The storification of a life
(The following essay is adapted from a public lecture I delivered at the University of Chichester in Sussex earlier this year.)
As a boy in Calcutta in the 1970s, I would often hear of a book of memoirs written by an Indian. It was a book that was (for reasons we won’t go into here) seen with equal degrees of suspicion and admiration in India at the time. The book became very well known in England and America.
It was titled The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. It was written by Nirad C Chaudhuri. Published in 1951, four years after India emerged from colonian rule, it was a recounting of the author’s childhood in the Bengal countryside and his years in Calcutta as a student. Chaudhuri was 55 years old when it was published. He moved to England shortly after that. He lived in Oxford. There, he wrote and published prodigiously, tended to his magnificent rose garden, and became a major if provocative and controversial figure in the culture till his death shortly before he turned 102.
The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian went into numerous editions. In 2001, it appeared as a New York Review of Books Classic with a superb introduction by former Granta editor Ian Jack. VS Naipaul, in his own memoir about reading and writing, hailed large parts of it as flawless. (Naipaul would consider no work other than his own to be entirely flawless.). Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing calls it one of the most important books of the 20th century.
I had not read the book as a boy. Not even as an adolescent or a university student who was convinced that he wanted to be a writer. It was only in 2001, after the NYRB Classics edition came out, after Nirad Chaudhuri’s death, that I read it. I was deeply impressed by its capaciousness, the recollections of the Bengal countryside from a century ago, Calcutta as the colonial rule neared its end. I admired the wit, the rigour of the sentences, the intimacy and the peculiar piquancy of the writing. Most of all, I took to the manner in which the book rose above the personal – or saw through the personal – and became a riveting account of how India was dealing with modernity.
I tried to think of why I hadn’t read it before. And I realised that it was the word ‘autobiography’ in the title that had bothered me as a very young reader. ‘Autobiography’ is such a pompous, self important word. I had missed the point of how brave Chaudhuri had been in his literary ambition. As Ian Jack wrote in his introduction: ‘When Chaudhuri began to write The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, in 1947, he had no models. The autobiographical form had almost no tradition in India and tended to be the preserve of the famous; only two other Indians of his era,Nehru and Gandhi, had tried it with any success.’
I realised too that the word was in the title because when the book was published, in 1951, ‘memoir’ was not a word that was current in the discourse of the literary world. It wasn’t, even in the 1970s, when I first heard of the book in Calcutta.
But it is now, and it is one of the most fascinating, intriguing and tricky genres in which a writer can work.
How is memoir different from autobiography? To simplify, autobiography has now come to signify – and it has come to signify that with the popularity of the memoir – a certain bald, straightforward recording of events. Katie Price’s autobiography, say, but Martin Amis’s memoirs.
So the memoir is seen, like literary fiction or what the Americans call the non-fiction novel like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, as an intensely literary, introspective non-fiction narrative in which the narrator puts himself in the centre of the action.
Of course it is not quite as uncomplicated as that. Memory is the best gallery in the world, says JG Ballard in his memoir, Miracles of Life. ‘Our memories of the past,’ Philip Roth said, ‘our memories of the past are not memories of facts but memories of our imaginings of the facts’. This is perhaps important to remember as a reader while reading Roth’s own award-winning memoir, Patrimony, about his father. But it is also critical for a writer in the writing of memoirs.
Memories of our imaginings of the facts: That implies not so much an unreliable narrator but one who is selective about which of his memories he wants to play with, play upon and make part of the structure of his memoir. What he leaves out is about as important as what he puts in.
The moment a writer sets something down, it becomes an act of telling a story, an act of storification. The memoir is not a straightforward dispatch from the frontlines of one’s life; it is an act of storification. The writer takes some of the things that happened to him, and weaves a story around them, and the story says not merely something about him, but the wider world around him.
But the genre is filled with pitfalls. We all love to believe that the story of our own lives are the ones most worth telling, that nothing could be more interesting than the lives we have lived. The memoirs that work are actually far broader in scope. They take the stories of their writers’ lives, and then use that story as a trigger to look at something else, something of far wider allure and appeal. The memoir is rooted in the self of the writer, but it must also transcend that self. Only then does it speak to others, does it use the particular to communicate something universal.
Famous contemporary writers have made thrilling excursions into the genre of the memoir. Just at random: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father?.
Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Think About Running. Hanif Kureishi’s My Ear at his Heart. Roddy Doyle’s Rory and Ita. And, among the most famous of living English writers: Martin Amis’s Experience – easily Amis’s best book this century. Julian Barnes’s Nothing to be Frightened of. While Amis uses the story of the relationship between his father and himself to provide a poignant moving account of paternity as well as filial devotion (and how complicated both can be), Barnes turns his memoir about his parents into an exquisite meditation on death, the fear of death and how one copes with the notion of and the inevitability of mortality.
As these books show, the memoir is at its best when it thus expands in scope, and speaks of urgent, universal themes. It takes the story of a particular life (a life whose contours and crevices are better known to the writer than anything else), brings to bear upon it the act of storytelling (or novelistic conventions) and makes it universal in its appeal. On reading a memoir, we think: ‘Oh, that happened to me’ or ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I thought as well’ – only I never had the means to put it quite like that.
The memoir becomes trickier still because it is, self evidently, the writer’s own story. He has to put himself on the line for it. And there is no escape from what he chooses to expose about his own life by saying that the reader should not conflate the narrator with the writer.
As a writer of memoir, you need to be ruthless — with yourself, and with others. You need to be honest to and with your material. And you need to know that while you are telling your story and putting yourself at the heart of the narrative, the story will have to resonate with the experiences of others, and others will need to see them mirrored in the story for it to have an allure for them.
I came to realise all this through the writing of my memoirs, and have been thinking again as my new memoir about fatherhood is readied for publication.