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Miles Kington

Art à la carte

"I assumed that biography and autobiography are closely related literary forms," said Tristram. "Nothing could be farther from the truth. They are opposite in intention. The biographer sets out to tell the bald, unvarnished truth. The autobiographer sets out to slap so much varnish on his or her life that you can't see what's underneath and can't tell what's true and what's not true. The biographer tells someone else's story. The autobiographer tells his own story - and lies about it!"

I had gone back to my autobiography-writing class after an absence, and nothing had changed. Certainly, our tutor, Tristram, hadn't changed at all. He was still big and bearded and bellowing. He was like Brian Blessed, but larger and louder.

"Why would an autobiographer want to tell lies?" said Ursula.

Ursula was a lady of leisure who had joined the group to learn how to write her autobiography simply in order to get her own back on her mother. From what we had seen of it so far, Ursula's mother looked likely to be the first parent in history to sue her child for libel.

"It's all to do with love," said Tristram. "The worst biographies are written by people who are in love with their subject. They cannot see things straight. The best biographies are written by writers who are somewhat scornful of their subjects. But all autobiographers are already in love with their subject and therefore they wish to protect them from the cruel gaze of the public. An autobiographer is not a detective - he is a bodyguard. We all love ourselves. Do you love yourself, Roger?"

Roger was the least fathomable member of the class. He wore a bow tie and said nothing except when invited to, at which point it always became clear he was the best-read person in the class. (It turned out later he had been a spy, and tact and caution were a way of life for him.)

"Yes, I love myself," said Roger, "but not in such a way as to make anyone else jealous."

"Brilliant," said Tristram. "I love remarks that sound deep and actually mean damn all. But when I say that the best biographers have slight scorn for their subject, who do you think I am thinking of?"

"That man who wrote a life of Laurens van der Post?" I suggested. "And found out that Van der Post had invented almost everything in his life?"

"Now there's an example of an autobiographer who loved himself!" cried Tristram. "Van der Post loved himself so much, he completely reshaped himself. It took the biographer to strip off the varnish. But no, I was not thinking of Van der Post. I was thinking of Jesus."

We stirred uneasily. Had Jesus actually written an autobiography? If so, we must have missed it.

"The Bible is unique in that it contains four separate biographies of the same man," said Tristram. "The life of Jesus by Matthew. Then by Mark and Luke and John. For anyone else, it would be showbiz overkill. For Jesus, I suppose it makes marketing sense. But there is one life of Jesus that is missing from the New Testament and that would have made the others all come to life. Who would that have been by, anyone?"

A pause.

"Jesus' own life story?" said Ursula.

"Phooey," said Tristram. "From what little we know of Jesus' prose style, it would have been awful. A mishmash of parables and allegories, with a few recipes thrown in. Water into wine... five loaves and two small fishes... No, I am thinking of the life of Jesus as it would have been written by Doubting Thomas. The one disciple who had reservations about Jesus. The one biographer that book we would have rushed out to buy the book of!"

It was such a staggering thought that, as usual, we ignored Tristram's excitable grammar.

More of this unusual class some other time