'An Exclusive Love' and the Thin Line Between Fiction and Memoir

A new book explores the suicide of the author's grandparents, and combines elements of both genres.


W. W. Norton & Company

The sunshine and improbably temperate February air seemed to bring out the best in the New Yorkers pouring out of Grand Central Station. A woman stopped me on my way into the coffee shop to compliment my handbag. Inside, I watched a young couple hold hands while they shared a plate of pancakes. It was a beautiful day. People were in a good mood. People were in love.

I was there to talk with Johanna Adorjan, author of the memoir An Exclusive Love, about the suicide of her grandparents some 20 years ago. The book chronicles the final hours of Vera and Pista Adorjan, Hungarian Jews who had survived the Holocaust and the 1956 uprising in Budapest. In old age, with Pista suffering from a prolonged illness, the two made the decision to take their own lives, hand in hand, in Denmark in 1991. Adorjan's depiction of that final, quiet autumn day in which they committed this devastating act is lovely, unsparing, and heart-breaking.

Vera is a woman enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke, effortlessly, almost rigidly glamorous but also wildly insecure. Pista, the dedicated husband, is a doctor who survived the hard labor concentration camp of Mauthasen, returned to his wife and child in Budapest, and eventually engineered their escape to Denmark.

Adorjan said she wanted to write about the suicide of her grandparents in the most unsentimental way and use her skills as a journalist, to bring "a bit of light to the dark center" of their story.

Having written about my own family history, I understand well the combustible mix of reactions such confessions can bring. When I wrote an article for the Sunday edition of the New York Times about my parents' death, I found myself scouring my neighborhood for a copy. Eventually, I had to give up and beg the section from my downstairs neighbor who promised to give it to me after she'd read the piece herself. Later in the day there was a timid knock at my door and my neighbor stood, holding the newspaper in front of her as if it had been doused in acid.

"I feel like I know a lot more about you than you know about me," she said, disdain creeping into the edges of her voice.

But you know nothing about me! I wanted to protest at the time. You know something about my parents, about the way they died, but that's it. I realize now that I'd revealed quite a bit of myself in discussing my parents. But Adorjan readily admits that she kept her own story mostly out of An Exclusive Love. These was her grandparents' lives, not her own. And furthermore, hers was not an investigation into the reasons behind their decision to die. Rather, she had conducted the research to understand more about who her mercurial grandparents had been in life. This idea is the engine that drives the book's narrative.

"So is the book a memoir?" I asked, pausing to dig through my bag for a print-out of the recent New York Times article that panned three memoirs before finally praising Adorjan's book alone amongst the group. The reviewer noted that she "wisely keeps herself on its edges" until "This fascinating couple...come slowly into for the reader and the author simultaneously...a shared discovery."

But Adjorjan herself seemed much less concerned with the labels of "fiction" and "nonfiction" than her publishers and various critics have been. She said that while she adhered to the emotional truth of who her grandparents were, she recreated their final hours in an artful—and fictional—way. In Germany, she noted, the book does not say "memoir", but that does not make it any less real.

In the wake of James Frey, and of fictional apples being tossed over concentration camp fences, we do seem to have developed an obsession with the idea of singular truth and what a memoir should be. But at what artistic cost? Adorjan's portrayal of the simple acts of her grandparents' final hours is no less true than any exhaustive post mortem might be. But through her largely invented dialogue, we understand Vera and Pista as living, breathing, people.

Adorjan ends her book with the police reports written on the day her grandparents' bodies were discovered on October 15th, 1991. There, in the stark language of bureaucracy, is the arresting image of these two people, unwilling to live without one another, hand in hand in their bed. But perhaps more striking is the description of what actual death had already begun to do to their bodies. "When the quilt was taken off the lady, black toes were visible. When the quilt had been removed, discolouration of the feet suddenly increased." The report goes on, "It was also cold in the bedroom. Both had livor mortis marks down in the stomach area."

I asked Adorjan why she chose to end the book with these reports. "I wanted to end in a different voice," she told me. "I wanted something that says, 'This is really true'".

As we paid the bill and emerged into the dazzling day, I asked Adorjan if she planned to write another book.

"Yes," she said. "But this one will be fiction."