Homo Narrator

Inga Clendinnen

  • Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography by Susanna Egan
    North Carolina, 275 pp, £39.95, September 1999, ISBN 0 8078 4782 8

Some years ago, I heard the psychologist Jerome Bruner give a talk about a girl named Emily. At two, Emily was a virtuoso night talker: put to bed, storied, kissed and left, there would be a brief silence, and then the small voice would begin. It could go on for hours. Her loving, anxious parents installed a bug in her bed and recorded her talk – so much for infants’ right to privacy. Analysing the tape, academic eavesdroppers discovered that while in her talking Emily often worked on existential problems – practising the past tense, adjusting to the arrival of a baby brother and the consequent diversion of her mother’s attention by sturdily listing all the other people she could rely on to change her nappy – what she did most, and most earnestly, was to rehearse the events of the day. She made stories out of encounters and contretemps with parents or playmates: stories in which she emerged, if not triumphant, at least unbowed. And then, having brought her self-and-history-making up to date, she would go to sleep.

At three, Emily abruptly stopped her night talking, nobody knows why. Perhaps she had done with nappies. Perhaps she had sorted out the past tense. Perhaps she found the recorder. More probably she had made the discovery we all make sooner or later: that it is possible to talk to ourselves silently, inside our heads, and not only at night. (You can read more about Emily and the multitude of things psychologists and linguists have made of her monologues in Narratives from the Crib, 1989.)

Homo narrator: the creature who tells itself stories about itself. As soon as she had language Emily had embarked on that lifelong interior conversation by which we salve abraded egos and make tolerable sense of intolerably muddled experience; by which we draft and redraft the secret histories of our lives. No one thought to doubt any part of Emily’s stories because she was talking only to herself. Had she waited until she could write, had she confided her observations of herself and her performance in the world to a journal, our suspicions would have been roused. We would think the innocence of the record gone, because Emily would have been guilty of writing autobiography, and autobiography drapes itself across the space between history and fiction, head and hands on one side, feet precariously hooked on the other. Remember Anaïs Nin and her ‘liary’. Remember Jack Kerouac, living dangerously so he could dash back to the quiet of his mother’s house, sit down at his boyhood desk, and write his rough living down.

Nonetheless, until recently there has been an expectation, quite often met, that the autobiographer would try to tell it more or less as it was, or at least as he or she remembered it: that the reader would get a reasonably honest insider account reasonably free from conscious distortion, invention and too much narcissistic fiddling. We expected an intimate view of an individual who, by the act of writing an autobiography, declared themselves remarkable, and therefore worth the reader’s time and attention: they would cast caution aside, and tell all. If Rousseau was possibly the first to think of this brilliant reader-snaring device – ‘I will tell you all my secrets, especially the shameful ones, and I will hold you spellbound’ – he was certainly not the last.

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