Work in progress
Recently I listened to the now former New Zealand cricket representative Danny Morrison saying some uncomplimentary and patronising things about the cast-off captain, Lee Germon. The reason? Danny’s just published his autobiography, written in conjunction with an adoring cricket-lover, journalist Margot Butcher. I rang Germon’s wife, Toni, and commiserated; said that it sounded as if the book was the usual hotch-potch of misconception, delusion and self-justification. Etcetera. Afterwards I smiled a bit because for much of this year I’ve been writing a memoir, or autobiography, myself and I’ve no doubt that some people will incline to think that I have caught traces of the virus affecting Danny. I feel sure there is misconception and delusion in my book — that’s unavoidable — but I hope there’s not much that could be described as self-justification, for increasingly I feel less and less of a need for that.
Autobiography is posturing, in part, inevitably; is an effort to make lots of things, including oneself, explicable. That is often impossible but it’s diverting and occasionally entertaining, especially if, like Montaigne, we accept that “we must view ourselves as being strange”.
I am moved to relay some of V S Pritchett’s thoughts here because I find he talks a lot of sense to one who thinks he thinks as I do. Pritchett reckoned that “all autobiography is a selection of the past written from the standpoint of the present” and that in his case he “tried to get back to the time before any idea of what one is in for becomes clear, before I knew what I was, among other things, a child of social change.” I agree with most of that and have been trying to do much the same.
But more and more I realise that I very much like a mixture of what’s imagined and recalled — this is where many of my poems come from too. You find some things special there. So I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with L P Hartley who opens “The Go Between” with: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” I feel I know what Robert Lowell was getting at when he wrote in his late poem, Epilogue, “All’s misalliance.” But I can only feel sorrow for Santayana who said: “I have enjoyed writing about my life more than living it.”
When I say that I am writing a memoir, people often look at me as if to say, Why? Some clearly think it a sign of vanity, that I have a high opinion of myself; others feel I’m too young to be doing this, wonder what my parents, relations and friends will think, wonder if they themselves will get a mention and are apprehensive; others wonder who’ll be interested, and so on.
I see what I’ve been doing as a cross between a memoir and an autobiography, in the sense that the former consists of impressions, means you can excuse yourself for not doing detailed research. It also asserts that memory is partial, as truth is, and that solipsism is a dominant feature of our lives and recollections.
Nowadays I see most books as a mixture of fact and fiction and fiction writers as more cowardly in that they hide their confessions galore (to quote Pritchett again) “in the back alleys of fiction”. Listen to Rebecca West: “Just how difficult it is to write biography can be reckoned by anybody who sits down and considers just how many people know the real truth about their love affairs.” This rings a bell with me: increasingly I’ve come to see how hard it is to get at “the real truth” about anything. Stanley Elkin, typically forthright, said that “decorum is the natural enemy of autobiography”. In part I think he was saying that if you set out to be nice and kind to everyone and about yourself, don’t bother even to start. If you’re not prepared to be critical of yourself and if you’re determined to be coy and self-effacing a lot of the time, then don’t write a memoir.
Coleridge plumped for honesty and not disguising your feelings. Beverley Nichols said to get it done before you were 25 and wave as if in “goodbye to some distant country that can never be revisited.”
Samuel Butler said you can’t conceal yourself, no matter what your work and that the more you try the more clearly your character emerges. Donal Henahan said that, next to those who wrote real estate adverts, autobiographers were the most suspect of all. (Rats: fiction writers are.) Will Rogers said that memoirs were “when you put down the good things you ought to have done and leave out the bad ones you did”.
Quentin Crisp pointed out that what you can get is an obituary with “the last instalment missing”. I don’t believe, as Ned Rorem suggested, that if you start writing about your life you “stop living it” and that “you must avoid adventures today so as to make time for registering those of yesterday”. Nor do I believe, as he asserted, that by writing such you must have “lost all curiosity about the future”. If that were true I wouldn’t have written a great many of the poems and other writing I’ve produced over the last 25 years.
Why am I doing this book? Recently I told my parents that in part it was because people often tell me that I come from a notable and interesting family. (I’m referring to sport here; I have avoided assessing myself as a writer in any way.) How did you achieve what you have? they ask. What drove you? To whom do you attribute your success? Where did the hand-eye coordination come from? Were you intense rivals, you and your brother Glenn? So, I’m doing it in part to satisfy others’ curiosity.
But also, I have been looking to locate myself. Who am I? I ask. Where have I come from and why am I like I sometimes think I am? Why am I not different? (Thomas Wolfe said: “We are the sum of all our moments” which seems true, but what do those moments add up to?) I have also become increasingly aware of how much I owe to my parents, relations and friends for the part they played in providing opportunities for fishing, mountaineering, cycling, reading, golf, cricket, hockey and an appreciation of the outdoors in general. There was also the habit of vigorous debate. In relaying my recollections of my family and relations I have sought to recover and exhume, bring them back and keep them alive; also to pay tribute to them in all their zaniness and kindness, generosity and absurdity.
For that is what we are a goodly proportion of the time — absurd — in my opinion. I should add that I don’t see absurd as a pejorative word.
Am I telling the truth when I write about others and myself? I don’t know. But I do know that a surprising number of people believe there is fact and there is fiction, that there is fallacy and there is truthfulness and that the difference is always clear-cut. Does that mean that I think most of us can’t see the wood for the trees a lot of the time? Yes. Does it matter?
Not much, not a lot most of the time for, as Pritchett thought, people “survive by the follies of their fantasy life” irrespective of what is happening around them. We all have good cause for outrage but in the end I’d sooner we succumbed to the pleasures of laughter and the force of dreams.
Brian Turner is a Dunedin poet and sportsman who is writer in residence at Canterbury University.