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Column: The confessional mode

August 18, 2013

Zulfikar Ghose is a poet, novelist and literary critic. Apart from criticism and poetry, he has also written many novels, including the trilogy The Incredible Brazilian. He is Professor Emeritus in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

Let me preface this essay concerning the writing of autobiography with a personal anecdote. The British publisher Routledge & Kegan Paul brought out my autobiography, Confessions of a Native-Alien, in 1965, when I had just turned 30. Here’s how it happened. In 1963, the art critic and poet Herbert Read, who was a director at Routledge, accepted my first book of poems, The Loss of India. He retired soon after sending me an acceptance letter and another director at Routledge, Colin Franklin, became my editor and invited me to his office. It was a momentous and awe-inspiring occasion for me, to be walking up Fleet Street, past Ludgate Circus, almost to the foot of St Paul’s Cathedral and going into a side street to Broadway House, the headquarters of Routledge & Kegan Paul. Franklin’s office was a like a drawing-room in a Dickens novel — gloomy, high-ceilinged, wing-backed chairs beside a fireplace where small flames sputtered from the glowing coals. During the conversation, when he had made some laudatory remarks about my book of poems and possibly because I was too nervous to say anything and he was merely trying to find something with which to make conversation, Franklin asked if I was writing some prose work that I might offer in the future. I was not, but, during the few seconds before I answered, images from some autobiographical prose I’d published three years earlier in The Twentieth Century flowed through my mind and became transformed into a beautiful book of prose that an instantaneous fantasy suggested would be accorded universal praise; and in the same few seconds, knowing that Routledge did not publish novels and the book had to be non-fiction, I remembered that they had recently published the autobiography of an African chieftain that had been well-reviewed in the Sunday papers and in that nanosecond it occurred to me that anything literary that an African chieftain could do I could do better, a thought that filled me with the thrilling expectation of a splendid success, and so a few seconds after Franklin asked if I had a prose work in hand, I said, “Why, yes, I’m writing an autobiography.” Complete lie. Came out just like that. And that’s the truth. He would be most interested to see it, he said. And so there I was: aged 28, with the dazzling prospect of a book, which I fantasised would be a work of lasting significance to stand with such other Routledge authors as Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung! There was one problem, however. What on earth was I to write about? My childhood in Sialkot, all seven years of it, could be summed up in a few words. I came, I saw, I sauntered. The succeeding 10 years in Bombay produced one image. I played cricket. At that rate, I would be a teenager by the end of page two. And little of exceptional interest had transpired in the remaining dozen years that could be stretched out to make a book that was not embarrassingly slim. However, something interesting had happened a few years earlier. I had travelled all over India and Pakistan as a cricket correspondent for The Observer with the English team’s 1961-62 tour. The experience had provided me with an enchanting vision of my native land that pulled at those invisible strings within my being that longed for an attachment; at the end of the cricket tour, I stayed on in the flat in Bombay where I’d grown up and, feeling the sharp pull of those invisible strings, wrote a poem called ‘The Mystique of Roots’. In it, the physical experience of having one’s throat constricted by dust becomes the symbolic image of the self being choked. The native imagery is felt to be overwhelming, and in that sensation of being made an outcast the poet yet hears a siren song that beckons him — “But who is this woman calls me lover?” He can only respond in a tone of stoic resignation, “I cannot begin / to love this woman who calls me lover,” and come to the tragic conclusion that these roots in their crust of earth carry worms. What I breathe is dust. First in Lahore, then in Bombay, my sense of being a native was countermanded by people who saw me as an outsider. Reflecting back on that tour of the subcontinent that took me from Rawalpindi to Madras and from Ahmedabad to Chittagong, gave me the theme for my autobiography: I was a native everywhere, and everywhere an alien. It occurred to me that that was the new human condition: the post-colonial migrations had begun — from Canada, across Europe and all the way to Australia, the world was being populated by native-aliens, and therefore the particular story of my life could be drawn to represent an existential significance that was universally applicable. And so I dived into the reservoir of images and memories of my 28 years and came up with those that could be elaborated into an interesting narrative or given that retrospective significance with which we re-cast the past to convert the random and largely meaningless chaos of existence into some impressively meaningful design that we like to think we were born to fulfill. This search for a pattern in one’s life is a driving impulse behind autobiographical expression, for human vanity demands that one’s life be seen to possess a special meaning. I realised then that to write an autobiography one does not recreate the past, but invents it. A first person narrative form in which the I transmitting a sequence of linguistic propositions that represent my memories is presumed to be recording historical truth because of the second implied presumption, that I am the exclusive witness of the events that comprise a knowledge of my past. The language of autobiography assumes for itself the authoritative privilege of conveying unquestionable truth though there is never any objective proof of the accuracy of the revelation. In order to keep the curious reader convinced and fascinated by the account of his secret life, the writer’s focus is not so much on the remembered facts as it is on the words being assembled so that the completed sentence will convey the appropriate confessional tone and impress the reader with the enviable singularity of the author’s experience. In any discourse, the reader’s or the auditor’s credence is influenced by the persuasiveness of the language, and that has less to do with any objective truth than with the style of the expression. It is always how an idea is expressed that makes it more or less convincing, as in a skilled performance of oratory where a speaker, as often is the case with priests delivering a fiery sermon, arouses a crowd’s passionate allegiance with deftly executed rhetorical flourishes while uttering propositions of questionable veracity. In writing one’s autobiography, one instinctively seeks out, and elaborates upon (even embellishes them a little) those incidents in one’s past that represent some larger uniting idea that gives one’s life the lustre of a uniquely distinctive meaning. Take one of the earliest autobiographies, The Confessions of St Augustine, that dates back to fourth century Italy, with its opening declaration, “For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee,” which establishes the core of the author’s theme which the whole book will proceed to demonstrate to be a proven truth. To arrive at that noble and pious goal, with its grand moral design, Augustine first recounts the days of his lustful immoral youth so that his subsequent conversion will seem to pulse with miraculous warmth and throb within the reader’s soul with admiration for his exemplary virtue. Augustine is, of course, seriously driven by his theological passion, but his is a familiar writer’s trick to introduce salacious content on the excuse that he cannot show supreme moral goodness without first giving you that lurid picture of immorality which will make the transformation to a life of impeccable virtue seem truly heroic. Augustine was not so explicit as some modern writers, but in his age there must have been erotic resonance to phrases like “the muddy concupiscence of the flesh” and “the fog of lustfulness.” But precisely because his purpose is so solemn and his mind so set on reaching the climactic mystical oneness with the deity, his Confessions acquires a preachy dullness that only the already converted will find interesting. Even the moment of beatific vision that he shares with his mother, that blinding inner flash when revelation is experienced as an explosion of light within the brain, is presented in general terms; perhaps a believer will find beauty in the line, “and we came to our own souls, and went beyond them,” but that is hardly a confessional statement that has any meaning. The formal framework of St Augustine’s Confessions outlines the template for autobiographers — Look how naughty I was in my youth and what a paragon of virtue after my conversion to the true faith. It became a pattern for novels in which the first person narrator, adopting the tone of unquestionable sincerity, makes the reader an excited voyeur and arouses hot prurient expectations with a vivid account of crime and sexuality before concluding with a wholesome moral that becomes the justification of the earlier violence. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders is a perfect example of a novel that exploits such a confessional mode. The 18th century reader had only to look at the title page where Defoe announces that his heroine was “Twelve Year a Whore, Five Times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother) Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and Died a Penitent,” for his eyes, staring at those italics, to begin to burn with anticipated excitement. Defoe is the master of the formula of presenting debauchery while pretending that his is a high moral purpose of providing the reader with a soul-cleansing message. His method is to pose as a disinterested editor who is innocently recording some real person’s autobiography, a Robinson Crusoe or a Moll Flanders, and if that life is full of sex and violence, it’s none of the editor’s business to sanitise the narrative. It’s not his fault that Moll was, as he says in his preface, “a Woman debauch’d from her Youth,” some parts of whose story are so racy they “cou’d not be modestly told,” though he has taken all “possible Care … to give no lewd Ideas” — a signal to the reader that says, Trust me, there will be lewdness aplenty. A hundred years later, it was enough to give Victorians the creeps. William Hazlitt, noting that “we find in this style of writing nothing but an alternation of religious horrors and raptures,” declared, “Moll Flanders is utterly vile and contemptible.” However, Defoe had his champions, including one of the most perceptive readers of literature, Virginia Woolf, who praised the sociological authenticity of his content and admired the imaginative force of his prose. The confessional style, where the author is a silent ventriloquist while an unreliable dummy presents a hyperbolic account of questionable goings-on, has been practiced by some eminent 20th century novelists. A notable example is Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. Some passages in Felix Krull read like an immature writer’s attempt to write soft porn — “…I was bent over her nakedness, so lightly veiled in linen and lace…,” she “took my hand…and guided it inside her décolletage…,” and the lady, feverishly undressing him, cries aloud, “…your divine limbs that I have been thirsting to behold since I first saw you.…Come to me, then, bienaimé! To me, to me….” And the besotted hero remarks, “Never was there a more articulate woman! It was poetry she uttered, nothing less.” Perhaps the original German is not so corny as the English translation, and since Mann died before finishing the novel perhaps what remained unwritten after the nearly 400 pages that he published would have saved it from being one long cliché of the confessional mode, right to its final sentences: “A whirlwind of primordial forces seized and bore me into the realm of ecstasy. And high and stormy, under my ardent caresses, stormier than at the Iberian game of blood, I saw the surging of that queenly bosom.” One woman utters bedroom banalities that are supposed to be heard as poetry, another heaves her bosom and sets off primordial forces, and the reader, supposedly seeing tornadoes and hurricanes and icebergs crashing against ocean liners on imagining that heaving bosom, is expected to exclaim, OMG this is awesome? Whatever Thomas Mann’s intention, his Felix Krull is an awful parody of the confessional mode, and the English translation gives the impression that the author is cynically writing for that huge audience of low-level readers whose intelligence has not advanced beyond adolescence and who, alas, still in the 21st century, constitute the majority of the buying public. In our supposedly enlightened age of puerile exhibitionistic sexting, such imbecilic writing still sells. The 21st century has seen the rise of the personal memoir, some celebrity’s kiss-and-tell, ghost-written account, which is little more than a consumer product aimed at that huge buying, and prying, public and which competes with novels written in the confessional mode. The best autobiography is not confessional at all but an imagistic recreation of those obsessive phantoms of one’s past that inhabit one’s memory, of which Nabokov’s Speak, Memory is one of the finest examples. Always a great enchanter whose prose conjures brilliant images with a magician’s deftness so that we find ourselves staring in amazement at a glittering three-dimensional world where most other writers would leave us gazing at a general mist, Nabokov’s autobiography recreates the wonderful paradise of his childhood on his aristocratic family’s estate in pre-Bolshevik Russia. But there’s no nostalgia here, none of that indulgent self-pity of your typical celebrity memoirist who fills the pages with gossip; and certainly none of that self-centred whining of a super-hyped inferior writer like Norman Mailer in his autobiographical work. In Nabokov, there is only the sharp focus of precise imagistic prose, the sentences producing a vivid slideshow in the reader’s imagination that conveys a profound understanding of the writer’s life without anything being said. In an early chapter, with the family at lunch, the boy Nabokov would see the father obliged to leave in the middle of the meal because some of his tenants had come with a petition. From where he sat, the boy could hear the murmur outside but not see the men. The petition granted, the men then carried out the national custom of together picking up the landlord, rocking him and then tossing him in the air where he floated up by himself and then catching him when he came down. Because the men throwing up the father were invisible from where the boy Nabokov sat, all he could see through a window was “a marvellous case of levitation”: “There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his wind-rippled white summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawling in midair, his limbs in a curiously casual attitude, his handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky.” The father would be sent floating up thrice, each time higher than the first. The 127-word sentence in which Nabokov describes that one moment of the father’s third ascent is the perfection of descriptive prose. The child Nabokov is struck by wonder to see his father “reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon,” and the man Nabokov writing the sentence many years later in his autobiography, introduces an ecclesiastical metaphor by comparing his father against the sky to a “paradisiac” personage painted on the ceiling of a church; and having thus created a montage in which the reader sees the father and the saintly figure as one in their ascension to heaven, Nabokov, as it were, holds the camera there a second and then slowly pans down to show an image in a church where candles “in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense,” then shows a priest chanting of “eternal repose,” and finally points the lens at the funeral lilies that conceal the face of the person “in the open coffin.” At the beginning of the sentence the father is up against the heavenly sky, and the final image is of an anonymous body being readied for burial. Life and death; paradise gained and lost; we are bathed in light and lowered into the hole of darkness. Nabokov has said nothing, only projected an image, and forever printed on the imagination of the reader all that there is to be said of the author’s own tormented self. A final confession: on glancing back at my opening anecdote, I realise how, for the sake of creating the right effect and to convey a sense of his self-importance, the autobiographer is an unreliable narrator who exploits an authoritative voice and gets away with untruth by making it sound like documented fact. The detail about walking up Fleet Street followed by the description of Colin Franklin’s office, comparing it to a drawing-room in a Dickens novel, sounds more like a novelist’s idea of creating ‘atmosphere’ to give dramatic resonance to his narrative than the recording of a fact. Essentially, that description is nonsense. There are many drawing-rooms in Dickens and to suggest they have a generic uniformity is plain wrong. That is a common type of descriptive writing, pretentious and false, and yet the speaker gets away with it because the auditor is impressed by the intimidating I-know-what-I’m-talking-about voice in which it is uttered and has no reason to question it. The fastidious old academic in me is offended if there has been a confusion of facts and the writing contains sentences of questionable usage in which stylistic manipulation projects an aura of definitive truth when a close examination shows the idea to be nonsense; on the other hand, the inventive novelist in me is quite happy to manipulate the style, because the novelist’s business is to create his own truth and not merely to record probable events, and he is indifferent to the placing of the facts as long as the expression in which they are presented conveys an imaginative and symbolically charged idea. The autobiographer’s principal concern is to create a narrative that confers significance to his life. And one accomplishes that by following Nabokov’s example in Speak, Memory: “I revised many passages and tried to do something about the amnesic defects of the original — blank spots, blurry areas, domains of dimness.” Perfect, and lovely, that phrasing, for its conception of one’s past being that is glimpsed in the distorting mirror, fragments which comprise the mosaic of memory. Reader, Nabokov could be describing the bewildering chaos you stare at when you review the parade of images you believe constitute your past and among which you try to identify that strange and slippery shadow, your self.