I’m reading quite a bit of biographical fiction right now, I notice—that is, fiction based on a real person’s life.

I’ve just finished reading Apology for the Woman Writing by Jenny Diski. It’s a historical novel based on the life of Marie de Gournay, a 16th century writer and the editor (and protector of) Michel de Montaigne‘s Essays. She’s a strange woman and this is something of a strange novel. Diski is a fine writer, and there were many passages I loved, in particular Marie’s intoxication with books, and with the work of Montaigne in particular.

Because Marie is a writer, there is much about writing in this novel. I particularly liked:

“What writer is not emotionally unbalanced by the publication of a new book?” (page 94)


As always, what interests me is that fuzzy line between fact and fiction. The author, in her Author’s Note, states:

“What shall we call this one? I suppose ‘historical novel’. It doesn’t much matter to me, except that I understand that the designation brings questions to the mind of the reader. About what is true and what is made up. Well, it’s all made up, of course, but some of it is true—at any rate verifiable by means of other texts.” [page 278]


Diski includes a full bibliography for further study, as well as a fascinating account of the protective measures the French took in order for a historian to photograph Montaigne’s much-written-over pages. (The pages could not be exposed to any light whatsoever, for example.) Sometimes, in the novel, the narrative voice felt like a historical telling, veering toward the fact end of the fiction/fact scale.

As with any biographical novel, what’s of interest—to me—is what is left out as well as what is included. There were parts of Marie’s life I would have wanted the author to go—her contact with the Court is overlooked, for example.


Diski is a polished, literary writer, and this novel is always beautifully controlled—but I was not always enthralled by it.