In a Dry Place

Nicolas Tredell

  • On the Look-Out: A Partial Autobiography by C.H. Sisson
    Carcanet, 234 pp, £14.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 85635 758 8
  • In Two Minds: Guesses at Other Writers by C.H. Sisson
    Carcanet, 296 pp, £18.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 85635 877 0

Autobiography is an art of reticence as well as revelation. But the 20th century, reacting against supposed Victorian prudery, takes its cues from Rousseau and Freud to urge ‘frankness as never before’: autobiography should be the scene of revelation, a public confessional, an equivalent, in book form, of the newspaper exposé that ‘tells all’. But all can never be told: one can never escape one’s life, one’s language, one’s cultural situation to give a full report. As the poem at the end of C.H. Sisson’s ‘partial autobiography’ says:

To be on the outside and yet to speak
Is not a thing the mind of man can compass.

All autobiographies are partial, both because they cannot utter everything and because they cannot stand wholly outside their subject. Sisson’s poem puts it this way:

inside I am inside something else
Than the completed life and cannot break
The circle of it to see it as it is.

This might seem to sanction a solipsistic self-absorption. But only if one assumes that to be inside one’s life is to be inside an essential self. In recent years, the demand for autobiographical frankness has been complicated by the dissemination of the view that no such self really exists, that it is a chimera born of the troubled marriage of language and libido. Sisson would hardly descend to such discourse but, from the standpoint of a modern classicism informed by Eliot and Hulme, he is sceptical of the existence of the ‘self’ in any vulgar sense. At the start of On the Look-Out, he observes that he has ‘the greatest difficulty in believing in the existence of human personality’, and that this ‘puts some difficulties in the way of an autobiography’. But critics and theorists of autobiography are not now likely to see the genre as the expression, in some relatively simple way, of a ‘personality’, but rather as a mode in which a self or selves are created or – today’s preferred term – constructed. Sisson – whose plainness, in poetry and prose, has always been a complex matter – has produced, in On the Look-Out, a complex autobiography, the very form of which makes the ‘self’ a dubious entity.

Sisson’s Preface frankly acknowledges that the autobiography is built up mainly from two manuscripts, both largely written long ago. One, which forms the middle part of this book, gives an account of the two and a half years he spent in India during the war: it was his first piece of writing after leaving the Army in 1945. The other manuscript, which forms the first and third parts of the book, tells of his life from 1964 to 1914 – that way round. So the narrative is hardly straightforward: Parts One and Three run roughly backwards. This ‘backward march of events’ is the same technique that is used in Sisson’s remarkable novel, Christopher Homm. Part Two does move forward, but, like a novel, uses the third person, and dialogue, to evoke the Indian experiences of a BOR – a British Other Rank – called Pearce. Poems written at the time of Sisson’s passage to India are interleaved into chapters of Part Two, and each chapter of the other parts ends with lines which, as Sisson puts it, ‘might not have existed if I had not lived through the time in question’.

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