1 June 2023

On writing ‘Monaco’

Posted by Juliet Jacques

Juliet Jacques’s new autofictional novella explores the strangeness of the Principality of Monaco via emails and photographs. In this blogpost, Jacques discusses the trip that inspired the book, and the shifting lines between fiction and life.

I rarely carried a camera in my youth. I didn’t take many trips abroad in my twenties, but when I did, I made it a philosophical point not to capture my experiences anywhere except in my memory, worrying that an obsession with photographing my surroundings would detach me from them. In my thirties, I began to travel extensively for work – across London, the United Kingdom, Europe and beyond. My memory was no longer so reliable, and technology had advanced enough for me to take, store and share as many photos as I liked. I walked round cities for hours, photographing constantly (to the frustration of whoever I was with). By doing so, I worked out what interested me most: architectural and historical landmarks, monuments and memorials, public art, posters and graffiti. I witnessed intense gentrification, in Brighton in my twenties and London in my thirties, so I took numerous pictures of the latter, inspired by Eugène Atget’s work to document ‘Old Paris’. Like Atget, I read extensively about the cities I visited to work out what I wanted to capture, and it turned out that rather than distracting me from it, taking pictures made me much more engaged with my environment.

I posted many online, creating mini-travelogues with a highly personal slant, even though I captioned my images as neutrally as possible and almost never put myself in the frame. Friends asked if I would publish them: not as a straight-up picture book, I would reply, but I’d always liked texts with photos, from André Breton’s Nadja, based on the Surrealist writer’s interactions with Léona Camille Ghislaine Delacourt in Paris over ten days, to Owen Hatherley’s explicitly socialist travel books on the changing politics of city planning and their manifestations in their urban environments. At some point, I would write something that used some of my photographs – I just had to find the right combination of subject and approach.

In April 2022, I was commissioned to review an exhibition at the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco. I had preconceptions of the Principality, famous for its wealth, gambling and Formula 1 (and, to a lesser extent, its football team – I timed my trip around their derby against Nice). I decided to stay a bit longer than necessary and cast my photographic eye over the place, visiting the Prince’s Palace and the cathedrals, cemetery and casino, botanical gardens and beaches. It was far stranger than I expected – besides the yacht clubs and endless tributes to Grace Kelly were the graves of Anthony Burgess and Josephine Baker, the Musée Oceanographique and an exhibition about Surrealism in Monaco, sculptures by Giorgio de Chirico and Fernando Botero, graffiti by Fluxus artist Ben (Vautier) and a plaque commemorating one of my favourite writers, proto-Surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who went to school in Monte-Carlo.

I took pictures of all these things, and after filing my review, wanted to write more about the Principality. I lean towards journalism when I broadly know what I want to say about a subject, and my main view is to convey it to an audience; I prefer fiction when I want to work out what I think about something, or why I feel as I do about it, and want to share that journey with others. Regarding Monaco, I wanted to interrogate why I, as a lifelong socialist, had wanted to visit in the wake of the 2019 general election catastrophe and the Covid-19 pandemic, the first of which I was still not over and the second of which was still not over, and why I had come away liking the place.

Once I have my subject to explore, I tend to think first about who my central characters are, and what are their goals. Thinking about this, I considered the confines that another favourite author, B. S. Johnson, put on himself with his precept that the material for fiction should be drawn from its author’s own life, as ‘telling stories is telling lies’. I’ve long been fascinated by how Johnson tried to get out of this cul-de-sac in Trawl, a stream of consciousness novel about a man dredging up memories as the trawler carrying him pulls up fish. How honest is it to contrive an experience in order to write about it, if, as Johnson insists, novels should be autobiography with some artifice? In the end, I put such contrivance as I had made in visiting Monaco with an eye on writing something besides my review at the heart of my book. I have long been interested in the relationship between fiction and its writer’s life, and the concept of autofiction – by which I mean consciously giving a central character similar biographical details and experiences to the author, and challenging readers to think about which happened to the writer, which were invented, and whether that even matters. So, I drew heavily on my own recent experiences: the narrator does not share my first name, unlike the protagonists of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? or Lars Iyer’s Spurious, nor all of my personal history, but is close enough in age, background, profession and attitude to allow me to explore Monaco through something like my own eyes.

Having decided what to explore and who would be exploring, I then thought about the form. I liked the idea of a series of dispatches from Monaco, and saw a way to develop the theme of loss that came with the election and Covid-19 that would allow me to use my photographs. The narrative would unfold through a series of emails to an unnamed ex-lover, with pictures of things the protagonist has seen on her trip. There’s a vulnerability in being so open, and a risk, which she acknowledges, of her ex – who accompanied her in canvassing for Labour in 2019 – thinking her politically suspect. The flexibility of the format allowed me to go into this while also providing an insight into the Principality in the wake of the pandemic – a part of me now wants to apply a similar process to the many photograph collections I have from the UK and abroad, but for now, I’ll stick to Monaco.

Monaco by Juliet Jacques is published by Toothgrinder Press, priced £8.

Books mentioned in this blog post