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  • Self Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature
  • Peter Nicholls (bio)
Max Saunders . Self Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. xi + 563 pp. ISBN 978-0199579761, $95.00.

"I am convinced," wrote Nietzsche, "of the phenomenalism of the inner world also: everything that reaches our consciousness is utterly and completely adjusted, simplified, schematised, interpreted—-the actual process of inner 'perception', the relation of causes between thoughts, feelings, desires, between subject and object, is absolutely concealed from us, and may be purely imaginary."

Max Saunders's use of this passage from Will to Power as an epigraph for his voluminous study succinctly alerts us to the complexities and opacities of that "inner world" whose literary presentations he will trace from the late Victorian period into our own. That world is a constant puzzle, seeming on the one hand, as Nietzsche says, "absolutely concealed from us" while on the other intermittently announcing itself where we had least expected to find it. Saunders signals the apparent paradox by aligning the passage from Nietzsche with another from Oscar Wilde, who reminds us in The Picture of Dorian Gray that "every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter." All art, then, is a species of autobiography, displaying the inner life of the artist whether s/he wishes it or no.

The story of the move from forms of realism to what we now think of as modernism and postmodernism is thus in one sense the story of ever-intensifying genre confusion. Biography and autobiography, for example, cohabit more closely than their terminological separation might imply. Laura Marcus some time ago added an eloquent slash to "auto/biography" to mark this play of intimacy and distance, while Max Saunders in Self Impression points us toward an even more complicated hybridity in his use of the deliberately rebarbative term "autobiografiction." It is not, he hastens to tell us, his own coinage. The late Charles Swann deployed it to telling effect in his 2001 discussion of Mark Rutherford, for example, but "autobiografiction," Saunders [End Page 528] has discovered, was actually being used as early as 1906 in an essay with just that title by the now forgotten novelist and critic Stephen Reynolds.

Saunders notes that Reynolds tended to see this composite genre as the vehicle of spiritual experience, but the usage in Self Impression is predictably wider, referring to the many ways in which modern writing has discovered its distinctive forms through a persistent troubling of generic boundaries. What is involved, he argues, is primarily a literary or formal relationship: "that between fiction and a self's autobiography, rather than between fiction and a self." Increasingly, life writing consorts with fiction, and it does so, Saunders proposes, through the medium of impressionism. Here the primary point of reference is the writing of Walter Pater, to whom Saunders rightly accords his full due as a proto-modernist. For Pater, "all our knowledge and perceptions of anything are autobiography," and from this point of view writing necessarily exhibits a certain discontinuity since its primary ambition is always to enact "that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves."

Pater's Imaginary Portraits provided highly influential prototypes for the discontinuous modern self, though the lineage would often be obscure to the modernists themselves because clouded by their distaste for the elegiac pathos that pervaded Pater's impressionism (he was quite unable, says Saunders, "to think of himself other than in terms of autobiographical retrospect or elegy"). Yet the "perpetual weaving" of life writing and fiction that Pater developed provided a principal means by which modernism was able to break with dominant Victorian literary modes. The early poems of Pound and Eliot have their roots in the Imaginary Portraits, Saunders argues, "because the poems give us an interior, visionary world, rather than the dramatized utterance of the Victorian dramatic monologue." The key recognition here is that fiction does not destroy the ground of autobiographical "truth" but actually enriches it. Of course, this enrichment may be a partly defensive move, and as the concept of the "inner life" came to be determined...


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