Okay, autobiography and memoir are the genres I am most dubious about. Why, you may ask? Well, I'll tell you: it is because they claim to tell the truth, or at least we expect them to tell the truth. Awright, I'll admit there is another, though closely related literary genre you may have heard of that also claims to tell the truth, and it is essentially the mama of all truth-claiming literary genres and that is course is (let's say it all at once, boys and girls:) [<-- oh look, I made a smiley-face] HISTORY. I think it's instructive (and I am hardly the first to note this) that in at least French and German, the word for "story" is the same word for "history": respectively histoire and Geschichte. And let me remind you that the root of "fiction" in English is a Latin verb, fictio, which means "to shape" or "to mold."
My Masters in the world of memoir-fiction are "of course" Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund White. There is no doubt, to my mind, that Nabokov presented versions of himself--which multiply across his novels in what one could construe as an autobiographical way--as fiction: this gesture arrives in its clearest representation (is it a turning inside-out of our expectations) in the changing of the title of his avowed memoir, originally called, Conclusive Evidence, but which was finally titled, after some revision, Speak, Memory.
That's quite a title change.
In the first example, we have Nabokov, stating a facticity that is conclusive, then we get a title that's more ambiguous, where he exhorts "memory" to "speak." Anyone familiar with Nabokov well knows this is a specific and careful dissembling, in which, the first title declares an evidential expression, but the second, while more poetic, offers an almost metaphysical hopefulness that can only be construed as ironic at best, and derisive otherwise. To my way of thinking, the only other greater ironist in English heretofore was probably Chaucer. But at this point, I'm jest sayin'.
Then we have the example of Edmund White, who has never disavowed the roman a clef nature of his novels, but presents them as fiction. Yet, they are in some sense "true" representions, especially in his trilogy (originally a quartet), A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty (thank you, Kafka!), and The Farewell Symphony (thank you, Haydn!).
Thus, we have two examples of writers, one who moves further away from presenting himself as his fiction, and the other who does the opposite (his last novel notwithstanding). White is an interesting case of a writer who composed extremely novelesque [I intend that in the Barthesean-sense] works at the beginning of his career--the brilliant Forgetting Elena and Nocturnes For the King of Naples (not to diminish his later output at all)--but then wrote semi-autobiographical fictional pieces (already mentioned), a highly-regarded biography of Genet, a portrait of Proust, and declared memoirs about his life in Paris. The relationship between "fact" and "fiction," the ways one nourishes the other, and vice versa, the draws of composing for one over the other, are highlighted, in opposition, by the output of these two writers. [I note, only now, and briefly, that, Nabokov more or less gave his imprimatur to White, when he reviewed his Fire-Island-cum-"gay"-cum-Kafkaesque first novel for the New York Times, back in the day, and to some acknowledged degree, White has been living it down ever since--his other, competing mode of writerliness being Christopher Isherwood.]
In the case of Nabokov, we have a man composing words (in at least two languages), inspired by events in his own life and subjectivity. White, on the other hand, condenses and completes, but the shape of the narrative is closer to his own experience than Nabokov would ever feel comfortable with or admit.
So, who is the memoirist and who the fiction-writer?
This boundary is what interest me--if it exists as a boundary at all--and therefore this writing, and therefore my previous post(s) on the nature of writing and "truth." Therefore my reticence, in this blog, toward writing about myself, explicitly. If this is an autobiography at all, it is one of ideas, attitudes, and prejudices; not what I had for lunch today.
In my understanding, language itself is the disfiguring medium which causes the problem. Language and memory. Both are imperfect media of recording experience--and that word itself (I mean "experience," though I could have suggested "media" or "recording," just to be a dick) shrugs off the possibility of fact. Look at the example of the courtroom: first-hand testimony is valuable but ambiguous (the court knows that memory is fallible, even inventive). Even in photography, which until recently, the court of law--that place of facts, evidence, testimony, and circumstantial evidence--regarded as the "safe" and "objective" domain of recorded fact, has been degraded as record by the distorting presence of Adobe Photoshop.
Not only has the frame--the context, memory, genre, intention, forgetfulness--been questioned, but the objects inside that frame are now manipulable in ways that the Nineteenth Century, and its little sister the Twentieth Century, didn't really--I mean "truly"--consider.
So, what are we left with?
Well, we are left with a place of pleasingly confusing ambiguities. To be upset that "the record" offers no solace is no solace at all. In fact--or should I say "in fact"--this question really undoes our relationship to truth. Perhaps we are seeking the truth in the wrong places; perhaps the legal notions of experience are suspect; maybe we have been on the wrong track this entire time. If the "scientific" record of photography or videography has become a space of ambiguity, or even invention, what is a person to do?
I ask this question only to be a dick. Or perhaps a tool.
I suspect I have a hunch to the answer, but this post has already gone on far too long, and I applaud you if you made it this far.