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Autobiography suffers from a missing chapter

“Everyone has a chapter they don’t read out loud.” (Anonymous)

Bob Dylan’s memoir might be as lyrical as his songs and offer fascinating insights about his arrival on the music scene in New York, but I couldn’t escape the sense that there was something missing. The Chronicles suffers an absence like that alluded to in the anonymous quote above, the chapter that remains unspoken. It is a natural hazard of autobiography; who, after all, wants to reveal all their secrets – their most shameful of thoughts and selfish of motives – for all to read?

It is often the chapter that is missing from non-fiction that can be included in fiction, making it so much more compelling. As writers construct characters, the whole person, flaws and all, can be exposed to the reader. These flaws help create a believable, authentic character, which would be impossible to evoke in autobiography – the flaws or missing chapters are either too shameful to mention in a non-fiction form, or buried too far beneath the consciousness of the subject to be excavated and acknowledged.

In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, it was the main character, Dorrigo Evans’s flaws that made him so fascinating. While Dorrigo was a war hero, based on a real person but written with the freedoms of fiction, his philandering and discontent in peace time made him a rounded, complex figure – far from the caricature of a soldier with which we are so familiar.

Equally fascinating was the honest and devastating was the description of another soldier in the same novel, who was brought up with the proud sense of being a ‘leader’. Devastatingly, he discovered that under the pressures of a Prisoner of War camp, he was no such leader. The resulting sense of disappointment is poignant and somehow familiar – reminiscent of the dawning realisation of your own smallness in the face of the wider world that occurs during most people’s journey into adulthood.

Flawed individuals are usually as the centre of Philip Roth and John Updike’s novels. There are unfaithful spouses, vindictive colleagues and deceitful friends. Characters familiar with humiliation and hubris. Some of their darkest thoughts are exposed by the writer, and devoured by the reader. They are secret worlds of thoughts and behaviours that make the characters interesting, complex and real.

In Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, while there seem to be two characters who behave immorally, breaking the families apart, many of the characters have their own shame. Apart from the initial betrayal, even the betray each other and their parents. All are victims and perpetrators. Devoted mothers occasionally neglect their children, siblings are complicit in a deadly secret and a husband habitually chooses the office and romantic flings over his wife and children. All occur in the familiar setting of everyday family life, with its accompanying boredom, tensions and intimacies.

The complexity of characters in each of these books helps readers identify with their stories. Humans are rarely the entirely moral or ‘good’ people, without prejudice or bias, they might portray themselves as being. Even subconsciously, in a place rarely explored and never broadcast, they have doubts about their own perfect goodness and compassion. Those who help others are not entirely without self-interest, and those who we consider to be considerate and kind are not without their own petty jealousies, irritations and aversions.

And this inner truth, however unpalatable or uncomfortable, is one of the reasons that many love fiction. Readers are exposed to thoughts that would never be uttered in polite conversation, but which reside in the reader’s own conscience, buried and dormant, but undoubtedly present.

It is a strange truth that fiction can reveal more about a writer than autobiography, which is ostensibly the writer’s own story. In his appearance at The Wheeler Centre, Jonathan Franzen spoke about the sense of exposure of his stories, saying that writers have to be willing to shine a light on their own shame.

However, not all great fiction centres on a character of ambiguous morality. Sometimes, the appeal of a story lies in the comforting ‘goodness’ of the central character, as they rise above those who behave less nobly. In Jane Eyre, the protagonist is decidedly ‘good’. Clever, noble and moral, her choices are guided by an inner sense of right and wrong, although she sometimes judges herself more harshly. Part of the appeal of the book is due to the sense that Jane’s superior morality ultimately triumphs over the cruelty of her aunt and housemaster.

And so, the autobiographer take the uncomfortable position as being some part hero for the truths they are willing to reveal, another part cowardly in their inability to expose their shame. And who can blame them? Few of us would like our worst thoughts and behaviours laid bare, in the way that it would be in autobiography.

This is why I have rarely fallen for autobiography. While I enjoyed reading Dylan’s memoirs, just as Jane Eyre was lovely, I prefer my characters to be admirable, but flawed – humanly imperfect. After all, outside of fairy tales, people rarely fall neatly into categories of good or bad, saintly or evil. And if they seem to, usually it is because they have kept a chapter hidden.

And often, it is that chapter that is the most interesting of all.

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