Histories of autobiographical writing traditionally point to a few key works to describe the emergence of a particular kind of narrative in which the author describes their own life, usually in terms of some idea of development – works like Augustine’s Confessions (ca. 400CE), or Rousseau’s Confessions (1782), or Wordsworth’s The Prelude or, Growth of a Poet's Mind; An Autobiographical Poem (1850), or, in fiction, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847).
But of course there are many works involved in conveying the experience of having lived that don’t conform to such a tidy history. In the words of the American literary scholar Patricia Meyer Spacks, ‘the crucial literary problem of autobiography is to articulate a significant form for the relative incoherence of human experience’, and I’ve been enjoying recently two experiments in something like autobiographical writing, by Sean Ashton, and Joe Brainard.
Sean Ashton’s addictive Living in a Land (MA BIBLIOTHEQUE, 2017) is a kind of autobiography, or autobiographical novel, told entirely through negative statements. The things never done, rather than the things achieved – although, immediately as the book proceeds, those two categories begin to blur. It is a life implied, like an intaglio print, by the things that are not there. Here are some of its inclusions.
I’ve never had to change a tyre.
I’ve never had to change a tyre on a car or a washer on a tap.
I’ve never had to trim the wick on a candle or go down downstairs to locate the fuse box with a torch when the lights trip.
I’ve never felt misery.
I’ve never been south of the Equator.
I have never taken a phone call from an uncle I hardly know just as we’re about to sit down to dinner or in front of the TV.
I’ve never stinted on the garlic.
I have never been handed a broken toy.
I have never dieted or bulked up.
Ashton’s book makes us think hard about how negative statements work. Litotes (from the Greek litos, meaning ‘plain, meagre’) is the rhetorical term for the form of understatement in which something is asserted by the denial of its negative. Thomas More (1478-1535) was particularly fond of it, since it lends itself to irony and an unsettling of what we think we’re being told. In his unfinished History of King Richard III, More tell is that Richard ‘lacked not in helping his brother Clarence to his death’, and that he was prone to ‘not omitting to kiss whom he thought to kill’. Ashton’s book runs and runs with a version of this form, conjuring something by the denial of its presence, demonstrating just how generative negative statements are: for something to be denied, it needs first to be invoked, and so Ashton’s litany of things not done is also a list of ghosts of things that might have been done, or have been done in another version of Ashton’s life.
I Remember (1970) by the prolific American artist Joe Brainard (1942-94) is a memoir of Brainard’s childhood in Oklahoma in the 1940s and 1950s, and of his years in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. The book is a list of memories, each memory short and introduced with the phrase ‘I remember’. The specificity of each means they conjure vividly a lost moment, and a lost era: the feeling on reading is of something miraculously pulled from the past, but also of loss (how much else has gone?). It’s a great form to write with: George Perec’s Je me souviens was inspired by Brainard’s book, and poet Kenneth Koch used the ‘I remember …’ structure in the 1970s in Manhattan elementary schools to get children writing poetry without realizing they were writing poetry. As Brainard himself said, ‘I feel very much like God writing the Bible. I mean, I feel I am not really writing it but that it is because of me that it is being written.’ Here are some of his entries.
I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.
I remember how much I cried seeing South Pacific (the movie) three times.
I remember how good a glass of water can taste after a dish of ice cream.
I remember when I got a five-year pin for not missing a single morning of Sunday School for five years. (Methodist.)
I remember when I went to a ‘come as your favorite person’ party as Marilyn Monroe.
I remember one of the first things I remember. An icebox. (As opposed to a refrigerator.)
I remember white margarine in a plastic bag. And a little package of orange powder. You put the orange powder in the bag with the margarine and you squeezed it all around until the margarine became yellow.
I remember how much I used to stutter.
As so often, it seems, the religious thinkers got there first: there's a long tradition of the mystical "via negativa", a.k.a. apophatic or negative theology i.e. defining the Divine by what it is not (pretty much anything you can think of, I'd have thought).
"Like an intaglio print" seems an odd comparison: perhaps "like an intaglio plate"?