Chapter and terse: When memoirs turn ugly


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The Independent Culture

You see them in bookstores, flicking straight to the index.

More often than not, they're often disappointed; that chance encounter with whichever luminary happens to be publishing an autobiography remains undocumented. But every now and then, they get lucky. They're there! In print! They made the cut!

For friends and family, the uncertainty is different. They know that they will feature, irrevocably etched as they are into the author's life. What they don't know is how. Few literary appearances have been less flattering than that of Philip Roth in Leaving a Doll's House, the 1996 autobiography from his ex-wife, actress Claire Bloom. Roth is painted as a self-obsessed misogynist, incapable of forming a relationship with Bloom's daughter. He responded by threatening legal action – and then, two years later, published a riposte: the novel I Married a Communist. Bloom takes the fictional form of Eve Frame, a shallow woman who denounces her husband in print.

"It's like having a stalker," said Tony Parsons on his frequent appearances in the memoirs and writings of Julie Burchill. The pair's short-lived marriage has offered the columnist plenty of cause for complaint; she has described their sexual liaisons as "nasty, brutish and short", and claimed Parsons is the journalist she would least like to see naked. Said Parsons: "I don't understand her fascination with someone whom she split up with 15 years ago. Has nothing happened to her since 1984?" Certainly, it is a weird concept in the extreme – though perhaps rather less so when both parties have spent whole careers airing their thoughts.

Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens must, after all, be rather accustomed to appearing in each other's work. The long-term friends have made a habit of trading blows – and compliments – in print. Last year, Hitchens claimed to be "flattered and honoured" to have made an appearance in Amis's The Pregnant Widow, in the guise of the protagonist's left-wing brother, Nicholas. He reciprocated, devoting chunks of his memoir to describing the "Jaggerish" Amis. But their words haven't always been so kind. Amis's history of Stalinist Russia, Koba the Dread, sees the author taking repeated swipes at "Comrade Hitchens'" excusal of the regime. Hitchens' review of the book was similarly barbed, accusing Amis of "mushy secondhand observations".

But if friendship has sustained Amis and Hitchens' relationship, the profit motive has proven just as successful for fellow Rolling Stones Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Richards' superb memoir Life, saw him ridicule the diva-ish ways of the band's "unbearable" front man. In turn, Jagger called the mentions "bitchy". Still, it hasn't prevented talk of a 50th anniversary tour, an appealing prospect after their record-breaking A Bigger Bang tour. (It's also worth noting that although Richards won a GQ award for Life, the anecdotes were crafted together by a proper writer, James Fox.)

Of course, coping with an unflattering cameo needn't necessitate a response. Few silences have been more damning than that of Gordon Brown, whose character has been attacked by a raft of memoirists: from Alistair Darling to Peter Watt and Tony Blair. In a remarkable show of restraint, the former Prime Minister has resisted the urge to hit back. So far.