Lily Tuck’s latest novel, “The Double Life of Liliane,” is a tight construction conveniently set up for easy deconstruction, as if it were an exercise given by Paul de Man in a seminar attended by the book’s main character, Liliane, during her last year at Harvard. Speaking of “Remembrance of Things Past,” de Man tells his students that Proust’s novel is “meant to be autobiographical, it is impossible to tell what is fact and what is fiction.”
In a similar way, Tuck delivers here an autobiographical novel that is essentially a memoir of her early life, from her birth in Paris in the late 1930s through her college years. Fact and fiction can hardly be disentangled. Moreover, the autobiographical facts Tuck includes often segue into relevant historical information — about street names, for example, ocean liners, news stories of the day — lending an aura of even greater veracity. All of this is further backed up and given added authority by the inclusion of old photographs in the manner of W.G. Sebald, like a family album.
Yet this is a work of fiction. In its narrative detail and organization, in the liberties it takes reconstructing past events, in its cameo appearances by such international figures as Josephine Baker, Alberto Moravia and a coyly unnamed Nabokov, “The Double Life of Liliane” stands as fiction. The sense of immersion in a made-up world emanating from the pages is reinforced by the value placed on storytelling throughout. We encounter a grandmother’s possibly embellished family stories, as well as samples of Liliane’s early attempts at writing fiction (Tuck’s own juvenilia recycled?), culminating almost triumphantly with a brief excerpt from the novel “Siam: Or, The Woman Who Shot a Man,” which Tuck — Liliane morphing into Lily — published in 1999 “in yet another life.”
The “Double Life” of the title, then, alludes to fact and fiction entwined here — or, more personally, to the external reality of the protagonist set against her inner world. Its immediate meaning, however, is announced in the first sentence of the novel’s opening chapter: “Liliane’s double life begins at New York’s Idlewild Airport.” This is a reference to her growing-up years, spent shuttling between her divorced parents. Her remarried mother, the beautiful Irene, “whose looks have been compared to Greta Garbo’s and Marlene Dietrich’s,” lives in an upscale New York apartment, while her father, Rudy, lives in Rome. He’s a film producer and a highly urbane assimilated Jew who left his native Germany in 1933 because, as he claims, “he was no longer allowed to play field hockey at his sports club.” Rudy survives the war years in North Africa, serving in the Foreign Legion, while young Liliane and her mother find refuge in Lima, Peru. As in Tuck’s National Book Award-winning “The News From Paraguay,” all of this globalization, this unsettled quality, renders Liliane a signature female protagonist in a Tuck novel.
Still, other than the double life Liliane leads as the offspring of divorced parents, hers is the rather uneventful story of a privileged girl growing up in affluence in New York, with full access to the city’s bounties, from ballet to bulimia. The sense of estrangement, of not belonging anywhere in the world, can better be ascribed to her very earliest years, when, with her mother, she is forced to run for her life because she is a Jew. Such provincialism is not allowed to define her, however; her identity politics are situated, if anywhere, with the cultural elite. Tuck notes that Liliane is descended on her father’s side from a major Jewish figure, Moses Mendelssohn, regarded as the founder of the Jewish Enlightenment and reviled by some of the most traditional Jews for the hornet’s nest he stirred up. But Tuck accords equal time to Liliane’s genealogy on her mother’s side, which goes back to another controversial religious personality — Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic who came to a bad end. And while Tuck does give deference to the Holocaust that casts Liliane and her family into exile, marking them forever, she recites the conventional pieties as if on automatic, in the same colorless prose that characterizes this entire novel. However momentous or trivial the subject, almost nothing that happens here merits even an adjective.
The resulting work might qualify “as an act of self-restoration in which the author recovers the fragments of his or her life into a coherent narrative,” according to an assessment of autobiography put forward at the end of that seminar by Professor de Man (later, “mercifully, after his death,” as Tuck observes, accused of writing anti-Semitic articles for a Nazi collaborationist newspaper). So we have autobiography as a form of personal therapy. It might be healing for the author, but it leaves the reader if not exactly cold, then cool, at best.
Tova Reich’s most recent novel is “One Hundred Philistine Foreskins.”
By Lily Tuck
Grove/Atlantic. 241 pp. $26