Break the Document: How Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize Lecture Illuminates the Year in Literature

In her 2015 Nobel Prize lecture, literature laureate Svetlana Alexievich called upon “the sad melodies of the choir” to sing of how the post-Soviet dream of hope “has been replaced by a time of fear.” In doing so, she deliberately reenacted the “new genre” of literature for which the committee awarded her the prize in October.

With its repeated references to “the dead,” Alexievich’s lecture — titled “On the Battle Lost” — is deeply elegiac in tone and hyper- or post-documentary in form. This is to say that it relies on the arrangement of recorded voices — a hallmark of her literary style — to achieve its pronounced literary effect. And not only does Alexievich quote extensively from other voices in her lecture, but she also quotes from her own past diaries. This approach, as Alexievich makes clear, requires the will to challenge the line between “fact and fabrication,” and, ultimately, to break or “overflow” the borders of what she calls “the document”:

I am often told, even now, that what I write isn’t literature, it’s a document. What is literature today? Who can answer that question? We live faster than ever before. Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it. Everything overflows its banks: music, painting – even words in documents escape the boundaries of the document. There are no borders between fact and fabrication, one flows into the other. Witnessеs are not impartial. In telling a story, humans create, they wrestle time like a sculptor does marble. They are actors and creators.

Alexievich’s comments on the “document” are remarkable, not only for how they shed light on the edifice of her own writing, but also for how they reveal her deep connection to contemporary literature. The idea that “there are no borders between fact and fabrication,” although certainly not a new formulation in literary writing, has been laboriously scrutinized in recent months, especially under the sign of autofiction — or writing about the author’s self that undermines the oft-privileged boundary between “fact and fiction.”

But if we take Alexievich’s speech to be itself a work of contemporary literature — and I do — one that we can compare to some of the best writings of this year, the results are illuminating. This is because her evocation of the document as a narrative space beyond fact or fiction, as a space made to be flooded or exceeded — as a possible redistribution of literary space — is one of most salient themes in a year when autofictional literature began to play itself.

Take, to begin with, Rachel Cusk’s brilliant novel Outline, the title of which refers expressly to a document, an adumbration of its own contents — the contents, we should say, of a life. But whose? In an efficacious review of the novel, Heidi Julavits points out that its narrator, who shares traits with Cusk herself, is ultimately “a cipher who inspires other people to confess. In her presence, they divulge stories about their wives and husbands and mistresses, their parents and children and careers.” In this respect, Outline’s narrator bears an almost uncanny resemblance to Alexievich, who always plays the role of listener and recorder in her books. The main difference? Cusk’s is an autofictional novel, one that uses “indirect methods” — an outline — to present “a self instead of gender stereotypes”; Alexievich’s output, on the other hand, is considered to be an extended oral history. Still, in both cases, the “cipher” or “recorder” is usually somewhere off-camera, modulating the recording in unpredictable ways.

Outline is not the only autofictional work this year to theorize itself, or to refer to its own status as a document in its title. Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents likewise makes literal its own format, its innate thing-ness as an extra-literary space. The difference is that Zambra explicitly ties his self to the book. (“My father was a computer, my mother a typewriter,” the narrator explains, “I was a blank page, and now I am a book.”) In the process, he erases the boundary between short fiction and novel. Though each entry in My Documents might be anthologized as a short story, its status as just one file in a document folder means that it is likewise just one moment in the author-narrator’s book — which is to say his self or life. And this self or life, it should be said, is an ongoing thing; you might call it a history:

It’s nighttime, it’s always nighttime when the text comes to an end. I re-read, rephrase sentences, specify names. I try to remember better: more, and better. I cut and paste, change and enlarge the font, play with the line spacing. I think about closing this file and leaving it forever in the My Documents folder. But I’m going to publish it, I want to, even though it’s not finished, even though it’s impossible to finish it.

Still, no novel of 2015 better expressed the modalities of the document than Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers. (What else would be expected of a writer who recently allowed an audience of thousands to watch him construct a novella — a running document — in real time?) In Cohen’s novel, which we might identify as one of the better recent examples of literary transclusion, the layers of documentation are confounding: the book tells the story of a ghostwriter named Joshua Cohen who is documenting the life of his “Principal” or employer, a man whose name is also Joshua Cohen. What the book does is far too complex to summarize here, so I’ll just say that it slips ingeniously between its modes of documentation — it made me think of Alexander Kluge’s claim that a film exists between its cuts. We might even say that Cohen’s novel lives between its documents.

Another 2015 document-novel, one that Book of Numbers superficially resembles — although I somehow think they are opposed — is Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, which tells the story of U., a corporate anthropologist who is hired by his Shrike-like boss (a man named Peyman) to write a document called “The Great Report”:

The Great Report: this needs explaining. It was Peyman’s idea. When he first hired me, as he shook my hand to welcome me onboard, he fixed me with his gaze and said: U., write the great report. The Great Report? I asked, my hand still clenched in his; what’s that? The Document, he said; the Book. The First and Last Word on our age. Over and above all the other work you do here at the Company, that’s what I’m really hiring you to come up with. It’s what you anthropologists are for, right?

Whether or not U. ever completes the Great Report I won’t say, but I will suggest that, in U.’s mind at least, it comes to resemble something like the Internet  — a kind of renegade “binary system” that tries to document everything. This may explain Satin Island’s comparisons to Book of Numbers, and it may also identify one of the recent historical antagonists behind our compulsion to document.

“Documents are living creatures,” Alexievich writes in her Nobel lecture, “they change as we change.” It may be this protean capacity, this adaptability of the document — it will become whatever you want it to be — that has brought us to it in recent literature. Or maybe fiction, so recently preoccupied with the self, is relishing the chance to record others — to compose a self out of other voices. “Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear,” Alexievich adds, admitting that she wants to capture the “conversational side of human life” for literature. “I love how humans talk … I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion.”