Behind every work of art or fiction, there is an individual with a sensitivity of his or her own. No novel, film or picture can be devoid of subjectivity or be wholly impersonal, because authors and artists always put a little of themselves in their work. That's why literary and artistic creations can be considered as partly autobiographical. Autobiography is a polymorphous genre in itself, which includes memoirs, diaries, autobiographical fiction and self-fiction. Using oneself or one's life as raw material can be motivated by and aimed at many different things. Among these are the desire to resurrect and relive one's past, the need to take stock of previous experiences or come to terms with trauma, and the will to bear witness. Autobiography is therefore part of art as well as a protean form of art in itself. It also enables authors and creators to explore the various aspects of their personalities, sometimes even turning themselves into enhanced or fantasized versions of themselves. Hence the many possible gaps between their personalities and personae.
The art of autobiography
An autobiography is a first person narrative in which the author is also the narrator and protagonist of a story relating whole or part of his or her life. The genre grew out of the Romantic obsession with individual emotions and experiences and kept gaining momentum in the 19th and 20th centuries. Autobiographies are life stories but writers can mix fact and fiction.
The most straightforward way of writing one's autobiography is to proceed chronologically and start with one's childhood to end with the present. Memoirs are very popular Writers may also choose to dwell on specific events or periods, or to focus on chosen aspects of their personalities, especially when they are trying to describe how they became poets.
Childhood is a key stage in individuals' self-development, because it is when they are little that they discover the world and learn to decipher it thanks to language.
Children however have a unique way of relating to their environment as playfields or unknown territories. Because it is such an important and enjoyable period in people's lives, almost everyone writing their autobiography likes to recall and relate their boy- or girlhood. Retrieving the little boy or girl within means conjuring up a myriad of childhood sensations and impressions to transcribe as faithfully as possible, sometimes with the help of fiction. It is a self-exploratory journey into the past.
English writer Laurie Lee undertook to render his childhood in a Cotswold village in Gloucestershire, just after the First World War, in his autobiographical book Cider with Rosie. He tried to adopt the perspective of the little boy he used to be in order to stick to what his life and environment where like back then. This doing, he also revived the traditions and life styles gradually disappeared as a result of post-war mechanization and social changes. The book opens on the young boy's somewhat traumatic arriving in the village.
"I was set down from the carrier's cart at the age of three; and there with a sense of bewilderment and terror my life in the village began.
The June grass, amongst which I stood, was taller than I was, and I wept. I had never been so close to grass before. It towered above me and all around me, each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight. It was knife-edged, dark, and a wicked green, thick as a forest and alive with grasshoppers that chirped and chattered and leapt through the air like monkeys.
I was lost and didn't know where to move. A tropic heat oozed up from the ground, rank with sharp odours of roots and nettles. Snow-clouds of elder-blossom banked in the sky, showering upon me the fumes and flakes of their sweet and giddy suffocation. High overhead ran frenzied larks, screaming, as though the sky were tearing apart.
For the first time in my life I was out of the sight of humans. For the first time in my life I was alone in a world whose behaviour I could neither predict nor fathom: a world of birds that squealed, of plants that stank, of insects that sprang about without warning. I was lost and I did not expect to be found again. I put back my head and howled, and the sun hit me smartly on the face, like a bully."
Cider with Rosie
© Hogarth Press, 1959
The natural environment, with its unfamiliar smells and noises, is described through the child's standpoint, which makes it look like an unsettling fairy tale setting with a "thick forest" and "tower[ing] blades of grass." The fact that everything seems bigger than life and threatening is consistent with the child's vision of the world around him. Because everything is brand new to him, the only way to make it meaningful to reassure himself is to compare what he sees, hears and feels with things he knows and can name. Hence the following similes: "It was knife-edged," "grasshoppers […] leapt through the air like monkeys" and "like a bully." However, the grown man is not absent from the text, as is evidenced by the richly adorned language he uses to recreate the landscape of his childhood, which he cherishes and perhaps yearns for. Depicting the sky and heat through highly crafted metaphors ("Snow-clouds of elder-blossom banked in the sky, showering upon me the fumes and flakes of their sweet and giddy suffocation") actually reflects the way the adult remembers it as a heavenly place on earth. This extract, as the rest of the book, combines two strands to render the author's childhood memories from the boy's and the man's perspectives.
|To take stock
|Faire le bilan
|To come to terms
|To bear witness to
|To gain momentum
|Prendre de l'ampleur
|To dwell on
|To mingle with
|Se mêler à
|To meddle with
|Se mêler de
|Des souvenirs disparates
|Se rappeler qqch
|To conjure up
|An elder blossom
|Une fleur de sureau
|To year for
|Avoir la nostalgie de
|Un fil conducteur
Memoirs are an autobiographical form of writing in which the author-narrator-protagonist narrates his or her experience of a specific period of time and his or her involvement in the events that took place then.
Most memoirs were written by politicians, intellectuals or soldiers wanting to bear witness to what they lived through and accomplished during difficult times. Their autobiographical writings constitute invaluable historical documents in which battles are re-enacted, governments decisions explained and successes and failures accounted for. The author puts himself in the shoes of a historian, offering readers an insider's interpretations of what took place in the past.
In his Memoirs of the Second World War, published in 1948, Winston Churchill, who stood at the sharp end, shares his own experience of the global conflict.
"If you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival.
Mankind has never been in this position before. Without having improved appreciably in virtue or enjoying wiser guidance, it has got into its hands for the first time the tools by which it can unfailingly accomplish its own extermination. That is the point in human destinies to which all the glories and toils of men have at last led them. They would do well to pause and ponder upon their new responsibilities. Death stands at attention, obedient, expectant, ready to serve, ready to shear away the peoples en masse; ready, if called on, to pulverise, without hope of repair, what is left of civilisation. He awaits only the word of command. He awaits it from a frail, bewildered being, long his victim, now—for one occasion only—his Master."
Memoirs of the Second World War
Written from the perspective of a politician and skilful tactician, his memoirs offer detailed descriptions of what it was like to lead a country during a war and underlines the high stakes of fighting for victory. He even went as far as justifying the barbaric violence of a war that was waged to protect democracy, insisting on the fact that sending countless soldiers to their deaths and killing other people en masse was not a light matter.
|At the sharp end
|En première ligne
|The high stakes
|Les grands enjeux
Becoming a poet
Some writers may also want to write their autobiographies to retrace the gradual process through which they became writers, highlighting their motivations, sources of inspirations and accomplishments.
The Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, co-author of the path-breaking Lyrical Ballads, wrote a peculiar poet's autobiography which is also a guide to reading and understanding his poems.
"During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbors, our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colors of imagination. […] In this idea originated the plan of the "Lyrical Ballads": in which it was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIV
Coleridge only wrote about himself as a poet, leaving the man on the side. Indeed, nothing significant transpires about his personal life or private thoughts. His aim is not to write about himself, but solely to portray himself as a Romantic, i.e. a genius endowed with the innate talent to see hidden beauty and meaning in the material world around him and to translate it into poetic language. Subjectivity is kept to a minimum to promote his vision of the poet and conception of poetry as the way forward. He insist that, to engage with poetry, readers have to agree to rely on their imaginations instead of listening to their reason. Another self-portrayal of the innovative and inspired genius poet can be found in Coleridge's famous poem "Kubla Khan: a Vision in a Dream," which will be dealt with further on.
|To be endowed with
|Être doté de
Mixing fact and fiction
Writers and artists can decide to use themselves and their lives as the main sources of inspiration for their books or movies, thus telling personal stories through the lens of fiction.
Oneself as an inspiration
Authors and filmmakers are known to have very eventful personal lives that represent ideal material to write novels or screenplays.
Many of them, like Woody Allen, have made it a habit and an art to act as fictional versions of themselves in their movies. One may think of Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) as illustrations.
Manhattan takes place with the rather closed circle of the pedantic New York elite Allen knew best because he was part of it. The story of a Jewish writer named Isaac Davis, who is divorcing his wife and seeing a teenage girl, echoes Allen's own life situation at the time he made this film. The analogy is made all the more obvious since Allen himself is performing the role of Davis. Allen's favourite stock character is that of the tormented artist going through existential crises, because he identifies with this archetype. The opening scene of the movie, in which Isaac Davis keeps rewriting the incipit of his new book, matches Allen's physical and psychological description.
He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat.'
I love this.
'New York was his town, and it always would be."
Woody Allen's key features are mentioned in these lines; the sentimental but no less manly womanizer, the unmissable pair of spectacles and the Big Apple, where most of his films take place. Whether the role as depicted reflects how Allen sees himself or would like to be seen is difficult to determine. Adapting one's own life to the screen can serve very different purposes, among which making fun of himself and the people around him. What could easily be seen as narcissism can also be interpreted as Allen's wish to avoid taking himself too seriously as an artist. Indeed, he seems to delight in ridiculing himself and the people around him, as if to suggest that he is not taking himself and his friends too seriously. I could also be a way of reinventing himself.
|Through the lens of
|Par le prisme de
|A stock character
|Un personnage type
|Un homme à femmes
Self-fiction consists in the transformation by the author himself of his or her life experiences into a fictional story or account. It is a type of fiction in which everything is at the same time entirely true and totally fictitious.
Charles Bukowski, for example, made a literary career out of transposing his life as a promiscuous alcoholic and politically incorrect outcast into novels. Bukowski mostly wrote about homeless pariahs, addicts and lecherous losers who like nothing better than to wallow in promiscuity and mediocrity. The places and characters' names might be different but the people and the situations are all adapted from real life, a conception of literature Bukowski vindicated in a letter.
"In my work, as a writer, I only photograph, in words, what I see. If I write of "sadism" it is because it exists, I didn't invent it, and if some terrible act occurs in my work it is because such things happen in our lives. I am not on the side of evil, if such a thing as evil abounds. In my writing I do not always agree with what occurs, nor do I linger in the mud for the sheer sake of it. Also, it is curious that the people who rail against my work seem to overlook the sections of it which entail joy and love and hope, and there are such sections. My days, my years, my life has seen up and downs, lights and darknesses. If I wrote only and continually of the "light" and never mentioned the other, then as an artist I would be a liar. Censorship is the tool of those who have the need to hide actualities from themselves and from others."
in Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience
© Shaun Usher, 2014
The autobiographical play Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams is closely based upon the playwright's own life. It deals with concealing one's homosexuality to avoid shaming one's family and with the lobotomy of his sister, who was considered a lunatic. The play is a cathartic attempt to come to terms with traumatic experiences.
|Porté sur le sexe
|To wallow in
|Se complaire dans
A writer's personal life can also be used as material to carry out literary experiments.
It is with the case of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, a novel written in the style of a biography. It recounts the life and quandaries of an Elizabethan poet who transformed into a woman overnight. The eponymous character was modelled after her lover, cross-dressing novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West. This daring story of gender transformation is set against the backdrop of Shakespeare's England, where it would have been quite impossible to succeed for a woman with literary aspirations or intellectual ambitions. That's what Virginia Woolf is demonstrating in her fictional biography, along with the fact that gender is a social construct. She makes it quite clear in a short demonstration about clothes, towards the end of the novel, when Orlando is beginning to realise that being a woman comes with quite a few impediments and limitations.
"Her modesty as to her writing, her vanity as to her person, her fears for her safety all seems to hint that what was said a short time ago about there being no change in Orlando the man and Orlando the woman, was ceasing to be altogether true. She was becoming a little more modest, as women are, of her brains, and a little more vain, as women are, of her person. Certain susceptibilities were asserting themselves, and others were diminishing. The change of clothes had, some philosophers will say, much to do with it. Vain trifles, as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world's view of us. […] Thus, there is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking."
The point Woolf is making is that no woman was born feminine, but taught to look and sound like a female ought to. Garments are symbolic of the societal strain on men and women, requiring them to behave in such ways as to fit a given society's standards at a given time. Through her sartorial metaphors, Woolf also shows that society imprisons females in representations of femininity that eventually defines them as women, whether they are aware of it or not.
|A strain on
Personalities and personae
Someone's personality is what defines them as individuals through specific psychological characteristics and traits. Performing artists, painters and poets often use personae, i.e. avatars, either to magnify or hide certain aspects of their personalities. They are making self-portraits, and sometimes they blur the lines of fiction and reality.
Avatars represent enhanced or imaginary versions of oneself which singers and poets when performing or writing.
Singers hardly ever show their true personalities, which they prefer to keep away from the limelight to distinguish between their public and private lives. This notwithstanding, singers' personae reflect some of who they are.
The English singer and songwriter Kate Bush, for instance, kept changing her style to reflect her musical compositions. She also enjoyed impersonating literary characters, like Catherine Earnshaw from Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Bush wrote a song based upon the novel, which soon became a hit that launched her career. Kate no doubt identified herself with Catherine's passionate and indomitable nature, as is evidenced by the following extract from the lyrics.
"Out on the wiley, windy moors
We'd roll and fall in green
You had a temper like my jealousy
Too hot, too greedy
How could you leave me
When I needed to possess you?
I hated you, I loved you, too
Bad dreams in the night
They told me I was going to lose the fight
Leave behind my wuthering, wuthering
Heathcliff, it's me, I'm Cathy
I've come home, I'm so cold
Let me in through your window"
© Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, 1978
One can't but underline the parallel between their two names, since Kate is short for Catherine. Being Catherine may have enabled Kate to express herself fully through her art, giving her sensitivity and impetuousness free rein. Being a performing artist means exploring and experimenting with one's personality. Avatars, albeit fictitious, can help them get closer to who they are deep down.
In 1973, the eccentric British singer and actor David Bowie created a character for himself; Ziggy Stardust fighting stellar wars was born on stage. He would remain Bowie's imaginary twin brother for five years. Acting as someone else enabled him to invent a new name and story for himself, thus leading a double life on stage and at home.
|Les feux de la rampe
|Incarner/usurper l'identité de
Poetry, which mostly tackles death, love and the passage of time, is often highly emotional. To write poetry is to write both for oneself and to other people, which implies having empathy.
It actually involves being able to put oneself in the shoes and minds of someone else whilst sharing very personal feelings or private thoughts. Poets have to be lovers, mourners and philosophers in order to lend their voices to other people. The poems that are the most famous and read are those which resonate with everyone's feelings and experiences. It is worth mentioning that poems are often read at weddings or funerals.
Shakespeare's sonnets are among mourners' and spouses' favourites, because they deal with love, desire and the transience of life. They were anonymously addressed to a fair young man and a dark woman, but are vaulted in such language as speaks timelessly to any reader. Shakespeare also partook of the poetic tradition of lamenting the passage of time to woo a young woman or persuade her to produce a child.
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter'd weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv'd thy beauty's use,
If thou couldst answer 'This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,'
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold."
Sonnet II presents readers with very graphic evocations of old age and death through metaphors ("deep trenches," "totter'd weed") and understatements ("thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold"), which is typical of the poetry of his time. Writing fashionable verse might have been a strategy for Shakespeare to gain legitimacy and recognition as a poet who didn't go to university, contrary to his fellow poets and rivals.
Coleridge's lengthy narrative poem "Kubla Khan: a Vision in a Dream" is a good example of the poet acting as inspired genius. The poem recounts how Kubla Khan represents the poet blessed with inspiration, as is evidenced by the following extract from the end of the poem.
"[…] A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there […]"
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"Kubla Khan: a Vision in a Dream"
|Le caractère éphémère de
|Couché (sur le papier)
|To partake of
|Ressortir à/s'inscrire dans
|To be blessed with
|Être doué de
Painters and photographers have always liked to represent themselves as individuals or as artists. Their self-portraits are like reflections in a mirror which reveal elements of their lives or personalities.
One of the chief goals of a painter representing himself is to show how he sees himself an artist, thus also conveying his conception of art.
Triple Self-Portrait, Norman Rockwell
In his Triple Self-Portrait, Norman Rockwell appears as a painter busy painting himself, giving viewers almost direct access to his studio. Indeed, it seems as if one was stumbling into his creative space to see the artist at work, like privileged witnesses to Rockwell's creative process in his holy of holies. And yet, Rockwell's aim rather to desacralize the artist, who strikes one as laid-back and relatable, wearing plain clothes and puffing at his pipe. There is also quite a lot of self-mocking humour in this self-portrait, which can be interpreted as Rockwell's wish to appear humble and not take himself too seriously as a painter. Although seemingly sketchy and unfinished, the painting was carefully organised by Rockwell to show three different aspects of himself – the painter, the patriot and the common man. One can identify three copies of famous artists' self-portraits in the top right-hand corner of the canvas. There is Dürer's, Rembrandt's and Van Gogh's, three artists considered to genius. Rockwell's decision to include them in his self-portrait can mean different things; he may have wanted to pay a tribute to former artists, or to acknowledge his sources of inspirations, or even to indicate that he regards himself as their equal. The eagle and the Star - Spangled Banner suggest that Rockwell also considers himself as an American painter, whose art and name are as emblematic of the US as Dürer, Rembrandt and Van Gogh are of theirs. In other words, Rockwell chose to represent himself as part of an artistic tradition, which he adapted to his own time and country, thus demonstrating that America too can boast its homegrown painters. The painting includes references to genuine American culture, like the rag and wallet stuffed in his back pocket in such a way as to make it look like a cowboy's gun. The open book on the chair on his left might be a reference to art history, of which he aspires to be part as an American artist.
Painting can get even more autobiographical than in self-portraits, which are meant to represent the artist, first and foremost. Sometimes, painters can choose to paint specific situations at key moments of their personal lives.
Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), David Hockney
David Hockney's Portrait of an Artist was made shortly after he broke up with the love of his life, Peter Schlesinger. Whether the sullen dressed man standing by the pool represents the latter or Hockney himself has not been ascertained yet. What is worth noting is that the painting is very impersonal; it could represent any pool and any two people in Los Angeles. The title further contributes to the painting's impersonality through which the painter perhaps wanted to put himself at a distance from his own life and feelings. The two men look like complete strangers who are unable to communicate, as is metaphorically conveyed by the fact that one is under water while the other is not. This painting could therefore be viewed as a representation of Hockney and Schlesinger as estranged lovers who have become worlds apart. In this respect, it might be Hockney's personal way of coming to terms with the end of his relationship, by trapping unhappy moments out of his mind in a canvas. The painting may even be construed as an artistic statement about the aim of art, which is not to express feelings or convey emotions. Art should aim at representing people and nature as objectively and accurately as possible, which in the case of Hockney's Portrait enabled the artists to keep grief and regrets at bay.
|The holy of holies
|Le saint des saints
|The Star-Spangled Banner
|Le drapeau américain
|To keep something at bay
|Garder à bonne distance
|To be construed as
|Être interprété comme
I is another: blurring the lines of fiction and reality
To draw a clear line between fiction and reality, writers have to distinguish the narrator and characters from themselves as real people. Indeed, the author belongs to the real world, whereas the voice telling the story and the characters are fictional. Yet, some novelists like to experiment with these distinctions in order to challenge readers' conceptions and expectations.
American novelist Paul Auster is famous for blurring the lines between fiction and reality, as in The New York Trilogy, in which the protagonist gets entangled in a real life investigation in search for a man named Paul Auster, who is not the actual Paul Auster. Here is an excerpt from the incipit.
It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. […] As for Quinn, there is little that need detain us. Who he was, where he came from, and what he did are of no great importance. We know, for example, that he was thirty-five years old. […] We also know that he wrote books. To be precise, we know that he wrote mystery novels. These works were written under the name of William Wilson. […]
"Hello?" said the voice.
"Who is this?" asked Quinn.
"Hello?" said the voice again.
"I'm listening," said Quinn. “Who is this?"
"Is this Paul Auster?" asked the voice. "I would like to speak to Mr. Paul Auster."
"There's no one here by that name."
"Paul Auster. Of the Auster Detective Agency."
"I'm sorry," said Quinn. "You must have the wrong number."
"This is a matter of utmost urgency," said the voice.
"There's nothing I can do for you," said Quinn. "There is no Paul Auster here."
The New York Trilogy
© Faber & Faber, 1987
Right from the start, readers are made aware that everything comes in pairs in this novel – authors, namesakes, cities. Mirror effects are created right from the start between fiction and reality, as if to show that each is part of the other. Auster himself has a fictional equivalent in the novel, in which he plays the role of a detective. Fiction in this respect is not so much about telling a made up story as a way of exploring realistic (self-)possibilities. It is like dressing up oneself and reality to make both resemble what they could be, if circumstances were different. In other words, fiction and novels serve to transform reality endlessly.