04 July 2014

Some Further Thoughts on Autobiography and Memoir

Literary critic Frank Kermode in his autobiography, Not Entitled, narrates an incident that took place during his stay in Tuscany with an Italian friend. One night the two attended an opera and returned home quite latewell, in fact, at three in the morning. Now, it seems that for the next afternoon the lady had invited friends to share lunch but in the middle of the meal, exhausted, she put her head down, fell asleep and settled into a catnap, “slumping forward, as it were, on her paws.” Unfortunately, underneath her slumbering body lay the guest’s sunglasses and camera, which they left behind when they timorously took their leave of the sleeping hostess. When they called to recover these items, Kermode offered to return them to them when he was in London.
            This is a simple incident in a very long life: Kermode died at the age of 90 years. Kermode comments that any number of details, “remembered or invented” could be added to the account of this incident, “so that the entire episode, when adorned with material that might in the ordinary way seem tedious, with portraits of the persons concerned in the tiny drama, not least with associations developed even as one wrote it all down, would look more like a dream, and have the kinds of potential meanings we seek in dreams.” That is, what at the moment seemed like a mundane occurrence, a simple event without context or meaning in itself, takes on significance in its narration as a result of the materials the author chooses to include and/or to add, by the elaboration of personality and detail that then become available to the reader for interpretation and meaning. Thus it is that meaning occurs in the activity of reading and interpretation and is based in (or is that on?) what the author puts in and leaves out in order to develop and enhance the narrative. And since the author is concerned that there be readers, he attempts to write well! And there is the rub! For in the writing well, Kermode notes, the opening is made for fantasy.
            But this is Kermode’s autobiographythe narration of his life. Shouldn’t there be only ‘the facts?’ Kermode suggests that since he intends to recount his lifewhatever he writes ought to be the honest storythe truth. But, Kermode notes, perhaps it is only those who merely tell their story to themselves who have the opportunity to be more truthful than those who write their stories down, for the latter soon “discover, if they didn’t know already, that the action of memory depends on the cooperation of fantasy. This is the truth.” By fantasy I do not think Kermode refers to the unreal or whimsical; rather, Kermode acknowledges that in order to narrate cohesively a certain amount of editing must be accomplished! The autobiographer because s/he is writing necessarily imposes pattern; in the creative act of writing s/he necessarily selects and adds those details that enhance interest in the work. What results cannot be the truth! “It is a species of the good writing that cannot help eliminating truth from autobiography . . . it is a means of giving life the calm coherence of myth.” The northeasters, those storms that disturbed, distorted, and disrupted the simple narrative of life, are tamed in the writing, but then the substance of the autobiography is necessarily no longer honest. “If the honest truth is demanded, let it be remembered that few, and of them not many very honest, have been willing to claim that they told [the truth]; it is undeniable that its principal enemy, in autobiography, is, as I have suggested, not mendacity but good writing.”
            Thus it seems that the truth of the autobiography is always compromised by the autobiography having been written, and the attempt to write well increases the depth of deceptiveness (or fictionality) in and of the narrative. And so I raise two questions: first, why does one choose to write an autobiography given that the life that is told in it (or by it) is the creation of narrative; and second, what should one expect when one reads an autobiography given that the life presented is not identical with the life lived? Kermode suggests that the significance of the autobiography rests in the presence in it of a “climate.” What we seek in an autobiography—what the autobiographer seeks to offeris the atmospheric conditions that define a life. The weather changes from day to day, “unpredictable as dreams,” but autobiographer presents this instability as climate.



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