Fiction vs. autobiography

Like Russell and Peiyi, I was also struck by the rather ‘fictional’ feel of Leonard Woolf’s Autobiography. Not only does he make allusions to literary figures and fiction in general, the general tone, pace and structure of the writing seemed very Victorian-fiction to me. What particularly struck me was this sentence: “I set out for Jaffna with a Sinhalese servant, my dog, a wooden crate containing Voltaire, and an enormous tin-lined trunk containing clothes” (23).

If this were a piece of fiction that we were doing a close reading of, I think we’d all fixate on the choice of these things that accompanied him on his journey, and look for structural symbolisms and other, deeper meanings to them. Yet, I’m not sure if this speaks more to our ‘over-enhanced sense’ as literature students, or the blurred lines between fiction and autobiography. At the same time, it occurs to me that the most enjoyable autobiographical writings are those that read like fiction (here I can’t help but think of Roald Dahl’s Boy). I mean, that is precisely the reason I find Virginia Woolf so unreadable—’high Modernist’ writing that rejects the conventions of rigidly controlled linear-narratives propelled by events might be closer to ‘life as it was lived’, but it’s definitely hard to read, or it is for me at least.

Taking the consideration of fiction-vs-reality in another direction, can autobiography ever really capture ‘truth’, or recap events as they happened? To a certain extent, isn’t all writing re-creation, fiction? Personally, whenever I’ve read autobiographical works, I’ve always wondered how on Earth the authors remember tiny details—for example how could Leonard Woolf possibly remember what he brought with him on that journey, much less the details of what type of trunk his books were packed in?

On Leonard Woolf’s autobiography

I must say I really quite enjoy this piece of autobiographical work by Leonard Woolf. However, the reason why I thoroughly enjoy the work is mainly attributed to the fact that it read like a work of fiction/travel literature more than anything else, a work of memoirs that had been dramatized and enhanced through whimsical and even hyperbolic expressions. This really raises the concern of slippages between fact and fiction, though. If the work is meant to be autobiographical, the contents would more or less be seen as factual events that had transpired in the author’s life, how then do we draw the line when it comes to interpreting the truth behind the elegantly composed and fictionalized aspect of the work? Woolf draws much amusement when he compares certain real life personalities to Jane Austen’s characters and at one point even suggested that ‘people in rotten novels are astonishingly like life’, further blurring the boundaries between reality and representation, and almost evoking the idea that there isn’t one to really begin with in the first place.
However, certain statements in the writing are reminiscent of ideas underscored by Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant and Burmese Days -the performativity aspect of identity. Woof also points out that the Anglo-indians and imperialists were essentially ‘displaced persons’ and that they all ‘pretended to be tougher, more British, more homesick….’, etc. And if we take into consideration that Woolf himself, having similarly undergone the pressure of an imperialist just as Orwell did, there is certainly a similar tract in their portrayal of the psychological stress that the white, imperial figure finds himself being entrapped within.

The Autobiographical Genre

What struck me while reading selections from Leonard Woolf’s Growing this week was the autobiographical genre that the work classifies itself under. Why claim that a work is autobiographical? Does it make the work more believable? Interestingly, many fictional references appear in this autobiographical work, such as Woolf’s mention that in moving to Ceylon, ‘one feels as if one were acting in a play or living in a dream, and plays and dreams have that curious mixture of admitted unreality and the most intense and vivid reality’(21). This juxtaposition of autobiography with fiction continues with Woolf describing his life as a ‘theatrical unreality’, performing on ‘the stage [that] was imperialism’ (24-25). Woolf even describes the people he meets as a ‘Jane Austen character’ or a ‘character in a Kipling story’ (42, 46). All these deal with the relationship between fiction and reality, summed up in a nutshell by Woolf himself: ‘I could never make up my mind whether Kipling had moulded his characters accurately in the image of Anglo-Indian society or whether we were moulding our characters accurately in the image of a Kipling story’(46). How do we reconcile the autobiographical genre of Woolf’s work with the fictional aspects of it, keeping in mind that the Conrad works we read earlier in the module were also highly autobiographical, but that Conrad classified them as fiction? Is there some form of narrative ethics being negotiated here?