Autobiography is very likely the most various of literary genres. It includes the confessional account—edifying like St. Augustine’s, the opposite in the case of Rousseau’s, corrupt as engaged in by Anais Nin and Henry Miller, incredible in the case of Frank Harris. Chesterton’s seems to be about everyone but himself, as in a way is that of Kingsley Amis. Most of Amis’s chapters bear the names of the persons and places he chooses to pillory. The targets of these witty put-downs could scarcely enjoy them, but the reader is soon in the grips of morose delectation. Outright laughter, actually. But then Amis is pretty hard on himself as well.
Collections of letters are more unbuttoned, even more so diaries, particularly when they were kept without any thought of eventual publication. The autobiography, excepting Augustine’s, perhaps, is a device that enables the writer to give a carefully edited version of his passage through time. But even Augustine fails to mention the name of Adeodatus’s mother. Graham Greene apparently forgot the names of his children. The autobiographer’s besetting temptation is summed up in Nietzsche’s question, “Why am I so wonderful?” If life is a book in which one sets out to write one story and ends by writing another, an autobiography often tends to be an account that, if not hagiographical, seldom puts the writer in the dock. Even recounting unflattering episodes can seem a preemptive strike.
These thoughts are prompted by the fact that I have succumbed to the suggestion that I write my memoirs. I began reluctantly and am now taking culpable pleasure in the exercise. Aristotle distinguished between memory and reminiscence, and I am beginning to see what he meant. A hitherto forgotten past—people, places, events— suddenly comes vividly to mind, emerging from who knows what recesses of the self. It is the thought that much of the contents of memory will be interred with one’s bones that spurs one on. If nothing else, the record may be of interest to one’s children and grandchildren.
The real story of one’s life is known only to God, which is why few autobiographers put themselves in His presence as they write. The shaping of events makes one acutely aware of the mystery of even the most ordinary human life. “Know thyself” is not only the slogan for the most difficult task of all; it is one few of us care to undertake. The autobiographer becomes increasingly aware that he is plucking items from a vast underground river, the course of which he only dimly perceives. He comes to see that his can only be a partial account, not simply because the whole is quantitatively unmanageable but because the sense of the whole is hidden from him.
The effort to write one’s own life induces a deep skepticism about biographies. Over Christmas, sunning myself on Longboat Key, I read a lot of biographies as distraction from my memoirs. I read the lives of Oscar Wilde, John Gray, Emily Dickinson, Wilkie Collins, Jonathan Swift, and Laurence Sterne. All of them were efforts to reconstruct a person from data available in archives and private collections, from letters and the reminiscences of others. Research projects, in short. Someone emerges from such narratives, but the reader is usually more conscious of the writer than of the subject. Sterne was in his way the Andrew Greeley of his day (although to state the obverse would be libelous), but what one gets is a version of something essentially unknown. That we cannot get at the full truth of our own lives makes biography seem a branch of fiction. Attempts at a final judgment seem wildly presumptuous.
For all that, I love biography, particularly literary biography. And I am becoming perhaps too fond of writing my memoirs. Jude Dougherty and I once entered a pact to write one another’s obituaries—lest the truth come out. It turns out that there is little danger of that. It is not simply that friends have an honorable tendency to see the best in one another. In reflective moments, when one gets an intimation of what he looks like to God, it is a relief to have the moment pass.
Anyway, I will go on to the end, or, God grant, the antepenultimate, conscious of a remark of Kingsley Amis: “Autobiographies are not serious in the way that novels are.” But they are all in a way what Newman called the history of his religious opinions, an apologia pro vita sua. One is making a case in the hope that it is, if far from the whole truth, nonetheless true.