- Handbook of Autobiography/Autofiction Volume I: Theory and Concepts Volume II: HistoryVolume III: Exemplary Texts ed. by Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf
Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf, editor
De Gruyter, 2019, xl + 2180 pp. ISBN 9783110279719, $590.00 hardcover.
A pile of three heavy volumes containing 2180 pages all together is in front of us: a handbook concerning the genre of autobiography. The sole editor is Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf, well-known and intellectually well-equipped in this field of research, though “familiar mainly with the Western tradition of the genre,” as she notes at the very beginning of her preface (xv). The overall organization of the vast matter follows the tradition of splitting the access into “Theory and Concepts” (Vol. I) and “History” (Vol. II), supplemented by “Exemplary Texts” (Vol. III), which is by far the largest volume, comprising some 900 pages, with the aim of considering “plurality and heterogeneity as something positive and thrilling” (xviii). This volume contains content summaries, remarks on the historical origins, and analyses of “Exemplary Autobiographical/Autofictional Texts,” such as Augustine’s Confessions as well as Rousseau’s The Confessions, Montaigne’s Complete Essays and Goethe’s From My Life: Poetry and Truth, Kafka’s Letter to his Father, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Blixen’s Out of Africa, Elfriede Jelinek’s Sports Play, and J. M. Coetzee’s Boyhood and Youth. A few non-Western examples supplement the selection. Naturally, a massive undertaking such as this cannot be comprehensively reviewed by any one reviewer, and thus, we will focus on a few of the principal conceptual decisions behind this handbook. We will comment on some of the difficulties and inconsistencies that result from these decisions, and from the handbook format in general.
Overall, the handbook contains 165 articles, and it undoubtedly closes a major gap in the international research on autobiography. A look at the list of contributors may raise doubts as to whether the handbook has fulfilled its stated policy to “allow and necessitate intensive collaboration with autobiography researchers from all over the world” (xv). The almost ninety contributing scholars are based mainly at European universities—the vast majority in Germany—and some contributors are from the US and Australia, but hardly anyone is from another part of the world, which should be considered a missed opportunity, to say the least. This is largely, but not exclusively, the case for the second volume, which traces the roots of autobiography and autofiction (in addition to in Europe, Asia, and Australia) in “The Arab World” (Susanne Enderwitz, Heidelberg), “Africa” (Susanne Gehrmann, Berlin), “The Americas” (Ulrich Mücke, Hamburg, on Latin America), and in “Autobiography in the Globalized World“ (Gabrielle Rippl, Berne), a very brief final chapter. This is of course not meant as a comment on the qualifications of these internationally renowned scholars, but as a question of perspective and a challenge to a broader view on the subject. [End Page 805]
The Western tradition—the programmatic awareness “of this specific Western view when looking for authentic forms of the autobiographical in other cultures” (xvi)—certainly does not offer such a “specific view” as claimed. This is not the case in general, and particularly not with respect to the fundamental decision expressed in the title of the whole enterprise: that is, the decision to bypass the anglophone tradition of life writing, to neglect the genre of memoir, and to combine the term “autobiography” not with the broader term “autonarration” but with “autofiction.” Though “autofiction” sounds chic and may seem convincing at first glance, we need to dig in deeper here. The title of the handbook points towards a major issue with the project. It never becomes sufficiently clear how autofiction relates to autobiography, and if and how the concept could help further research on (auto) biography and life writing in general. Ultimately, it is not clear why autofiction is such an integral aspect of the handbook rather than the subject of a single chapter.
There are of course long-standing debates about the meaning and viability of the term “autofiction” (for example, Doubrovsky...