The Scientists: A Family Romance

Jenny Diski writes:

I have a tendency when reading biographies and autobiographies about elderly or dead people of great accomplishment to want to skip through the early part, especially the childhood. The residue of psychoanalytic theory and Just-So psychology is spread thick on most retrospective accounts of individual origins. Received assumptions and teleology come too easily. Both writers and readers are inclined to make the childhood emblematic of the already known adult achievement, either as something to overcome – poverty, abuse, no education – or as a period of unwitting training for whatever they came to do so well or so badly later on. I really want to know about the adult’s life and mind when she or he was producing the work or leading the troops or discovering whatever was waiting to be discovered. It’s harder, however, to avoid reading about the childhood and youth of those who write autobiography in the middle or even early stages of their careers. Skipping or coming back to the early pages later doesn’t work. There isn’t very much for them to write about except the way their lives began and the people who made their world. A wary reader has to hope for ability in the writer or an eventful early life. The idea that everyone has a story to tell (which underlies the notion that anyone can write since all a writer needs is a story) is strictly correct. If you were born, you’re in there with a story. Look what Sterne made of it. It’s true that after the beginning, you need a certain amount of middle, but you don’t have to know the end. Or rather, all stories end the same way, but no narrative, fictional or non-fictional, is required to finish with a detailed account of the death of all the protagonists. Still, it would take a foolhardy or epically narcissistic individual to set out to write an autobiography without any degree of drama or achievement, if they weren’t sure they had the writing ability to bring it off. The placid, contented childhood and the quotidian life generally require a decidedly non-quotidian author.

(LRB 7 March 2013)