I penned my first autobiography at the age of sixteen. With the bombast befitting an insecure teenager eager for validation, I called it a “memoir.” It was a short, handwritten volume I passed around to fellow students, a performance designed at once to justify, expose, and invent myself. Like so many pieces of juvenilia, those “memoirs” were destroyed in an act of reinvention, or, not to be fanciful, embarrassment. I fear that many of the instances I recorded, however embellished, edited or carefully selected my memories, may be far more difficult to recreate, faded as my recollections have during all those intervening years that have made me a stranger to my former selves. I seem to have made forgetting a virtue by looking at it as the ability to move on and start over as if from scratch. Perhaps, one reason for my dwelling in and on the presumably out-of-date in a journal reflective of my readings, viewings, and listening experiences is that it allows me to discover myself in a researchable past other than that which is chronologically and biologically my own: movies, radio programs, books that precede my past and inform my present. To research my story, I must rely on a memory I dare not trust. When it comes to my early life, I have little to go on, other than flashes of dreamlike recollections.
One of the problems involving the autobiographical act is to arrive at a narrative frame that fits the picture without distorting, let alone creating, it. It is difficult to determine where an autobiography ought to end, considering that, as its writer, one is still in engaged in the creation of memories. One is alive and, apparently, compelled to prove it. A future event might call for an entirely new arrangement of facts—a life-changing event may lie ahead, rendering negligible much that seems important at present.
Not quite as problematic, but troublesome nonetheless, is the beginning. Does one begin with one’s family, with one’s ancestors, with a description of the birthplace that, presumably, shaped our early life? Should an autobiography start with an explanation, an apology for the hubris of taking oneself serious enough to warrant such a performance, or an acknowledgement of whomever we construe as our audience? Dear reader, is this my life? Should, as in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, the voice reflect the age, mind and intellect of the subject, the self turned object, in various stages of existence?
One man who knew how to begin was the aforementioned Emlyn Williams, born on this day, 26 November, in 1905; he grew up in a remote town in Wales, his parents hardly proficient in English, to become a well-known actor and playwright (a production of whose Night Must Fall I briefly discussed here), personae or roles that no doubt influenced his performance and may well have created the impetus to for it. He could count on an audience, a public that presumed and demanded to know him.
Williams’s lyrical introduction to George: An Early Autobiography (1961) is one that compels me both to read on and revisit the idea of writing my own life. Aware of the task at hand, of the challenges of starting, of devising a beginning reflective of one’s own start in life and the impossibilities of doing so ab ovo, it is disarmingly reflective:
The world was waiting. Waiting for me, to whisper my incantations. “I am George Emlyn Williams and . . .” I was lying with my head on my fist on morning grass, dry of dew and warm with the first heat of the year. All was still, even the stalks clutched in my hot fingers. I had come up into the fields to gather shaking-grass, a week with a hundred beads tremulous to the touch, which my mother would inter in two vases where it would frugally desiccate and gather dust forever. Spring smells and earth feelings crept into my seven-year-old boy; nine-tenths innocent, one-tenth conscient, it responded. I rolled one cheek up till it closed an eye, and squinted down at the sunlit village. A dog lay asleep in the road. Mrs. Jones South Africa was hanging washing, and quavering a hymn. Cassie hung on their gate and called for Ifor. “Time to go to the well!” The bleat of a sheep. A bird called, careless, mindless. Eighteen inches from my eye, a tawny baby frog was about to leap. It waited.
Everything waited: the hymn had ceased, the bird was dumb and suspended. “I was born November the 26th 1905 and the world was completed at midnight on Saturday July the 10th 4004—our Bible stated the year at the top of page one, the rest I felt free to add—“and has been going ever since, through Genesis Revelation the six wives of Henry the Eighth the Guillotine and the Diamond Jubilee right until this minute 10 AM. Sunday April the 14th 1912, when the world has stopped. The sun will not set tonight, or ever again, and I am the only one who knows.”
No sound: the spool of time has run down, the century is nipped in the bud. I shall never grow up, or old, but shall lie on the grass forever, a mummy of a boy with nestling in the middle of it a nameless warmth like the slow heat inside straw. This is the eternal morning.
The frog jumped. Cassie called again. I scrambled up, brushed my best knickerbockers, pulled the black stockings up inside them, raced down and hopped between my water buckets into the wooden square which kept them well apart so as not to splash. The sun did set, and by the time it rose next morning the Titanic had been sunk. If the world had stopped, they would not have drowned; I thought about it for a day.
The century, un-nipped, has crept forward, and the knickerbockers are no more. They encased one brother till he burst out of them, then another till they fell exhausted away from him, turned into floor rags and at last were decently burned. But I am still here, not yet decently burned or a floor rag or even exhausted, George Emlyn Williams, born November the 26th, 1905.
Autobiographies are performances, to be sure; but the audience, however large, also includes the one in the scrutinizing self in the mirror. Staring at it, it gives me no hints as to how, or whether, to write one. Regardless of all the personal reflections I have offered in this journal, I no longer have the confidence, or the illusions, of a sixteen year old who presumes that his life matters; nor is mine the life of a man like Emlyn Williams, who did.