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  • Nickolas Vaccaro

Autobiography as Literature

The 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, given to the French novelist Annie Ernaux, celebrates autobiography, writing that does not transport the reader away from the author and from reality but rather opens a personal world — of memory, people seen, emotion felt — which is perhaps as foreign and unreachable as any fiction. 

The writer that looks behind — dissects their memory of who they were and with whom and where to find and understand themselves — draws a universal portrait, writes a universal history, of what it means to be human, to stand in the present, tottering between the gulfs of the past and future which are only products of memory and imagination. 

Ernaux in all her work, Kafka in Letter to the Father, Saint Augustine in Confessions, have made their lives or, more precisely, their memories, their subjects, to interrogate and sculpt into art.

Kafka unravels himself before his father in a last and late attempt at reconciliation to a man who had tormented him and to whom he was bound by blood and an unwavering affection. Kafka does not blame his father (who, reading the letter, is so apparently to blame) and explains he too is blameless in their shared torment. The letter weaves images and conversation and the bitter taste and melancholy which they had left, from childhood to weeks ago: a winter night spent on the apartment balcony, punishment for asking for water from bed; a thin frail boy changing into swimming trunks with his giant father of meat and muscle; a father mocking all his son’s efforts to be a writer; his son, the writer, a “worm that, when a foot treads on its tail end, breaks loose with its front part and drags itself aside.”

No more than reality is needed, no more than our thoughts and memories. For what are our thoughts and memories, our interpretations of the past and of our selves, our beliefs and hopes, if not the greatest fiction? 

Augustine outlines his path to conversion. He reaches down into the muddy water of memory and reads the stones he finds. He confesses that he is sinful and imperfect and blind, to his past and future. He walks through his adolescence in search for the nature of sin, that which motivates us to sin and that which punishes us. Friends and family, conversations, and events are treated as markers in a search for a philosophy that would unify our disparate existences and memories into one human existence and shared memory. 

Augustine, as Kafka, writing from the urgency of his torment, seeks not an audience but only consolation. To Augustine, Kafka and Ernaux, lived life, and felt feeling, and self, and memory, are worthier of literature than anything else. As individuals they speak to us all, remembering and forgetting again, finding and losing again, returning and leaving again. 

We all impossibly search for the past, walking through the rubble of people and places that once were and now simply are not, painted and smeared by the hand of memory.

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