An autobiographical pact, again

An autobiographical pact, again

Philippe Lejeune’s ideas about an ‘autobiographical pact’ have been extraordinarily influential, both in the original French and probably more so in English language translations. At basis, his argument runs as follows. Initially he pursued a definitional approach to what autobiography ‘is’ as a genre based around ideas about fiction and the possible autobiography/novel overlaps. He then moved over time to considering the basis of the autobiographical pact to be, not this, but a reader response influenced by the general acceptance of there being unanimity of the author, the narrator and the character who is being written about, as signalled by the name that appears on the title page. Everyone knows that there are exceptions, everyone knows that often autobiographies fudge, silence, evade and more straightforwardly engage in sleights of authorial hand, but nonetheless there is this ‘I’.

All very interesting, and certainly it has struck a nerve with many commentators. But perhaps there is something more in Lejeune’s original approach then he gives himself credit for. Perhaps the basis of the autobiographical part is not in the main, given that we all know about the multitude of exceptions, a response to ‘I’ authorship, but includes a response to a general awareness that there is life outside of what is written and that the text – while not in a referential relationship to this – is nonetheless complexly dependent upon it. No life, no autobiography. Henry James might have told some porky pies in his, but he had a life and his autobiography is a clue to things going on in it. And in Whites Writing Whiteness terms, David Forbes jnr wrote a memoir in which he presents himself as a kind of Great White Hunter, but something more nuanced is shown in the letters by, to and about him, and both inform the view of him that the reader reaches.

Last updated:  29 July 2021


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