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)
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Some writers not only improve on an earlier biography but find oblique ways to praise themselves. Vladimir Nabokov wrote Conclusive Evidence when he was 52, then rewrote and expanded it 15 years later, as Speak, Memory, a more playful, pedantic and bejeweled version of the first autobiography. Or is it fiction? At least one chapter he had published in a collection of short stories (“Mademoiselle O”) years earlier. And there is a colorful character whom Nabokov mentions in both versions, one V. Sirin. “The author that interested me most was naturally Sirin,” Nabokov writes, and after gushing over the sublime magic of the man’s prose, adds: “Across the dark sky of exile, Sirin passed... like a meteor, and disappeared, leaving nothing much else behind him than a vague sense of uneasiness.”

Who was this Russian émigré, this brilliant literary paragon? It was Nabokov himself. “V. Sirin” was Nabokov’s pen name when, living in Paris and Berlin, he still wrote novels in Russian, and—ever the tease—he used his autobiography to extol his early self as a romantic enigma.

Like Nabokov, Robert Graves wrote his memoir, Good-Bye to All That, as a youngish man, and rewrote it almost 30 years later. Many English writers have polished off an autobiography while they were still relatively young. The extreme example is Henry Green who, believing he might be killed in the war, wrote Pack My Bag when he was 33. Evelyn Waugh embarked on his autobiography in his late 50s, though (as he died at the age of 62) managed to complete only the first volume, A Little Learning, describing his life up to the age of 21.

One day, in the Staff Club at the University of Singapore, the head of the English Department, my then boss, D. J. Enright, announced that he had started his autobiography. A distinguished poet and critic, he would live another 30-odd years. His book, Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor, appeared in his 49th year, as a sort of farewell to Singapore and to the teaching profession. He never revisited this narrative, nor wrote a further installment. The book baffled me; it was so discreet, so impersonal, such a tiptoeing account of a life I knew to be much richer. It was obvious to me that Enright was darker than the lovable Mr. Chips of this memoir; there was more to say. I was so keenly aware of what he had left out that ever after I became suspicious of all forms of autobiography.

“No one can tell the whole truth about himself,” Maugham wrote in The Summing Up. Georges Simenon tried to disprove this in his vast Intimate Memoirs, though Simenon’s own appearance in his novel, Maigret’s Memoirs—a young ambitious, intrusive, impatient novelist, seen through the eyes of the old shrewd detective—is a believable self-portrait. I’d like to think that a confession in the old style is attainable, but when I reflect on this enterprise, I think—as many of the autobiographers I’ve mentioned must have thought—how important keeping secrets is to a writer. Secrets are a source of strength and certainly a powerful and sustaining element in the imagination.

Kingsley Amis, who wrote a very funny but highly selective volume of memoirs, prefaced it by saying that he left out a great deal because he did not wish to hurt people he loved. This is a salutary reason to be reticent, though the whole truth of Amis was revealed to the world by his assiduous biographer in some 800 pages of close scrutiny, authorized by the novelist’s son: the work, the drinking, the womanizing, the sadness, the pain. I would have liked to read Amis’ own version.

It must occur as a grim foreboding to many writers that when the autobiography is written it is handed to a reviewer for examination, to be graded on readability as well as veracity and fundamental worth. This notion of my life being given a C-minus makes my skin crawl. I begin to understand the omissions in autobiography and the writers who don’t bother to write one.

Besides, I have at times bared my soul. What is more autobiographical than the sort of travel book, a dozen tomes, that I have been writing for the past 40 years? In every sense it goes with the territory. All you would ever want to know about Rebecca West is contained in the half-million words of Black Lamb and Gray Falcon, her book about Yugoslavia. But the travel book, like the autobiography, is the maddening and insufficient form that I have described here. And the setting down of personal detail can be a devastating emotional experience. In the one memoir-on-a-theme that I risked, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, I wrote some of the pages with tears streaming down my face.

The assumption that the autobiography signals the end of a writing career also makes me pause. Here it is, with a drum roll, the final volume before the writer is overshadowed by silence and death, a sort of farewell, as well as an unmistakable signal that one is “written out.” My mother is 99. Perhaps, if I am spared, as she has been, I might do it. But don’t bank on it.

And what is there to write? In the second volume of his autobiography, V. S. Pritchett speaks of how “the professional writer who spends his time becoming other people and places, real or imaginary, finds he has written his life away and has become almost nothing.” Pritchett goes on, “The true autobiography of this egotist is exposed in all its intimate foliage in his work.”


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