On facts, fiction and the autobiography by Miranda Doyle

The Book of Untruths will be published on 1st JuneAutobiography is an impossibly difficult genre to define. It overlaps with so much else: fiction; faction; autobiographical novels; creative non-fiction.

So in 1975 Phillippe Lejeune tried to set out the stall for first person non-fiction with his ‘autobiographical pact’. He wanted to bolster the line libraries still hold hard to, in order to protect the facts. His definition hinges upon the explicit demand that author, narrator and protagonist be the same. Particularly that the self named on the cover and the self living on the page are one.

Which is what makes Donna Payne’s cover design for my own autobiography A Book of Untruths so perfect. Apart from being the most succinct expression of my self that there is, it reflects the difficulties memoir poses. Any memoirist is split between the I who is writing and the I who is. Under these circumstances, with the writer watching his or her self swimming behind glass, can a memoir still be ‘true’?

A writer’s promise to tell the truth

The most important element behind Lejeune’s pact though, and why it is called a pact, is the promise. The promise the writer is making to the reader to try their best to tell the truth. It is a criterion about which I can feel more confident. Systematically not believed, and comprehensively lied to, I am left with an enormous anxiety that I cannot be trusted with the truth. Which has meant that this book has been written with the same fastidiousness as if I were asked to defend it in court. In the months before I circulated the manuscript to my brothers I barely slept.

Yet necessarily they too, as characters, are another glaring fib. They live on the page as they never lived in life. My brothers have different narratives than those I have written down, and would have told these stories differently had they been given the opportunity to tell them themselves.


Miranda Doyle with her father and brothers
Miranda Doyle as a child with her father and brothers


The weakness of memory

Added to this is the foundational weakness of the form – memory. Memory is not an issue that Lejeune raises in his definition, but one that he has been preoccupied with in his own research. Speaking at a conference in London this autobiographical border guard relayed how the French memoirist and writer, Georges Perec, had bequeathed to him the most exciting exploration of narrative memory that there is. Perec had chosen the same day each year, and the same hour, and each time he sat down to write, he rehearsed the same event, sealing each one individually into envelopes. He then gifted these to Lejeune. A working proof of how consolidation and omission transmute memories into the stories we like to tell.

The front cover image for On Autobiography by Philippe Lejeune
On Autobiography by Philippe Lejeune

The final impediment when we write a life must be the physical book itself – a confinement that belies it. There is often so much that is omitted from that life, out of choice, or simply to minimise the risk of defamation, that autobiography and memoir cannot be ‘true’. So in an attempt to fess up to these omissions, and lapses in memory, A Book of Untruths oozes with extra lies and extra truths at another location, online.

This life, told through its lies, is an attempt to make explicit the debauchery we’re dealing with when we talk about memoir. Is it fact or is it fiction? Is Lejeune’s pact enough to hold all these falsehoods back? Probably not. We struggle day to day with that boundary still. In fact the frontier between these two countries, between the make believe, and the hard-to-hear truth, is looking more and more dishevelled the further into the future we crawl. We have allowed our integrity to slide.

The boundary between fiction and non-fiction

Yet for booksellers and for readers we cannot let anything slide. The line between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ is one of the most important standards that there is. A made up story is a very, very different one from one that is not. And more than anything we need to know before we set out to read which is which. Which brings us back to Lejeune’s pact: the promise. Can we trust that what our ‘non-fiction’ story tellers most want is to tell us the truth? We must, because if they denigrate candour, particularly in the memoir form, they denigrate the reader, and more problematically they engage in autobiographical suicide, because they denigrate themselves.

Five favourite memoirs

Asked to choose a few of my favourite memoirs I have selected books by women, who historically in autobiography have been under represented. It also gives me the excuse to cite Hélène Cixous, the post structural literary theorist, who celebrates the feminine. ‘Écriture féminine’, as Cixous sees it, breaks the rules of genre, making space in the margins, ’emptying structures, turning the selfsame, the proper, upside down.’ (Cixous, Newly Born Woman). When writing A Book of Untruths Lejeune and his definition – that holed boundary – was often on my mind. I wanted, like all of these women, to make plain how vulnerable the ‘non fiction’ frontier is. Here memoirists express their marginality by representing themselves with pronouns other than the phallic ‘I’, and refusing the linear chronological travel from A to B. They tell their lives from the fringe.

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976)
Maxine Hong Kingston’s work has provoked disagreements over what kind of book it is, and those who worry about these things have fallen upon the reliable catch-all ‘creative non fiction’. Here autobiography is blended with Chinese Folktales, all chronological time broken up. Hong Kingston, the child of immigrants, sits on the edge, both of society and the autobiographical form, between the Chinese past and the US present, turning things upside down. Nothing is solid. Brave Orchid’s ‘talk stories’ are both cautionary tales and secrets: an aunt who throws herself and her bastard baby down a well, the stoning of a madwoman, a baby born without an anus left in the outhouse to die. She is the Woman Warrior who must build the past, and build China, with words.

The Lover (1984)
Margeurite Duras, described by the New York Times, as novelist, playwright, film maker and communist, towards the end of her life, sat down to write a series of captions for a photographic essay of her early life in Vietnam. It was a process that inspired The Lover, international sensation and winner of the Prix Goncourt. The writing slips from present to past, first person to third. It recognises that in writing about ourselves we are split. What was missing from Duras’ photograph collection was the record of a fateful day. A day that she met her twenty-seven year old Chinese lover, he in his chauffeur driven limousine, she in a brownish pink fedora, and a threadbare dress of silk. They were crossing the Mekong river, Duras aged only fifteen.

Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003)
Azar Nafisi’s provocative and remarkable memoir explores the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the terror that followed. She joins Marjane Satrapi, another Iranian, working in the margins with her hit graphic memoirs Persepolis and the hilarious Embroideries. Both write of a world from which we are locked out. Through sharing literature with other women Nafisi breathes life. Time drifts, the revolution ever present on the page. Nafisi has been criticised for organising her non linear telling around a series of predominantly white male novelists – Nabokov, James, Fitzgerald. Yet this structure, for me, is the beauty of the book, exploring a central irony. Western literature is not merely western. It can speak to us all. Even those of us living through the most extreme experiences. In fighting for a revolution, as the younger student Nafisi did, we can, she tells us, become a Humbert, destroying the object of our dream; or a Gatsby, destroying ourselves.

But you did not come back (2016)
Marceline Loridan-Ivens was the same age as the seduced Duras when she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Fifteen. An exquisite book it roams through time, never escaping her father’s loss. As documentary maker, Loridan-Ivens has a respect for the detail, leaving us to dress her sentences, for they are as undressed as the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians she recounts queuing up to die. A love letter, it adopts the second person to address her father. Now that he is missing the reader must take his place. All the time though she is seeking another letter, a soiled slip of paper that her father was able to deliver, at a cost we can only imagine, across the boundary between Auschwitz and Birkenau. The paper is now lost, and whatever was written wiped clean from memory. His words are as vanished as he, beyond forgetting: ‘like a deep hole and I don’t want to fall in’.

The Book of Untruths by Miranda Doyle is out now.

Miranda Doyle and Keggie Carew will be discussing the memoir at our Faber Members event on the 11 July.
See here for details and tickets.

Miranda Doyle Miranda Doyle graduated with an MA from Goldsmiths in Creative and Life Writing and has been mentored through the Arts Council Escalator scheme. Her autobiographical story, ‘Autopsy’, was selected by Irvine Welsh for inclusion in the Scottish Book Trust’s Days Like This anthology, and broadcast on Radio Scotland. A Book of Untruths is her first book.