- Autobiography as Fiction:The Example of Stop-time
Each moment is autonomous. Neither vengeance nor pardon nor prisons nor oblivion can modify the invulnerable past.—Jorge Luis Borges "A New Refutation of Time"
Sartre is no doubt right, at least in philosophical terms, in stressing the difference between living one's life and viewing it from the outside as if it were a work of art. To treat oneself, while alive, in a definitive or posthumous manner, to endow one's existence with the finality of a completed artifact, signifies a denial of life. One must be either inside or outside—one cannot be both.1 When the life in question is cast in the form of autobiography, the disjunction between living and telling becomes even more acute. As Sartre himself discovered, the task of recalling one's [End Page 621] life in narrative can breed a sense of inevitability bordering on death; or as he puts it in regard to autobiographical narration in Les Mots, in order to tell his story in terms of the meaning it would acquire only at the end, "I became my own obituary" (171). So strong an aversion to premature burial may seem excessive to some, but it clearly anticipates a recurrent theme of many subsequent theorists: namely, the idea that autobiographical accounts are never written at random but always "in reverse," from a narrative perspective securely rooted in the writer's present. Insofar as any autobiography is, in Barrett Mandel's phrase, "full of life now," it is a life already transformed by the structuring presence of its anticipated end—whether the end is a religious one like Augustine's or Newman's, a cultural one like Henry Adams', an aesthetic one like Henry James's, or a racial one like Malcolm X's.2
The rigorously retrospective nature of autobiographical narrative has, in fact, proven to be immensely problematic in more recent times. Whether due to conscious disaffection or simply a natural desire to experiment, a growing number of writers have turned away from the "omnivorous teleology"3 of traditional autobiography, preferring instead a narrative medium more closely attuned to the casual, indeterminate, open-ended rhythms of everyday life. They have eschewed the obligations and imperatives of a fully realized, and often hopelessly idealized, self-portrait in favor of a new openness to the gratuitous complexities of existence. Thus, for example, as Alfred Kazin noted, there emerged in the Sixties a new kind of narrative—"very characteristic of our period and usually written by novelists or poets" ("Autobiography" 211)—that sought to harmonize the compulsive self-searching of the autobiographer with the mimetic freedom of the creative writer. In books like Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, Nabokov's Speak, Memory, Dahlberg's Because I Was Flesh, Colette's My Mother's House and The Blue Lantern, Lowell's Life Studies, and Welch's Maiden Voyage (not to mention Kazin's own A Walker in the City ), the act of writing autobiography is no longer tied to a sense of heroic fate or historical destiny. Nor does the author portray himself as a sovereign or essential presence situated at the still center of his recollected world. Employing many of the artifices of fiction, these new works of "autobiography-as-narrative," as Kazin called them, attempted to recreate the self in the full concreteness of its daily movements, almost as an entity among entities—like the Paris weather in Hemingway's memoir or the Crimean landscape in Nabokov's.
Although they are often considered novels,4 the autobiographical narratives [End Page 622] of Frank Conroy, Frederick Exley, Paul Zweig, Ronald Sukenick, and others continue this concretizing process—infusing the autobiographical self with a mobility and discreteness unprecedented in nonfictional prose. In doing so, they extend the autobiographical enterprise into a border area that we might call autobiography-as-fiction: a kind of generic noman's land inhabited by authors who are uneasy with the end-determined structure of autobiography but who are nonetheless resolved to treat the self as a literary subject worthy of sustained exploration and significant form. (For reasons that will become clear, autobiography-as-fiction seems a...