Looking into the mind’s I

The unreliable narrator as autobiographer

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“Perseus with the Head of Medusa”, 1545-1554, by Benvenuto Cellini (©Wayne Bruzek / Alamy Stock Photo)

In the digital age we are all autobiographers. For all the creative opportunities they afford, social media platforms are often less about self-expression and more about the cultivation of an online persona. We are curators of our own image, panderers to popular tastes, engaged in a never-ending form of self-portraiture for the eyes of invisible strangers. Our online narratives are exercises in wish-fulfilment; these are the lives we yearn to live, or, more specifically, the lives that we believe will most effectively kindle the admiration of others. 

As a genre, the autobiography is endlessly fascinating. Like the versions of those that we see on social media, these books are efforts at reconstruction, pictures drawn through a careful process of emphasis and omission. Part of the enjoyment for the reader is the persistent sense that we are not hearing the whole story. We are all unreliable narrators of our own lives, but this is surely exacerbated in the case of public figures with one eye on their legacy. That is not to suggest that we should assume dishonesty, but the choices made by the autobiographer are not so very dissimilar to those made by the writer of fiction. 

For an early example of this fictive reconstruction of the self, one need only read the autobiography of the Florentine sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (completed in 1562, but not published until 1728). In the first few pages we are told that as a five-year-old child he spied a salamander in a burning hearth. That salamanders were impervious to fire was an ancient legend. Cellini invests this incident with a portentous significance, and it is unlikely to be coincidental that the salamander was the personal emblem of François I, Cellini’s patron during the mid 1540s and the man who commissioned the famous saltcellar now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. We are right to be sceptical about the salamander, but that Cellini’s prestigious appointment at the court of the French king is prefigured in his youth is an adroit narrative touch.  

One of the most famous passages in his autobiography recounts the near ruination of his celebrated bronze statue Perseus with the head of Medusa. For many years, Cellini’s claims were assumed by readers to be an attempt at myth-making, a fanciful scrap of harmless vanity. Having left the unfinished work to his assistants after a serious fever, he is woken one night by the cries of a servant informing him that the metal has curdled in the furnace. Cellini successfully recovers it from the fire, but although the bronze begins to liquify it does not flow because the base alloy has been destroyed. His ingenious solution is to throw “every pewter dish and porringer and plate” at his disposal into the molten mass, “nearly two hundred in all”.  Given the dramatic appeal of this story—the desperate artist improvising with limited resources to produce a masterpiece—it seems too good to be true. 

Later metallurgical analysis of the statue has corroborated Cellini’s account, but I’m not entirely convinced that it would matter either way. Our memories are the most fickle narrators of all, and even with the best intentions can only provide a fragment of the truth. The act of writing an autobiography, it seems to me, is not so much about faithfully recreating the details of a life, but rather the individual’s sense of his experiences. Cellini omits those events that might tarnish his reputation, most notably his bisexuality and his convictions for sodomy (the composition of the autobiography itself only came about because of the leisure time he was afforded in a period of house arrest), but even the more obviously fabricated episodes offer the reader further insight into his soul. Few will believe his stories about conjuring “many legions of spirits” in the Colosseum, or the guardian angel who visits him in prison and saves him from committing suicide, or the halo that he acquires after his release (“visible above my shadow in the morning, at sunrise, and for two hours after, and still clearer when there is dew upon the grass”). The authenticity of these claims is less important than what they tell us about the man who makes them.   

This concept did not escape the novelist Forrest Reid who, in a letter to the poet Walter de la Mare, suggested that when penning his autobiography, “the more like fiction you make it, the better”. The strategy came naturally to Reid, for whom the realms of reality and fantasy were overlapping and indistinct. His book Apostate (1926) is one of the forgotten classics of the autobiographical genre. He writes with the mind of his younger self but the craft of a highly experienced prose stylist. This is why Apostate surpasses Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907), to which it is often compared, in its credible recreation of a child’s worldview. In Father and Son, the author’s choices are always evident; like Cellini’s salamander, Gosse’s anecdotes have a sense of utility to the book’s broader purpose. Take, for instance, the moment when the young Edmund kneels and prays before a chair in order to test whether or not God will punish him for this act of idolatry: “I gazed up at the slip of white sky above the houses opposite, and expected something to appear in it. God would certainly exhibit his anger in some terrible form, and would chastise my impious and wilful action.”  When nothing happens, he is left to conclude that “God did not care”. 

This is one of many key events that see the young boy drawn away from his faith. In this, he succeeds where his father fails. Philip Gosse was a famous naturalist who struggled to reconcile the new discoveries by Lyell and Darwin with his literal belief in the Bible. Father and Son is the story of Edmund’s intuitive resistance against a father who represents the superstitions of the past. Despite his profound familial affection, he writes that “there gushed through my veins like a wine the determination to rebel”. One feels that Gosse’s strident denunciation of evangelical religion in the book’s epilogue is his true starting point, and that his journey of reminiscences is presented in such a way as to make the destination seem inevitable. 

No such structural coherence is present in Apostate, which not only makes it continually surprising, but somehow more authentic, in spite of the outlandish visions that Reid claims to have experienced.  We may not believe that a “tall smiling figure with long, pointed, yellow teeth” towered over his bed by night, but we certainly accept that he saw it. Reid maintains that as a child he occupied “two worlds”: one, the life of a middle-class schoolboy in Victorian Belfast; the other, an idealised “dreamland” which took the form of a garden by the sea.  Apparently it did not occur to him at any point to ask himself “whether one were less real than the other”. His life becomes a search for the “imaginary playmate” who features in his recurring dreams and whose image he unconsciously superimposes onto his friend and work colleague, Andrew Rutherford. This is why the final chapter, in which he confesses his love for Andrew by allowing him to read his private journal, is doubly poignant. We know that his feelings are unlikely to be reciprocated, but we also understand something that Reid might not: that he has fallen in love with a spectre of his imagination. 

Given that to be homosexual in late 19th-century Belfast was a form of social death, it is remarkable that Reid does not attempt to disguise his forbidden love. Yukio Mishima takes the more judicious approach, which is to present his account of growing up gay in Imperial Japan as a novel: Confessions of a Mask (1949). The title relates to the concealed sexuality of the protagonist Kochan, but also possibly hints at the autobiographical nature of the book. Many of his experiences echo those of Reid: Kochan comes from a family who have suffered from a decline in fortunes, he is “weighed down by a sense of uneasiness at the thought of becoming an adult”, he has vivid and powerful visions, and he projects a fantasy love object—in this case derived from an erotic image of Saint Sebastian—onto a real life playmate. There the similarities end. Kochan is far more aware of his own sexuality, even explicitly describing his first act of masturbation, something that would have horrified the puritanical Reid. There is a recurring fetishisation of suicide and violent death in Mishima’s story, a curious fusion of Eros and Thanatos, which still has the capacity to unsettle a reader.   

Mishima’s technique of camouflaging a life story as a novel serves as a reminder of the inherently semi-fictive aspect of the autobiographer’s craft. Perhaps the most realised expression of this style is Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton (2012). The title is a reference to the pseudonym that Rushdie adopted during the period he was in hiding following the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The third person narrative makes perfect sense given the fantastical quality of the story; who would have thought that members of the public in the late 20th century would be burning books on the streets of the United Kingdom? Rushdie recalls his reaction to the initial protests: “He saw on television what he had spent the day trying to avoid. There were perhaps a thousand people in the demonstration, and all of them were male. Their faces were angry, or, to be precise, their faces were performing anger for the cameras.” Even at the moment of its occurrence, this resurgence of crazed religious fundamentalism in a supposedly liberal country feels like the stuff of fiction. 

“He saw on television what he had spent the day trying to avoid . . . Their faces were angry, or, to be precise, their faces were performing anger for the cameras”: A demonstration against Salman Rushdie in Derby, 1989 (©Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

In an interview with the New York Times, Rushdie said that the “I” of the autobiography had struck him as “absurdly narcissistic”, which is as good a reason as any to avoid it. Yet some of the most compelling figures in history have been egotists, and we may even justifiably attribute their successes to this flaw. Part of the appeal of works such as John Cowper Powys’s Autobiography (1934), Quentin Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant (1968) and J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself (published posthumously in 1968) is the very self-obsession that motivated them to record their life stories in the first place. Even while Powys is repeatedly rebuking himself for the vice of sadism, one cannot escape the impression that the judgement has a glamorising effect. Aleister Crowley even went so far as to pen what he called an “autohagiography” (The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, 1929), the literary equivalent of Albrecht Dürer painting his self-portrait as Jesus Christ.

The novelist Simon Raven had a similarly heightened sense of self-regard which is undeniably entertaining. He is at his best when denouncing those who fail to recognise his inherent superiority. In The Old School (1986), a memoir of the author’s time at Charterhouse, he dismisses “the socialists and the crabs and the spoil-sports and the do-gooders and the square-toes and the prudes and the prigs and the egalitarians with their sanctimonious and drivelling cant” and wishes upon them the ignominious fate of “drowning in a midden and a pauper’s funeral on a wet Monday in Brixton or Toxteth”. 

This kind of unabashed egotism reminds me of Ackerley’s My Father and Myself, which was partly inspired by the revelation that the author’s father was a bigamist with two separate families. This is perhaps the underlying engine for Ackerley’s dogged and
ultimately futile attempts at introspection. If we cannot truly know those closest to us, he seems to imply, can we really know ourselves? “Curiosity about myself has carried me somewhat further than I meant to go,” he writes, “however honestly we may wish to examine ourselves we can do no more than scratch the surface.” For Ackerley, the task of writing an autobiography feels like an attempt to reckon with his own latent impulses, although, like Raven, he can leave the reader feeling stonewalled by his inability to resist making a joke at moments of high emotional intensity. 

Dennis Potter compared the process of remembrance to a detective story: “you’ve got this superfluity of clues, which is what we all have, and very few solutions—maybe no solution—but the very act of garnering the clues and the very act of remembering, not merely an event but how that event has lodged in you and how that event has affected the way you see things, begins to assemble a system of values”. A number of autobiographies share this quality of an author who seems perpetually bewildered by his own personality, and yet I find that in most of these cases there is a concomitant readiness to leap to definitive judgements of others. Into this category we would place Ackerley’s memoir, along with Stephen Spender’s World Within World (1951), Kenneth Williams’s Just Williams (1985) and, to an extent, the journals of James Boswell (1762-1795). Doubtless a professional psychoanalyst would have a thing or two to say about how dogmatic certainty can operate as compensation for personal insecurities. 

Yet one cannot read an autobiography without running the risk of indulging in armchair psychology, particularly when writers insist on inadvertently revealing secrets they have kept from themselves. For example, despite Didier Eribon’s faith in the social and linguistic construction of personal identity, the story he tells in Retour à Reims (2009) seems to confirm the existence of an essentialised self. Similarly, in her determination to show her superiority over anyone she has ever encountered, Harriette Wilson betrays far more about her personality than she intends. Her Memoirs (1825) were, in part, an act of revenge and a means to extort money from former lovers. It is from here that we derive the phrase “publish and be damned”, which was the Duke of Wellington’s response to her threat to expose the details of their affair. The self-aggrandising quality of Wilson’s writing feels like a deliberate tactic to evade introspection, as though she is afraid of the home truths she might be forced to confront. 

Ultimately—even with the most disarmingly honest of memoirs—we as readers are unlikely to entirely escape the sensation of being misled. The truth, of course, is quite beside the point. There isn’t an autobiography in the history of the genre that doesn’t serve as a reminder that human nature is immutable. Our memories are mere approximations of reality, continually subject to revision. We cannot tell our own life stories without deceiving either ourselves or our audience, whether that be through the writing of memoirs or the curation of public personae on social media. Autobiographies are best enjoyed when we are able to embrace the contradictions, the lacunae, and the outright mendacity as opportunities for further insight. We interpret the writer as he undertakes the task of interpreting himself, in the knowledge that, as Philip Roth puts it in The Human Stain, “our understanding of people must always be at best slightly wrong”.