Early Lives

P.N. Furbank

  • The Inner I: British Literary Autobiography of the 20th Century by Brian Finney
    Faber, 286 pp, £14.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 571 13311 8

Brian Finney speaks of the study of autobiography as a ‘yawning gap’ in British scholarship. It is also, to judge from myself, a yawning gap in one’s own thoughts, which this is a good moment to try to fill. Finney has his own perspective, which is much concerned, first, with the ‘truth’ factor and attendant perceptual problems; secondly with autobiography as psychotherapy; and thirdly with the (large) function assigned to the reader by an autobiography. There is also an educational theme. Finney relates his deconversion as a teacher, but also as a critic and reader, from a ‘New Criticism’ faith, and tells us that as a teacher ‘I found myself quite naturally making increased use of autobiographical texts in courses in order to encourage students to seek a genuine, particularised point of contact between their lives and their experience of reading literature.’ It seems, in practice, though he does not say so, to have been only a partial deconversion. For what he found was that students – and not only students but some critics and scholars too – were in a state of primitive innocence with regard to autobiography such as, since the days of New Criticism, would hardly have been possible for them with regard to the novel. To put it bluntly, they wanted autobiographers to give us a true account of their past life, as well as to be decent and well-behaved citizens. ‘Only within the small circle of critics of the genre is it now a commonplace that an autobiography is likely to throw more light on the normally ageing autobiographer than on the earlier self about whom the book is ostensibly written.’ Finney describes this critical commonplace, very plausibly, as the ‘intrinsic paradox of the genre’, and proportions his praise of autobiographers to the degree to which they show themselves aware of it. His theory of the genre is a coherent one and is followed through with a good deal of resourcefulness and intelligent observation. I think there are certain things wrong with his theory, though not with this bit of it, but his is a valuable book and well worth arguing with.

On rereading his book, he found it less theoretical and more empirical than he had originally intended. Empirical to some degree, nevertheless, it could hardly help being, since criticism is at bottom an empirical activity, an extrapolation from the experience of finding certain things good. To sort out one’s own ideas on the subject, then, it might be sensible to examine a few autobiographies that one feels to be masterpieces. I shall choose Conrad’s A Personal Record, Sartre’s Les Mots and Yeats’s Reveries over Childhood and Youth, all of which receive some discussion in Finney’s book. As a group they suggest a rather large generalisation: that whereas the reader comes to a biography with certain definite expectations and is indignant if these are not fulfilled, the same is not true (or at least it ought not to be true) in the case of an autobiography. A biographer, like an architect, has to provide certain basic utilities – in the one case doors and windows and a heating-system, in the other chronology, genealogy and some documentation. For the autobiographer, on the other hand, there is no such clause in his contract, though – which is a different matter – he may be subject to certain codes of behaviour, may have an obligation towards ‘truth’ in some sense or other of that word.

Autobiography and biography appear, thus, to be very dissimilar genres; and as a corollary, autobiographies, or anyway the best autobiographies, tend to be very different from one another. There is, for instance, no other work remotely resembling Conrad’s A Personal Record in its form – which nevertheless has a curious affinity of contrast with Les Mots. Conrad’s declared purpose in his book (very sympathetically analysed by Finney) was that of ‘treating the literary life and the sea life on parallel lines, with a running reference to my early life’. This is exact, but hardly conveys the passion for relevance displayed by Conrad in a book which, with all its dizzying zig-zags, geographical and chronological, contains not a sentence that isn’t strictly related to its theme. The same amazing constructive force is at work as in Nostromo: a most intricate form is produced, alive in every part. Ford Madox Ford, oddly for him, complained that A Personal Record was ‘ragged’ and wanted it extended – to the wrath of Conrad, who declared that ‘nothing on earth would induce me to spoil the thing as it now stands by an irrelevant single instalment.’

Just such a passion for relevance animates Les Mots. The title is exhaustively apt. The book never for a moment forgets its theme – of how, through socio-historical forces, his family’s ardent and historically-conditioned desire for a cultural investment, Jean-Paul is remorselessly channelled towards words and writerdom. It is as sustained a demonstration, pursued with unflagging rigour, of a writer being ‘made’ as Conrad’s is of a writer making himself; and the contrast of the one’s savage repudiating irony with the other’s modest pride makes a nice comedy.

The distance between these works and Yeats’s Reveries over Childhood and Youth is even greater. Yeats’s book seems, at first sight, nearer to a biography – to the sort of book, that is, which someone else might conceivably have written about Yeats. (It could not possibly have occurred to a biographer to write about Conrad and Sartre in the way they do about themselves.) Such an impression is quickly dispelled, however. In Yeats’s case, too, the title is extremely meaningful – both in its plural form, echoed in the title, Autobiographies, under which it and its companion writings were collected – and in the exactness of the term ‘reveries’. Quite without romanticising, and full of shrewdness and humour and even worldliness, the book contrives to be continually dream-like. Yeats has so completely purged his narrative of didacticism that his younger self, and his family and the scenes and traditions of his youth, have become an object of disinterested wonderment.

Finney makes much of the manner in which, in the Reveries, Yeats manages to give himself away – how, by lapses and distortions of fact, he reveals himself as more deeply involved, still, with his father, and more ambivalent towards him, than his conscious self would admit. It is part of Finney’s general theory, indeed, that this is how autobiography works and is meant to work: the autobiographer is, in this sense, deliberately offering himself as sacrificial victim, and his work requires for its completion just this kind of active collaboration – the spotting of blind spots and fissures and the following-out of inadvertently-dropped clues, as a way of access to the ‘sub-text’.

Now, as an observation about Yeats, this theory of a persisting hang-up over his father probably has a lot of truth in it. Nevertheless, as used here, it strikes me as a kind of ‘didactic’ triumph over Yeats that his tone is specifically designed to preclude. It seems scarcely more necessary to the reading of Reveries than it is to that of his poems – in which, perhaps, one could spot similar givings-of-himself-away. It would be a different matter if what was imputed was an artistic weakness, but this Finney does not claim. His theory runs, very roughly, that veracity in an autobiography is a will-o’-the-wisp. Thus an autobiographer is not to be blamed if the reader catches him or her out in the opposite – indeed, it is the kind of active response that autobiography as an art-form is asking for.

That veracity in autobiography is a will-o’-the-wisp is, of course, a favourite theme with autobiographers themselves. The reasons they put forward are various: that memory is capricious, that by dint of frequent remembering a recollection is falsified and becomes only the memory of a memory, that we can have no remembrance of our birth, that the past self depicted by an autobiographer is a fiction, valuable largely for the light it throws on his present self, that not just recollected experience, but all experience, is a construction, not a ‘given’, that literary art is a process of distortion, that all truth is relative. What one notices most about this list of reasons is that it is very long, so long that it seems that the veracity issue is not a problem peculiar to autobiography but a general human one – indeed, that for autobiography it is not a ‘problem’ at all but rather the condition of its existence. It would seem, therefore, that Finney’s reader-critic is on shaky logical ground in searching for verifiable untruths as a way of admittance to the ‘sub-text’. I hasten to say I am very far from suggesting that truth does not matter in an autobiography. In reading Ford Madox Ford’s autobiographies I am worried, as Hugh Kenner does not seem to be, by the sense that Ford neither knows nor cares what truth is; it disturbs me not to know whether some strange thing actually happened to Swinburne, or whether Ford just made it up. But Conrad, Sartre and Yeats were all men who placed a high value on truth, and that, to my mind, is all one has the right to ask.

‘Truth’, as an issue or problem in autobiography, comes in more properly from a different angle, the one connected with sincerity. What is wrong with, shall we say, Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, with its faked lyricism and bogus ‘life-affirming’ message, is that, so one feels, he doesn’t really believe what he is telling us; too fatally lacks what Conrad, no mean dreamer, calls ‘sobriety’. ‘I have tried to be a sober worker all my life – all my two lives ... Even before the most seductive reveries I have remained mindful of that sobriety of interior life, that asceticism of sentiment, in which alone the naked form of truth, such as one conceives it, such as one feels it, can be rendered without shame.’ Judgments about ‘truth’ in this context are, or ought to be, value-judgments, rather than merely factual ones. Ought we really to think less of Les Mots because (as I have heard it said) other members of Sartre’s family paint an entirely different picture of his grandfather and Sartre himself wrote somewhat differently and more favourably about him elsewhere? The case seems a little like the one discussed by Wittgenstein in ‘Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough’. ‘Anyone who wanted to impress us with the story of the Beltane festival would not need to explain the hypothesis of its origin ... he would only have to lay before us the material ... it is not just the idea of the possible origin of the Beltane festival that makes it impressive, but what we call the overwhelming probability of the idea. What we get from the material.’

What matters, in these works of Conrad, Sartre and Yeats, is what is creatively happening here and now, and from moment to moment, on the page – which is another way of saying that their books are real writing, indeed great writing. Of course the achievement would not take place were there not a genuine traffic between the writer’s present self and his earlier one, but the finding of meaning and value must essentially belong to the present. The process should be familiar to us, for, after all, we have the supreme example of Wordsworth’s Prelude, in which memory is downgraded in favour of those present visitings of the imagination which actualise what, in the past, has been only potential experience.

The success of these three autobiographies is a matter of their having found their own form. It is instructive to compare them with Edwin Muir’s Autobiography, which fails in just this respect. It is a book with a following, and is certainly not a negligible work: it contains some very vivid character sketches, and some admirable evocative writing – for instance, the pages on his weird sojourn in a Fairport bone-factory. The trouble is, the book has not had the courage to achieve a form. For much of the time it imitates a biography; at moments, again, it apes a novel. (The opening of his ‘London’ chapter is pure novel, of a conventional type: ‘We set up house in Guilford Street and began to look for work. The weather was bright and dry, and the trees in the parks were putting on their autumn colours ... ’) In his first chapter, it is true, Muir adumbrates a more original form for the book, but only to assert that it is beyond his powers. ‘In themselves our conscious lives may not be particularly interesting. But what we are not and can never be, our fable, seems to me inconceivably interesting. I should like to write that fable, but I cannot even live it; and all I could do if I related the outward course of my life would be to show how I had deviated from it; though even that is impossible, since I do not know the fable or anybody who knows it.’ Later, at the end of the first half of his book, he relates how, at the late age of 35, he experienced the birth in himself of an imagination, enabling him to relive his early life, this time with open eyes: ‘my full gaze could take in things which an absent glance had once passed over unseeing, so that life I had wasted was returned to me.’ To this, though, he adds a significant comment: ‘when at last I looked back at that past life which, whatever I might think of it, was the life I knew best, it seemed to me that I was not seeing my own life merely, but all human life.’ ‘Seeing all human life’, if one presses it for a meaning, seems to come rather close to the seeing of ‘our fable’, which he described earlier as desirable (the fable would be so much more interesting than our ‘conscious lives’) but impossible. For all Muir’s invocation of Proust, his hankering after generality (‘all human life’) has a smack of defeat.

The point is worth making, since Muir’s book is a classic example of an unacceptable tendency in autobiography. There is much in it about the paradisal vision of childhood, and it is as if childhood were being offered as a kind of substitute for poetry and art. On the part of a writer, this seems a thoroughly defeatist attitude. For the point being asserted about childhood vision is that it is lost, and anyway is incommunicable: thus all the author can offer is a lament. Some lines from Burns once had a ‘rich, dark, wintry magic’ for the young Muir, but this has largely faded now ...

A similar issue arises over dreams, which figure prominently in Muir’s book, a number of his dreams being set down there at length. There is perhaps something in the common prejudice against people telling one their dreams over the breakfast-table. Indeed, I am tempted to agree with D.H. Lawrence, who disliked dreams and regarded them as no more than a form of daily excretion. Dreams, which seem to us the proof of vast unused powers, are certainly very flattering to our self-esteem; but the fact remains that, as oneirologists and psychoanalysts would agree, what counts about them is their private meaning for the dreamer, and in this respect they are the opposite of art, which exists for others. The dream-like, as practised by Yeats, not to mention Bunyan and Dante, is of course quite a different matter.

Muir had a curious and dramatic experience over dreams. At a time when he was under analysis, he was overwhelmed by a flood of inspiring and disturbing mythological dreams. They were waking dreams, which he could continue or stop at will, and his analyst, who was worried about him, persuaded him to stop them. Muir later regretted this, but admits: ‘I did not know at the time what to do with these mythological dreams, and I do not know yet; I used the trance for a poem, but a poem seems a trifling result from such an experience.’ It shocks one that a poet should speak of a poem as a ‘trifling result’. What could there conceivably be more valuable than a poem? What, indeed, could be more valuable than an autobiography, if undertaken with the strenuousness proper to art?