In the author’s note to the 2004 National Book Award-winning novel The News From Paraguay, Lily Tuck points out that many of the 19th-century events that take place in the book are both little known and complicated, and as a result the need to explain and the need to dramatize are in conflict. “What then, the reader may wonder, is fact and what is fiction?”
We find ourselves up against the same conundrum while reading Tuck’s latest book, The Double Life of Liliane. The press blurb calls it her most autobiographical book to date, and yet on the back cover it is marketed as fiction. This time there is no author’s note to acknowledge that liberties have been taken, that some characters are based on real people and some are invented. Instead, we resort back to the author’s note in The News From Paraguay and assume that the same principle applies: “My general rule of thumb is whatever seems most improbable is probably true.”
The Double Life of Liliane combines pick-and-mix tropes and themes of Tuck’s earlier work. Like I Married You For Happiness (2011), the book charts the course of a life over a specific period, plays out partly in Paris, and eschews the simple past for the simple present. There is an appended creative writing sample which will later be worked into Siam: Or the Woman Who Shot a Man (1999), and two separate episodes — a professor of linguistics falling off a moving train and a French family fleeing Europe for Lima in the 1940s — are reprised from (and are possibly source material for) two stories from the collection The House at Belle Fontaine (2013). And then there is a heroine who is magicked by the novels of the Italian writer Elsa Morante – not unlike Lily Tuck who wrote Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante (2008).
Tuck has said in interviews that with The News From Paraguay she did not want to write a traditional historical novel. By the same token, The Double Life of Liliane is neither a traditional autobiography nor a conventional novel — and is all the better for that. The book opens with Liliane flying alone from New York to Rome, shuttling from one parent to another. We are given only scraps about her: she is young and pretty and she speaks English at home with her mother and French with her father in Rome. Shortly after landing, instead of building her up and fleshing her out, Tuck screens Liliane off and tells her father’s story.
Rudy is a German assimilated Jew who, in 1933, left his native country for Paris where he got married, had a child, and founded a film production company. When Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, Rudy was wrenched from wife Irène and daughter Liliane and first put in an internment camp and later drafted into the Foreign Legion. After the war, despite becoming a naturalized French citizen, Rudy moved to Rome and made his name in cinema. When Tuck returns to the present — that is, somewhere in the early 1950s — it is to show Liliane on her Roman holiday, reveling in her father’s glamorous world: being driven around in his silver Lancia, lounging in his expensive apartment, lunching in fashionable restaurants, and rubbing shoulders with movie stars.
Before Liliane’s double life can truly unfold, Tuck has another parent to introduce and a second set of origins to explore. Irène’s background is more detailed because Tuck expands to cover her two older sisters. All three enjoy a childhood in Berlin until bombs fall and blitz their roomy Charlottenburg family apartment. Oldest sister Uli runs away from home and lives on a sisal estate in Tanganyika, while Barbara, the aunt of whom Liliane is particularly fond, cavorts with American soldiers in Innsbruck and goes on to establish a medical practice in Rhode Island. Irène, the most reserved of the three and also “the loveliest,” is shown fending for herself during her husband’s detainment. One day in 1940 she becomes tired of waiting — waiting for her husband to come home and “waiting for the German troops to march into Belgium, into the Netherlands and Luxembourg” — and flees Paris with Liliane for Portugal. In another jump-cut to the present, Tuck reveals that Irène now lives in New York City with second husband Gaby. She paints with oils and goes to an exercise studio, yet for Gaby she is exotic, mysterious: a “German-French divorcée, with a past and with an eight-year-old child.”
From here, Tuck brings Liliane to the fore, all the while keeping her relatives in sharp relief. Liliane’s story proceeds, for the most part, chronologically — from that eight-year-old child to a Harvard student — but Tuck enlivens her narrative by regularly breaking off and changing tack, using tangents, flashbacks, fast-forwards, and stories within stories to give us a fuller, more complex but also more interesting picture. In addition to regular flits between New York and Rome, we accompany Liliane on trips to Peru and Maine. In Capri she looks for Elsa Morante but instead meets her husband Alberto Moravia. Over the years she learns horse-riding and ballet, begins a novel about Heathcliff’s years away from Wuthering Heights, is afflicted by nightly terrors and her stepfather’s nocturnal visits, and spends days with school friends, grandmothers, besotted older men, and her father’s mistresses. Interlarding episodes or milestones in Liliane’s life is an account of Rudy’s perilous escape from occupied France and Irène’s wartime affair with “romantic, dashing, impetuous, lucky, sexy Claude.” Blanketing the whole proceedings is a conspicuously loud silence from both parents about the family’s Jewish heritage. “Is it a cover-up or a form of anti-Semitism?” Tuck asks. “More likely — and more generously — Liliane thinks her parents were blocking out the horror of the Holocaust by not discussing their past.”
Liliane’s “life” is diverting, and at times intriguing, but in no way can it be termed remarkable. Tuck lingers only long enough over each event to give it credence; otherwise Liliane’s experiences are thin, lean, relatively weightless. The people she mingles with are typical Tuck characters: recognizable but hardly memorable; guarded, aloof, parsimonious with their feelings; vague outlines rather than striking page presences. All of which of course constitutes not an artistic shortcoming but a deliberate stylistic ploy, one that compels the reader to appreciate bare-bones storytelling and minimalist scenes over warts-and-all portraiture and barnstorming set-pieces. Thoughts and deeds matter to Tuck, only the former are stunted and the latter elliptical, and it is up to us to make sense of them. “I hope my readers will read my work with imagination,” Tuck said in a recent New York Times piece. For her work to pay dividends, there is no other way to read her.
Tuck has confessed to being a pruner of adjectives and an enemy of adverbs, but what she avoids more often here is mention of Liliane’s age and era. In this book, Tuck’s priority seems to be not sparseness but elusiveness. Liliane is suspended in a kind of temporal limbo. “How old is she then?” Tuck asks at the outset, feigning authorial uncertainty. “Nine? Ten?” Later, in Capri, Alberto Moravia asks the same question — “Seventeen, eighteen?” — and again, nothing is pinpointed, we have to make do with approximations. A similar evasiveness is at work when Irène is reunited with Uli: “The two sisters have not seen each other in how many years? Fifteen? Twenty? Not since before the war!” Irène’s age is also undisclosed. We are told that she was born in Berlin but that “she does not like to give out the year.” Time flows stealthily throughout this chronicle, with dates largely going unmarked. The reader can only gauge junctures by extrapolating from what Liliane does and what goes on around her: fashions, songs, exams; lecherous men and gradually infirm parents; youthful follies and adolescent vices.
As if to counterbalance hazy characters and half-told adventures, Tuck sprinkles her narrative with hard, ascertained historical fact. There are potted biographies of famous deads, some of whom are distant offshoots in Liliane’s family tree (Mary, Queen of Scots, Moses Mendelssohn), plus synopses and production details of Italian films her father works on. When Liliane’s Aunt Uli worries about violence in neighboring Kenya spilling over into Tanganyika, Tuck seizes the opportunity to expound on the brutalities inflicted by the Mau Mau and under British colonial rule. Liliane’s grandmother’s back-story incorporates a crash-course on interwar Germany, covering hyperinflation, Hitler’s rise to power, and Jewish persecution.
Writers frequently become unstuck when integrating such external material. When facts resemble research then readers are alert to the crude joins, the unleavened mix. Tuck delves boldly into history but appropriates with care, blending in relevant segments rather than grafting on incongruous chunks. She has strategies for conveying historical facts seamlessly — a tour guide’s speech, a grandmother’s yarns, a professor’s lecture — and ensures that each tidbit is purposeful, there either to edify or embellish.
However, on occasion her historical detours feel contrived, relying too much on tenuous hypotheses. Liliane’s plane flies over Roman aqueduct ruins — “And had she been a little older and studied Roman history at school, she might have known how by the fourth century BC, due to rapid growth of the population and thus the need for a greater water supply, the Romans had begun to build aqueducts that carried water all the way from springs in the Apennine Mountains.” Elsewhere, Tuck’s riffs and meditations prove counterproductive and stall narrative momentum. Characters don’t arrive promptly at their destinations because Tuck stops to recount the history of a street; they check into hotels and attend universities, but can’t proceed further until Tuck has rattled off a roll-call of illustrious guests and alumni.
But these amount to minor infelicities which only fleetingly frustrate. In the main, Tuck expertly fuses world history and four-generation family history, fact and fiction. She utilizes photographs, letters, and poetry and engages with and reflects on war, memory, and humanity. In all of this, W.G. Sebald looms large over the page. Here is a writer whose books also resist orderly classification, with Vertigo designated “fiction” but The Emigrants curiously categorized as “fiction/history.” One special technique shared by both writers is the deft movement from one topic or historical aspect to another. At the beginning of The Rings of Saturn (“memoir/travel/history”), Sebald skips artfully from a description of his Suffolk walk to his spell in hospital one year previously, and then from a recollection of a dead friend to the mystery of Thomas Browne’s skull, with peripheral musings on Franz Kafka and Gustave Flaubert along the way. Tuck performs a similar trick by hopping from Liliane’s grandmother in Ithaca to her Uncle Fritz’s academic life to the death of a Luftwaffe gunner, alighting at intervals on Vladimir Nabokov and the city of Karlsruhe, and inserting a photograph of a German death certificate and an excerpt from the text of a Thomas Tallis hymn. What could have been a messy hodgepodge is instead a graceful ripple-effect, like watching a skimmed stone spawn one neat circle after another, only without any diminishment in size or force.
Unlike Sebald, Tuck distrusts her readers’ ability with languages and feels obliged to translate every foreign word she cites. “Mon dieu, les allemands!” goes one urgent cry. Tuck is immediately at hand to rescue baffled readers: “My god, the Germans!” Later, Irène criticizes the converted troopship that carries her and Liliane and hundreds of displaced Eastern Europeans across the Atlantic. “‘A floating flophouse,’” she says. ‘Un bordel’ — a brothel, she adds in French.”
Towards the end of the book, Liliane’s professor Paul de Man tells his seminar students that Marcel Proust’s great work is meant to be autobiographical and yet “it is impossible to tell what is fact and what is fiction.” Tuck may well have heeded those words and set out, decades later, to blur boundaries and genres in a literary treatment of her early life. Maybe Tuck’s father was bailed out by Josephine Baker when he was stranded in France. Maybe Tuck did have a medical Aunt Barbara who was summoned to the White House to look at the blemishes on the First Lady’s face. And maybe Tuck did turn heads and break hearts and fly out to meet a pining boyfriend in Bangkok. After a fashion we stop questioning how much of what we are reading is memoir and how much of it isn’t, and simply surrender to the elegant, limpid prose of this, the most beguiling work of Lily Tuck’s career.