later find out that Guibert’s friend had invited him because he had discovered a lost fragment of Guibert’s diary, containing the following words: ‘Have the impression of always cutting myself off a little more from the world, whereas the aim of any creative enterprise must be to get closer to the world’.12 The trip was therefore a creative enterprise even before Guibert knew about it, and its aim is to ‘get closer to the world’, which clearly makes his use of fiction paradoxical.

The project is also threatened with failure at various points. In one entry, Guibert is concerned to find that he has no desire for the boys, and declares: ‘I felt all the scaffolding of the trip collapse, and therefore all the novelistic scaffolding’.13 He makes a concerted effort to develop his desires, in order to support the eventual writing of the book, and this leads us up to the ‘diary of anticipation’. With eight days to go, he begins a first, imaginary diary of the trip, and describes his plans as follows:

This will be the first part of the book: a first trip will take place here, in this quiet study […], among my books, my files, in my tranquillity, my isolation. The second part of the book will be the diary of the real trip, this palinode will take place in the intermittences of harsh light and shadow, among noise, and close to the boys, their laughter […]. It will be shorter than the first one, more breathless and more contrite, perhaps less enchanted as it will be affected by exhaustion and soreness from travel, sleepless nights, disgust or hunger […].14

Evidently the finished book contains more than these two parts, the two diaries of the trip, yet this double structure lies at its centre. The first diary is manifestly fictional, in a way that extends Guibert’s phantasies into a sort of short diary novel. This is in itself a breakthrough for Guibert, as he comments, ‘for the first time I’m inventing, making up stories, I’m not just relating a recent event or new feeling.’15 But at the end of this diary, on the cusp of the real trip, the project is threatened once again, as he feels that he has exhausted his desires in writing, and he is ‘afraid to continue to be immersed in fiction, as if in madness’.16 But he does continue.

The second diary is concerned with the real trip, but we are not faced with a comparison between a fictional diary and a real diary. Instead, Guibert now attempts that ‘madness’ of writing an autofictional diary. I don’t have time to describe the types of fictionality used in this diary, the subtle transitions where Guibert’s imagination seems to take flight, or the conflicting indications of the text’s truth status which make it so unsettling to read, even compared with other autofictions. As with Guibert’s other autofictional works, we cannot say precisely what is true and false, but there is little doubt that his sense of being changed by the trip and his infatuation with Vincent, as related in the epigraph, are real.

For the matter at hand, the important point is that this form of writing did not come easily to Guibert, but is the culmination of all his preparations in Part One (including the ‘diary of anticipation’), and crucially, it lasts for only eight days. Yet this marks a breakthrough in his overall project of self-revelation, and anticipates the autofictional writing that he continued to develop over his career.


To conclude, Guibert’s text is just one example of a writer finding his own personal form of autofiction, but it provides us with several responses to that critical position that views the diary as being essentially ‘antifictional’. First of all, in practical terms: It is indeed difficult to write a diary that is both truthful and fictional, but this is mitigated when the dimensions of the diary project are defined and structured in advance, including its duration (just eight days), its main topic (the trip), and its themes. For Guibert, these themes include the fictive aspects of his own life, the nature of his writing (with the prospect of drawing him closer to the world), and the goal of producing a literary work from his life, which seems to take precedence over anything else. And this leads us to the question of the appeal of the diary for writers of autofiction, and why they are willing to engage in this ‘madness’: As compared with an autobiographical mode of writing, the diary allows a writer to be more directly invested in an ongoing writing process that has high stakes for their relation to the world and to others. It’s a dangerous undertaking, which was only a theoretical possibility, or even impossibility for the earlier generation, but has become a reality from Guibert’s generation onwards.

If you would like to buy any of the books discussed here, please avoid Amazon and support a local bookshop, or use one of these online booksellers: Blackwell (UK), FNAC (France), (international, new and second hand).

1Hervé Guibert, Voyage avec deux enfants (Paris: Minuit, 1982)

2Philippe Lejeune, ‘Le Journal comme “antifiction”’, Poétique 149 (2007), 3–14. Published in English translation in Philippe Lejeune, On Diary, ed. by Jeremy Popkin and Julie Rak, trans. by Katherine Durnin (Manoa: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009), pp. 201–10. References here are to the latter edition.

3Ibid., p. 201.


5Michel Braud, ‘“Le Texte d’un roman”: journal intime et fictionnalisation de soi’, L’Esprit créateur 42/4 (2002), 76–84.

6Ibid., p. 83. All translations from French, except when stated otherwise, are my own.

7Hervé Guibert, ‘La vie sida’, interview with Antoine de Gaudemar, Libération, 1 March 1990, p. 19. Cited by Jean-Pierre Boulé, Hervé Guibert: Voices of the Self (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), p. 196. Translation modified.

8See Arnaud Genon, ‘Hervé Guibert: Fracture autobiographique et écriture du sida’, in Autofiction(s): colloque de Cerisy, p. 187.

9Guibert, Voyage avec deux enfants, p. 122.

10Ibid., p. 13.

11Ibid., p. 23.

12Ibid., p. 50.

13Ibid., p. 31.

14Ibid., p. 33.

15Ibid., p. 50.

16Ibid., p. 62.

About Sam Ferguson

I am a researcher in French literature, and freelance translator, with a wide experience of teaching French literature and language at university level.
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