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  • Life-Writing, 1870-1930
  • Alistair M. Duckworth, Professor Emeritus
Max Saunders . Self Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xi + 563 pp. $95.00 £50.00

Max Saunders's hugely ambitious study of English literature in transition from the 1870s to the 1930s will be of great interest to readers of this journal. Saunders is the author of a distinguished two-volume biography of Ford Madox Ford and Co-Director of the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King's College, London. Not surprisingly, he places life-writing at the center of his redefinition of modern literature: "far from negating life-writing, modernism constantly engages with it dialectically, rejecting it in order to assimilate and transform it." He is not the first, of course, to take issue with high modernism's definition of itself as objective and impersonal. Progressive, queer, and feminist critics have discovered reactionary politics, homophobia, and misogyny in the "masculinist" writings of Eliot, Hulme, Pound and Wyndham Lewis. Saunders's book is not an ideological critique of modernism, however, but a breathtakingly comprehensive study whose methodology might be described as a combination of formalist analysis and literary history written from a postmodernist point of view.

Denying that an epistemological break occurred between the fin de siècle and modernist periods, Saunders argues for continuity. There is, he writes, "a clear line from Pater's self-unweaving to the modernist fragmentation of subjectivity in Joyce's imaginary self-portrait as Stephen Dedalus, Eliot's as Tiresias in 'The Waste Land,' or Pound's as both 'E. P.' and 'Mauberley' in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley." Other signature features of modernism, such as stream of consciousness and the epiphany, have precedents in Pater, while the unreliable narrator can be found in William Hale White's pseudonymous The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford (1881) and premodernist experiments in life-writing in A. C. Benson's anonymous The House of Quiet: An Autobiography (1904), supposedly edited by "J. T." [End Page 539]

Self Impression has two parts, each containing six long chapters. The first part treats Pater, Ruskin, Proust, "Mark Rutherford," Gissing, Gosse, Butler, and others before turning to equally detailed discussions of such modernist figures as James, Conrad, Ford, Joyce, and Stein. Chapter six ("Literary Impressionism and Impressionist Autobiographies") inserts the author's long-held brief for a term wrongly excluded, in his view, from definitions of modernism. Not afraid of inter-art comparisons (Pater with Monet, for example), Saunders argues that Impressionism is not only the fundamental antecedent of modernism, but its ground. The second part treats major figures such as Joyce (again), Stein (again), Pound, Wyndham Lewis and Woolf, and minor figures such as Richard Aldington and Harold Nicolson. Chapter seven ("Heteronymity I: Imaginary Authorship and Imaginary Autobiography") ventures beyond literature written in English to include discussions of Fernando Pessoa's heteronyms and Italo Svevo's La Coscienza di Zeno (1930), while chapter twelve ("After-Lives: Postmodern Experiments in Meta-Auto/biografiction: Sartre, Nabokov, Lessing, Byatt") takes the study's themes beyond the modernist period. A long introduction and conclusion, in which Saunders seeks to give theoretical coherence and unity to his multifarious material, serve as bookends.

Recognizing the "explosion of literary activity where the borders between autobiography, biography, and fiction intersect," Saunders aims to compose "a taxonomy of the varieties of modern transformations of life-writing." Fundamental to this enterprise is the concept of "autobiografiction" which, "as well as being a name for works which hybridize autobiography and fiction, might also provide a name for the system which locks autobiography and fiction together, in order to claim to keep them apart." This system enables discourses such as imaginary portraits, autobiographies of a fictionalized, aesthetic, or impressionist kind, the Künstlerroman, and mock or fake life-writings; it also accommodates a variety of authorial identities: pseudonymity, heteronymity, anonymity, "third personality," initialization.

Readers may differ on the degree of acceptance they accord to Saunders's proliferating divisions and subdivisions. Encountering seven types of autobiografiction (219-32), or eight aesthetic dimensions of fictional utterances (340), or four broad types of fictional creativity, "each of which could be further divided" (344-48), some may be...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 539-544
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-14
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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