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This review is taken from PN Review 24, Volume 8 Number 4, March - April 1982.

IN THE FIRST PERSON John Pilling, Autobiography and Imagination: Studies in Self-Scrutiny (Routledge and Kegan Paul) £10.50

Autobiographies are a popular literary form, widely read, and likely to be reviewed in the posh Sunday papers. Yet critics have found it difficult to know what to say about the form and the best study of it remains Roy Pascal's Design and Truth in Autobiography, published over twenty years ago. Now, though, there is a growing interest in autobiography, particularly in America, partly sustained by psychoanalytical or structuralist preoccupations about the nature and possibility of the 'self'; autobiography offers the interest of a written text that not only presents a self but seems to create one. John Pilling is a sophisticated and learned writer, well read in several literatures, though he remains at heart an Anglo-Saxon empiricist, a practical critic rather than a stratospheric theorist. He acknowledges the importance of Pascal's pioneering study, but develops his own analysis of the autobiographical form by looking closely at some examples by twentieth-century writers: Henry Adams, Henry James, W.B.Yeats, Boris Pasternak, Michel Leiris, Jean-Paul Sartre, Vladimir Nabokov and-considered more briefly in an appendix-Henry Green and Adrian Stokes. These discussions are very acute. They show in what ways these authors' autobiographical writings can be considered as works of art in their own right, just as much as their fiction or poetry. Mr Pilling illuminates the peculiar problems involved in re-enacting the past, particularly the early past of childhood, as in James, Yeats, Sartre and Nabokov, and then relating that remote phase of life to the now of the mature writer who is ...


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