The Trouble With Autobiography

Novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux examines other authors’ autobiographies to prove why this piece will suffice for his

Autobiographies invariably distort, insists author Paul Theroux, at his home in Hawaii. (Susan Seubert)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

The forms of literary self-portraiture are so various I think it might help to sort out the many ways of framing a life. The earliest form may have been the spiritual confession—a religious passion to atone for a life and to find redemption; St. Augustine’s Confessions is a pretty good example. But confession eventually took secular forms—confession subverted as personal history. The appeal of Casanova’s The Story of My Life is as much its romantic conquests as its picaresque structure of narrow escapes. You would never know from Somerset Maugham’s The Summing Up, written in his mid-60s (he died at the age of 91), that, though briefly married, he was bisexual. He says at the outset, “This is not an autobiography nor is it a book of recollections,” yet it dabbles in both, in the guarded way that Maugham lived his life. “I have been attached, deeply attached, to a few people,” he writes, but goes no further. Later he confides, “I have no desire to lay bare my heart, and I put limits to the intimacy that I wish the reader to enter upon with me.” In this rambling account, we end up knowing almost nothing about the physical Maugham, though his sexual reticence is understandable, given that such an orientation was unlawful when his book was published.

The memoir is typically thinner, provisional, more selective than the confession, undemanding, even casual, and suggests that it is something less than the whole truth. Joseph Conrad’s A Personal Record falls into this category, relating the outward facts of his life, and some opinions and remembrances of friendships, but no intimacies. Conrad’s acolyte Ford Madox Ford wrote any number of memoirs, but even after reading all of them you have almost no idea of the vicissitudes (adulteries, scandals, bankruptcy) of Ford’s life, which were later recounted by a plodding biographer in The Saddest Story. Ford rarely came clean. He called his writing “impressionistic,” but it is apparent that the truth bored him, as it bores many writers of fiction.

Among the highly specialized, even inimitable, forms of small-scale autobiography I would place Jan Morris’ Conundrum, which is an account of her unsatisfactory life as a man, her profound feeling that her sympathies were feminine and that she was in essence a woman. The solution to her conundrum was surgery, in Casablanca in 1972, so that she could live the rest of her life as a woman. Her life partner remained Elizabeth, whom she had, as James Morris, married many years before. Other outstanding memoirs-with-a-theme are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s self-analysis in The Crack-Up, Jack London’s John Barleycorn, a history of his alcoholism, and William Styron’s Darkness Visible, an account of his depression. But since the emphasis in these books is pathological, they are singular for being case histories.

In contrast to the slight but powerful memoir is the multivolume autobiography. Osbert Sitwell required five volumes to relate his life, Leonard Woolf five as well, adding disarmingly in the first volume Sowing, his belief that “I feel profoundly in the depths of my being that in the last resort nothing matters.” The title of his last volume, The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, suggests that he might have changed his mind. Anthony Powell’s To Keep the Ball Rolling is the overall title of four volumes of autobiography—and he also published his extensive journals in three volumes. Doris Lessing, Graham Greene, V. S. Pritchett and Anthony Burgess have given us their lives in two volumes each.

This exemplary quartet is fascinating for what they disclose—Greene’s manic-depression in Ways of Escape, Pritchett’s lower middle-class upbringing in A Cab at the Door and his literary life in Midnight Oil, Burgess’ Manchester childhood in Little Wilson and Big God and Lessing’s disillusionment with communism in Walking in the Shade. Lessing is frank about her love affairs, but omitting their passions, the men in this group exclude the emotional experiences of their lives. I think of a line in Anthony Powell’s novel Books Do Furnish a Room, where the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, reflecting on a slew of memoirs he is reviewing, writes, “Every individual’s story has its enthralling aspect, though the essential pivot was usually omitted or obscured by most autobiographers.”

The essential pivot for Greene was his succession of passionate liaisons. Though he did not live with her, he remained married to the same woman until his death. He continued to pursue other love affairs and enjoyed a number of long-term relationships, virtual marriages, with other women.

Anthony Burgess’ two volumes of autobiography are among the most detailed and fully realized—seemingly best-recalled—I have ever read. I knew Burgess somewhat and these books ring true. But it seems that much was made up or skewed. One entire biography by a very angry biographer (Roger Lewis) details the numerous falsifications in Burgess’ book.

V. S. Pritchett’s two superb volumes are models of the autobiographical form. They were highly acclaimed and best sellers. But they were also canny in their way. Deliberately selective, being prudent, Pritchett didn’t want to upset his rather fierce second wife by writing anything about his first wife, and so it is as if Wife No. 1 never existed. Nor did Pritchett write anything about his romancing other women, something his biographer took pains to analyze.

I never regarded Pritchett, whom I saw socially in London, as a womanizer, but in his mid-50s he revealed his passionate side in a frank letter to a close friend, saying, “Sexual puritanism is unknown to me; the only check upon my sexual adventures is my sense of responsibility, which I think has always been a nuisance to me...Of course I’m romantic. I like to be in love—the arts of love then become more ingenious and exciting...”

It is a remarkable statement, even pivotal, which would have given a needed physicality to his autobiography had he enlarged on this theme. At the time of his writing the letter, Pritchett was conducting an affair with an American woman. But there is no sentiment of this kind in either of his two volumes, where he presents himself as diligent and uxorious.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus