Slippery truth about biography

Concluding our series on the relationship between fact and fiction to mark Jewish Book Week, biographer Anne Sebba considers the blurring of truth that occurs not only in the ghosted celebrity memoir, but in literary autobiography and even in diaries.

By Anne Sebba, February 18, 2009
Sebba: “letters are the most reliable source”.

Sebba: “letters are the most reliable source”.

It used to be simple: there was fiction and there was non-fiction. No longer. Now there is bio-fiction and there is imagined biography. There are novels based on true stories and edited writers’ notebooks as well as celebrity or ghostwritten memoirs, diaries and still the occasional straightforward biography. Or, should that actually be, the occasional biography written backwards?

But, as the lines blur between genres, it seems reasonable to ask “what can the reader trust?”. Am I reading a factual account — to call it the truth is perhaps a step too far — or is this a writerly version of events that may have happened, but perhaps not in the order being described and with invented dialogue and emphasis? It certainly makes a better story this way. Hey! It would also make a brilliant film.

Everybody, not just writers, learns to exaggerate or embroider the stories they tell. The need to impose shape on otherwise-unruly lives is learnt as children, recounting to adults what happened, discover a need not merely to embellish their own role in events but to try to make sense of them. As a biographer, I know it is not merely the selection of words that counts but the selection of material and the life experiences of the narrator, which means no biography can be subjective. Amanda Foreman, author of the bestselling Georgiana, commented recently that if she wrote that book now that she herself was a mother, she would deal more sympathetically with her subject’s perceived maternal shortcomings. An attempt at responsibility is perhaps the best that can be offered.

When I am writing about other people’s lives, I find diaries, too often crafted with an eye to posterity, a less reliable source than letters, usually intended for one reader only. Holocaust diaries, since the expectation of publication was extremely low, fall into a different category and Simone Weil rightly describes Hélène Berr’s Journal as a powerful historical document.

But, having recognised that no biography or autobiography can ever be 100 per cent truthful, is it time for a wholesale reappraisal of the genre, or simply to offer a health warning?

Amos Oz, one of the world’s great storytellers, produced one of the most powerful and searingly honest autobiographies imaginable. Nonetheless he states at the outset of A Tale of Love and Darkness: “Facts have a tendency to obscure the truth.” Yet what could be more important to tell truthfully than the story of your parents’ lives, especially when it involves a mother’s suicide? For years Oz refused to use his mother’s life as literary capital. But in writing A Tale — far too rich a pudding to be labelled simply autobiography — he has created a tribute to his mother, but at no small cost to his father. His mother made him the writer he is. His mother’s stories were, Oz says, “nothing like stories told in other homes… [they] emerged from the undergrowth, appeared for a while arousing alienation or pangs of fear, moved in front of me for a few moments like distorted shadows on the wall, amazed me, sometimes sent shivers up my spine…”

It’s a brilliant account of the creation of a writer, paralleled by the story of the creation of a state; a history book as much as an autobiography. Oz uses vignettes from his life to explain how this clever little boy, left alone for long periods, learned to invent stories about passers-by. It is this variety of stories that make up Israel.

But, remember, what seems effortless and artless has been digested for years by a man who is a professor of literature, a man whose father wrote scholarly books which demanded sources and footnotes. He envied his son “the novelist’s freedom to write as he wished”. While the son, at the same time as railing at his father’s failures, envies his not having to create from nowhere the hook to seduce a stranger into your book and make her stay.

Oz knows how to seduce his readers and his autobiography — wonderful, wonderful though it is — owes a little more to his fictional powers than might at first seem apparent. This is the book he has waited since childhood to write. Rescuing his mother from the flames that engulfed her is his lasting fantasy. “I have the feeling that my mother wanted me to grow up to express the things that she had been unable to express,” he says.

Beware a writer in the family. One day they may write about you and — to paraphrase Winston Churchill — it will be their version that survives.

Featured at Jewish Book Week:

Teaching Distance by Rebecca Abrams (novel based on a true story); Ticks and Crosses by Frederic Raphael (writers’ notebooks); Journal by Hélène Berr (diaries); Chagall: Life, Art and Exile by Jackie Wullshlager (biography); The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado (memoir/reportage). On February 22, Anne Sebba will chair a JBW discussion at the launch of World Jewish Relief’s first short-story collection. On February 25, Mariette Job, Hélène Berr’s niece, will talk about her aunt’s memoirs. Anne Sebba’s most recent book is Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother (John Murray, £8.99)

Last updated: 11:56am, March 31 2009