It is well known that those who write autobiographies tell us that they base them on their personal lives. But is it really so? Are they open and honest in telling us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Whether they believe they do – and whether we believe them! – do they really remember, in detail, many of the wide-range experiences they tell us about in their autobiography? Memory, we all know, is selective, and based, in part at least, on our perception. All these raise the question, what is fact and what is fiction in a writer’s autobiography…
It is not only with autobiographies that the line between fact and fiction is often blurred. It is so also in fiction, when the author claims to not consciously intending to include autobiographical elements in the novel/story. But is it really so? And does it make any difference?
The “connection” a writer feels with another writer whose biography he writes: Stefan Zweig‘s biography of Honoré de Balzac
Not only fiction and facts are often blurred in an author’s writing; at times there is also a blur between a biography an author writes about someone else to the author’s own life. Such, for example, is Stefan Zweig‘s (1881 – 1942) biography of the French writer Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). This biography (published by Viking Press in 1946) has, according to some literately critics, elements of Zweig’s own autobiography as well.
However, only readers who are well knowledgeable about the life of these two writers can identify these elements and take pleasure in seeing the similarities – as well as differences – in the lives of these two authors.
Feelings of “affiliation” a writer feels with another writer whose biography she writes: Tatiana de Rosnay’s biography of Daphne du Maurier
Another case of interest we can find in Tatiana de Rosnay’s biography of Daphne du Maurier (1907 – 1989). Tatiana de Rosnay (author of “Sarah’s Key”, 2008), states that some of what has driven her to write a biography of Daphne du Maurier (titled: “Manderley for Ever”, 2015) is some affiliation she felt with the famous British writer.
Does such a feeling of “affiliation” make the book more “personal” to the writer and therefore a “better” one?
Did it happen or was it a dream?
A good example of the fact that autobiographical elements and fiction are intermingled with one another can be seen first-hand in Pablo Neruda‘s speech he gave while receiving the Nobel Prise for Literature in 1971. Neruda (1904 – 1973), a Chilean poet and politicos recalled his escape from Chile to Argentina in 1948, when President González Videla outlawed communism in Chile and issued a warrant for Neruda’s arrest (due to his political ideology). Neruda escaped through a mountain- pass to Argentina.
In his Nobel Prise speech Neruda told how he escaped on horse-back and in the snow, adding that he doesn’t know anymore whether this story actually happened, whether he dreamt it or twisted it during his writing. But, he added, this doesn’t really matter!
Autobiographical elements in spy – and other – novels
The same holds true to John le Carré, the British Author of such well-known books as “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (1963). One of his later books (“A Perfect Spy”, 1986) – as the author himself admits – is considered to be his most autobiographical novel, a large part of which is a somewhat a disguised account of le Carré’s own early life as an intelligence officer for MI6, the British intelligence service.
Some literary critics note that some of the book’s characters have a striking resemblance to le Carré’s own life: Magnus Pym, for example, reminds of experiences Carré himself has experienced early in his life; and Rick Pym, the father of Magnus in the novel, has a striking resemblance to Carré own father (John le Carré just-published autobiography: “The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life”, Viking, 2016, provides more examples).
But does it make any difference to the reader knowing that a book and/or a character are based on some of le Carre’s own experiences? Does it give it more credibility? We can assume that the answer is NO; that most readers don’t have the slightest idea that there are some autobiographical elements in this – and other -books – and still enjoy reading them.
John Cleese’s autobiography: An Example of Conscious Creativity?
John Cleese‘s autobiography (John Cleese: “So, Anyway… “, 2014) impresses upon us the notion that Cleese’s autobiography is being told with uttermost awareness, authenticity and honesty.
Telling about his life in a chronological order, Cleese comes across as a person who is aware of himself; who tells things “as they are”, a person who doesn’t hesitate to speak up his mind even when knowing that others won’t like hearing what he has to say, a person who feels there is no need for him to “fictionalize” elements in his autobiography in order to either glorify his life or impress upon us his unfortunate experiences.
This being the case, Cleese’s autobiography is different from other books in the sense that it does not mingle and blurs fiction and autobiographical elements, but rather tells about his life as is. As such, Cleese is successful in portraying himself as ‘”who he really is”, which is a compliment not all writers of autobiographies can enjoy.
The conscious or unconscious autobiographical elements in a creator’s art
It is interesting to note that not only books, but many other works of creation – be these films, paintings, photographs and the like – are also based, at least in part, on segments of the creator’s autobiography, whether the creator does it consciously or unconsciously.
This, for example, is the case with the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar (born in 1949) who is considered the most important movie director after Luis Bunuel and known as “the king of the Spanish melodrama” (having produced by now 23 movies).
Almodovar has never written an autobiography, and has never authorized anyone to write his biography. While in Cannes in 2016, for the premier of his new movie Julieta, he said that those who wish to understand his life must look at the characters portrayed in his diverse films, since they are the ones forming the thread of his life.
Same holds true with (some of) Woody Allen‘s films, which are based – many claim – on his own (neurotic) personality.
At times Allen, very consciously, decides to create a film based on a real person. Such is the case in Annie Hall (1977). In her autobiographical book “Then Again” (2011) Diane Keaton tells, among other, that Allen has consciously written and directed Annie Hall (1977) based on her.
What is there for us, the readers?
As readers, it often doesn’t make any difference to us whether the novel/story/film is based, in part, of some elements of the writer’s own life and experiences. Nor does it make any difference to us whether a biography written by a writer includes autobiographical elements of the writer himself/herself.
What are important to us are questions related to the quality of the writing; the attractive power of the book; and, at times, its relevancy to our own life.
Would we regard a fictional book as “better” when we know it is based on (some) autobiographical elements of the author? Would we then regard it as more credible?
And would we consider a biography to be more or less credible knowing that the writer has blurred in with some of his/her own autobiographical elements?
This is doubtful.
After all a book – whether fiction, biography or autobiography – stands on its own merit; its quality of style; characters’ development; its scenes, descriptions and dialogues.
At the end, what we the readers bring with us to the reading – our life experiences, our perceptions, our critical eye and our literary taste – all of these, consciously and/or unconsciously, determine the impact a book has on us, the emotions it arises in us while reading, and the after-thoughts that continue to follow us.