BOOK REVIEW / In your own write: The language of autobiography by John Sturrock, CUP pounds 35

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The Independent Culture
In conversation with Gore Vidal, a younger writer announced that, after half a dozen novels, she was embarking on her memoirs. 'At last you'll be writing some fiction,' said Vidal with a mandarin sniff.

John Sturrock, in his absorbing new study, seems to agree with Vidal that autobiography and fiction are two sides of the coin. He operates on the assumption that the aubiographer is a maker of fiction, defining the genre as 'the story of a singularization, or of how the autobiographer came to acquire the conviction of uniqueness that has impelled him to write'. He examines 23 classic examples of the genre, from Augustine (in whose Confessions he locates its origins) through Rousseau, Gibbon, Goethe, Mill, Newman and Nabokov to Michel Leiris, whom he calls, with eye-catching hyperbole, 'the author of the most significant and arresting work of autobiography written in the twentieth century'.

WH Auden once remarked that every poet wished that he were the only living poet; it would seem that every autobiographer wished that he were the only living person: other voices threaten by their very existence his 'singularization'. Rousseau, the focus of Sturrock's liveliest chapter, suffered the paranoid conviction that the images of him being circulated by his detractors 'must at all costs be repossessed and revised'. Thus his autobiography becomes a means of aggressive myth-making, a way of getting the facts 'straight'.

For a stalwart Victorian like Darwin, autobiography was a medium of self-promotion, as well as a kind of existential calculus. 'Autobiography is a robustly capitalist genre,' writes Sturrock, 'advertising the accumulation of gainful experience by which the author has been raised into the elite class of those sufficiently approved of among their contemporaries to write their lives.' Nabokov, on the other hand, was no vulgar self-promoter, nor had he any interest in taking his spiritual temperature. He 'dedicated himself buoyantly to the written language', to 'style' more than 'story'.

We are all given to telling our own story: this is part of what it means to be human. But the literary autobiographer sets himself apart, telling his audience how he managed to accomplish this or that great thing (write a book, make a fortune, earn God's favour, learn how to be humble, whatever). Sturrock explores the negotiations that take place between the autobiographer and his readers, never losing sight of the linguistic medium itself. Yet he mentions only two female autobiographers - Teresa of Avila and Gertrude Stein. Where are Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Anas Nin, Mary McCarthy, and so many others? In spite of that one important flaw, this is an accessible and provocative book.