It is always embarrassing to speak of oneself. It is something you were advised not to do by 19th century handbooks of etiquette. Baroness Staffe, the most famous author of such books in France, thus wrote in 1893 : « Out of a feeling of generosity, you should avoid speaking of yourself, even disparagingly. The self should come up as little as possible in conversation, as it is always an awkward or boring topic for others ». So have no fear. I will only speak of the paths I followed as a researcher. And it will certainly be more of a description than an explanation. A few months ago, I had to present my case to a « laboratory of clinical sociology ». Not only did it make me feel like a lab animal, but I was required to dissect myself into the bargain. In fact, I had been asked how my life story and my theoretical choices interconnected. At one point or other, each of us has been faced with such questions – we all ask ourselves what made us choose the subject of our research, where the intellectual tools we use come from, whether they are adequate, whether they have changed over time.
I tried to answer the questions of these lab people by comparing my academic career with that of my father, who was a scholar of Greek (to use Bourdieu’s term, I am an heir and this is the « reproduction » side), and by analyzing how I sailed the rough seas of Academia and negociated winds and streams in such a way that I ended up following my own wishes (this is the « champs » side of Bourdieu). On that occasion, I was struck for the first time by the time-lag between the early age at which I developed an interest in personal writing (I was fifteen when I first started keeping a diary in 1953) and the belated age at which I decided to make autobiography my subject (that was in 1968 and I was already thirty). Why had I strayed in other directions for so long before finding my north pole ? Was something wrong with my compass ? I can perceive two reasons why this happened : a personal one and a collective one.
The personal reason lies in the evolution of the image I had of my own writings and in what I expected from them during those years. My diary had been the companion of the turmoils of adolescence. It certainly taught me to analyze my feelings and write better, and this helped me in a way ; but it also harmed me by making me withdrawn and keeping me away from dialogues that could have helped me to mature in a more satisfactory way. And above all, my diary meant failure for me – the failure of my literary ambitions. Like teenagers and like many of those who become teachers by default (Bernard Shaw said : « he who can does, he who cannot teaches »), I loved literature, but literature did not love me. As a child, I had thought myself a poet. When, at the age of seventeen, I read Proust, I was dazzled and realized that there was no hope left for me : my books had already been written by someone else and it was tragically obvious that I was the victim of « anticipatory plagiarism », to use the felicitous phrase of Georges Perec and his friends of Oulipo. My grief intensified when I discovered that other readers of Proust – impostors all of them – believed it was their own books Proust had written. I was just an other orphan of Proust among thousands. My repetitive, quibbling, plaintive, complacent diary seemed just the reverse of a work of art. However, I did not destroy it, thinking that, if I ever became a writer, I would use it as raw material. But, at the time, I was without prospects. I was unable to write a single line of fiction. I did not myself believe one word of what I was writing. I was doomed to join the menial staff of literature, to be a teacher. Not until 1968, when I was thirty, did I feel again the exhilaration of writing. I then created a personal workshop of writing for myself and tried to play with words and language in all sorts of ways, discovering that this could serve as a form of autobiographical expression. I thus discovered that autobiography too could be an art, a brand new art, one which perhaps had yet to be invented. Reading Michel Leiris came as an illumination. Yes, autobiography was a new frontier. It had been the object of my personal wishes and it became the object of my research as well.
There were also collective reasons for this time-lag. Before my personal wishes had taken shape, I had set off on a prestigious track, which turned out to be the wrong track for me : the study of canonic authors (Proust, of course) and the study of a classical problem (« Indictment and exaltation of literature in the twentieth century »). It never occurred to me that research could leave the beaten tracks. One had to be canonically correct at that time. Only in 1968 did I discover that there existed in France a vast uncharted territory, uncharted because it was despised, a territory of fabulous wealth : autobiography. Most critics then were persuaded that Albert Thibaudet had been right when he decreed in 1935 : « Autobiography is the art of those who are no artists, and the novel of those who are no novelists ». Even today, in Le Monde des livres, the prestigious literary supplement of Le Monde, autobiography still regularly takes a lot of flak for being narcissistic, flat and uninteresting. If by chance an autobiography is of some interest, it is not really an autobiography, they say, since autobiography is worthless. At the time, in the pre-1968 period, only a handful of masterpieces were studied (Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Stendhal), never the genre as a whole. One exception in this critical desert should be noted: an illuminating article of some twenty pages by Georges Gusdorf. I discovered this situation when I was working on an article on world autobiography for an encyclopedia. In the Anglo-Saxon and German domains, there were a large number of critical studies, and autobiography was already a standard subject. In France, nothing at all. I decided to set forth without casting my research into the mold of a thesis and to progress at my own pace, publishing freely when I wanted as I went.
First step : what counted as an autobiography ? I had to collect a corpus and in order to do so, I needed a definition. I took the definitions in the dictionaries and honed them by making the model proposed by Rousseau central to my own definition. But in doing so I of course became aware of the fact that autobiography could not merely be defined by its form (a narrative) or by its content (a life), for fiction could imitate both, but by an act, which made it utterly different from fiction, and that that act is the commitment of a real person to speak of himself or herself truthfully . This is what I called the « autobiographical pact ». Between this pact and the pact of fiction, there are indeed a series of intermediate positions, but they can be defined only by referring to these two opposite poles. It is therefore on the pragmatic side that I have located the dominant feature of the genre. An autobiography is not a text in which one speaks the truth about oneself, but a text in which a real person says that he or she is speaking the truth about himself or herself. And this commitment has specific effects on how the text is received. You don’t read a text the same way if you believe it to be an autobiography as you do if you believe it to be a work of fiction. The autobiographical pact has stimulating effects (it elicits curiosity, credulity, personal involvement), but it also has off-putting effects which can contribute to explaining the prejudices against the genre in France. The autobiographical pact clings to you : the author expects love, friendship from you, esteem, admiration, and you may not always be ready to give them. The autobiographical pact is infectious : even though few authors are as provocative as Rousseau, who demands that his reader should bare his soul as he does, the pact implies a degree of reciprocity that may be embarrassing, as you don’t always feel like thinking about yourself. The phrase I coined, the autobiographical pact, has been a success, perhaps because it calls up the idea of a pact with the devil, signed with your own blood. I often feel less like a theoretician than like an adman who has hit the jackpot, for instance the man who invented La Vache qui rit.
My first book, L’Autobiographie en France, used the definition in a rather normative way. This naiveté was no doubt a youthful mistake, but it may have been a necessity for a book that was mapping the French autobiographical landscape for the first time : a center, suburbs, borders had to be indicated. From my second book, Le Pacte autobiographique, onwards, the definition was no longer a tool, but became an object of study in its own right. I began applying to it an analytical method that had certainly been inspired by my reading of Gérard Genette, of Jakobson and later of the Russian formalists. I made distinctions between all the parameters that go into the definition (pact, enunciation, types of language, time, thematic contents, etc.) and for each of them I went over all the range of possible solutions and then displayed them in double-entry tables, taking the hierarchy of features into account. I am, in a way, a do-it-yourself man, trying all combinations, the ones that exist as well as the potential ones. One day Serge Doubrovsky, as he was looking at one of my tables, saw a box which I had rather rashly declared empty, and he had the idea to fill it with the combination he called « autofiction ». My next stage was a series of studies in which I explored the bordeline zones, all the places where interferences reveal the common features and the incompatible features of overlapping genres : third person autobiography, autofiction, imaginary memoirs. One step led to the next : I then followed the metamorphoses of biographical enunciation when it uses media other than writing : pictorial self-portrait, or film in the first person ; I also examined writings that do not use paper but the Web. This is the theme of one of my recent books, « Cher écran » (Dear Screen) in which, when dealing with blogs, I examined interferences between the diary, letters and the press.
One of the consequences of my passion for grammar and analysis is my scepticism about the immutability of literary genres : I see the history of literature as a series of transformations. And the account of these transformations, when given in a partisan spirit, is subjected to the rules of what Paul Ricoeur called narrative identity. Thus, writing the history of a genre can be as mythological an undertaking as writing the story of an individual. Did autobiography exist in Antiquity ? It is easy enough to find certain features of modern autobiography in such or such a type of ancient texts. But was the function the same ? Since this paper is a kind of autobiography, I shall risk a confession. Dazzled as I was by Rousseau’s Confessions, I tended to make the year 1782, when they were first published, a pivotal date, the date of a sensational breakthrough opening up the modern era to which I have devoted all my attention. This is mythological as well. But I preferred the myth of a recent appearence of the genre to that of remote origins. And I think I was certainly right in adopting another attitude, just as passionate, but more correct as far as methodology is concerned. I am referring to my taste for collections and inventories, of which I shall speak in a moment. The trouble with studies of personal writings is that critics focus their attention on the few published works that have met with success and have survived, whereas autobiography is not primarily a literary genre, but first and foremost a widely spread practice : it is risky to tackle it only from the point of view of its reception. But I am getting ahead of myself, as will be seen as the story unfolds.
At the time I was writing Le Pacte autobiographique, my first studies dealt only with masterpieces that I admired : Rousseau, Stendhal, Gide, Sartre, Michel Leiris – I bypassed Chateaubriand, whom I admired but who scared me. This choice earned me indignant frowns on this side of the Atlantic : not a single woman, only men ! Later, I tried to make amends by devoting a whole book to 115 girls’ diaries, Le Moi des demoiselles. Parity was restored. Anyway, to come back to the masterpieces I admired, I tried to analyze not only the complexity of their composition, but also their extraordinary diversity : Rousseau’s mythological construction, Sartre’s argumentative dialectics, the interweaving play on words in Leiris : indeed, autobiography can recycle practically all literary forms.
After several years spent on these masterpieces and on the autobiographical pact, I had my moments of doubt and depression. Was I going to repeat the same thing over and over again throughout my career as a researcher ? Was I stretched to my limits ? Each of us has experienced such moments of self-doubt. The answer is to let oneself be carried along by opportunities and readings, to turn one’s back on one’s past work, and to be receptive. Thanks to Jean-Paul Sartre and to my great-grandfather, I did so. I deserted the sacred precincts of literature and opened myself up to the autobiographical expression of ordinary people. Sartre, first. In the last sentence of Les Mots, he proclaims himself : « Tout un homme, fait de tous les hommes et qui les vaut tous et que vaut n’importe qui » - « A whole man, made up of all men, as good as anyone but no better ». How true that was ! I realized it when I saw the film Sartre par lui-même, by Alexandre Astruc and Michel Contat, in 1976. Sartre tells his story in front of a camera : he is artless, defenceless, his ingenuousness is in complete contrast to the seductive artfulness of Les Mots. His body, his gestures, his intonations and silences, tell us something different from his brilliant prose. He is both so disarmed and so disarming that we listen to him in sympathy. That experience made me discover what is so fascinating in ordinary autobiography : it requires a more active involvement from the receiver than literary autobiography. Literature calculates its effects and forces them upon you : you can sit back, somebody else has done all the work for you and your pleasure is guaranteed. With oral or written life stories of ordinary people, the receiver has some reworking to do. It is more of a conquered pleasure than a pleasure that is given. These life stories cannot be taken literally and the listener ou reader tends to become the re-creator of the life that unfolds before him. This re-creation aspect struck me even more clearly in the case of my great-grandfather, Xavier-Edouard Lejeune, who was a shop assistant working in the new department stores of mid-nineteenth century Paris, and whose hobby was writing. He had written a lot, mainly poetry, but also autobiographical texts, among which was a long unfinished autobiography that, rather strangely, did not go beyond his twentieth year and was called The Stages of Life. I first considered that text condescendingly. I thought it touching, but conventional and flat, until I discovered that my great-grandfather had lied about the most important facts of his life, and the easiest to check, his birth and marriage. In fact, his life had been full of tragic events which he concealed. In his autobiography, however, he reveals some of them obliquely, vicariously, by making some minor characters suffer what he himself had suffered. These painful secrets explained why he left his life story unfinished. So, in collaboration with my father, his grandson, I had to turn into a sleuth and I began delving into public archives, interviewing every last one of his relatives and unraveling a text which I had naively thought to be naive.
Playing the detective, as I realized later, is one of my foibles. When psychoanalyzing Proust’s little madeleine, when studying Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s and Michel Leiris’ confessions, I had done just that : played the detective. My primary intention was not to make psychological diagnoses, but to understand how their writings negotiated with their unconscious or surfed over it. This was a risky exercise, especially when dealing with living writers such as Michel Leiris. I took up the same sleuthing technique ten years later when I enthusiastically launched into genetic studies. The rough drafts of autobiographers enabled me to follow the making up of their narrative identity, to follow it « live », as broadcasters would say. I studied the drafts of Sartre’s Les Mots, of Nathalie Sarraute’s Enfance, of the whole of Georges Perec’s autobiographical writings. I also worked on the genesis of Anne Frank’s diary, studying how she herself recomposed her own text, with the posthumous collaboration of her father.
You say « Curiosity killed the cat », and we say « La curiosité est un vilain défaut », « Curiosity is a bad failing ». But maybe our weaknesses can become useful methodological tools. In this paper, you have already come across three of my foibles : my tendency to split hairs, my detective like curiosity and my liking for collections. This last feature was to be given free rein when I entered the vast territory of ordinary writings.
Indeed from 1977 to 1986, I broke away from the literary canon to extend my research in two directions : first, the field of ordinary writings, which my great-grandfather had opened up to me, second, the field of the media, which Sartre had opened up to me.
I decided to undertake a complete inventory of the autobiographies written in France from about 1789 to 1914, roughly the nineteenth century, starting with the published production, and classifying the texts according to occupations or social categories. My idea was to write a sort of « social history of discourses ». I first looked for all the shopkeepers, manufacturers, financiers, from those who had gone bankrupt to those who set their own success story as an example. For me, it was no longer a matter of reasoning on the basis of unique masterpieces but on a series of texts displaying the whole range of ways in which, in a given situation, you can represent your life. It was also a matter of dealing with these texts as historical facts in their own right, contrary to historians who tend to exploit them as sources of information on other subjects. After shopkeepers, I turned to schoolteachers, and then to criminals. You might object that being a criminal is not an occupation, but sometimes it is. Indeed, there was a unity in their writings which originates in the strategies of discourse that were forced upon them by the judiciary: here, I am on Michel Foucault’s ground. In the same way, I tried to observe how the medicalisation and criminalisation of homosexuality had paradoxically made its autobiographical expression possible in the second half of the nineteenth century, and had paved the way for the publication of Si le grain ne meurt by Gide, the first homosexual autobiography in France to be published by the author himself. In order to study the autobiographies of criminals and homosexuals, I ventured away from printed books and started exploring archives. I was flabbergasted by the number and wealth of texts I then discovered. There was work for fifty people and I was alone. At the same time I also discovered the vast mine of contemporary ordinary autobiographies that are published at their author’s expense, what Americans call the vanity press. I classified them in the same way as the others, according to the type of discourse. As I did so, I was puzzled by the mismatch between supply and demand in the field of life stories. Life stories that readers want to consume, or that are offered to them, are not necessarily those that their contemporaries produce spontaneously.
This appeared to me even more clearly when I was carrying out the research that had been inspired by the film on Sartre and studied autobiographies produced in collaboration, in which the same « I » includes two persons and is the result of a dialogue. This happens in two diametrically opposite situations : first, in the case of celebrities (therefore I studied the history of newspaper interviews, radio interviews in the immediate post-war years, and contemporary televised interviews, such as « Apostrophes » by Bernard Pivot) ; second, in the case of totally unknown people (I am thinking of the oral history favoured by contemporary historians and sociologists, and also found in populist books in which individuals crushed by life speak about themselves and are tape recorded).
This new kind of research gradually led me away from the academic canon and from poetics, but brought me closer to myself. I have always tried to keep a link between my academic work and my personal practice. While I was deciphering Leiris, for instance, I had created a small writing workshop of my own in which I tested new devices to plumb my own depths. When I studied oral history, I tried my hand at that of my family, tape recording my parents, siblings and others : after all, perhaps the keys to my life were not in myself, but outside. The titles of the two books I published in those years reflect my evolution : in 1980, Je est un autre, I is an other (a formula borrowed from Rimbaud and slightly twisted), with, as a subtitle, Autobiography from literature to the media; and later in 1986, Moi aussi, Me too, with no subtitle to temper the claim.
It is often small things that drive you when you are ripe to take the plunge and to embark on a new field of research, even though it may well take you some time to find your own path in it, and even to be aware of the turn you have taken. Thus, from 1986 onwards, I embarked on the study of diaries, which I carried out with methods diametrically opposed to those I had used for autobiography. And later, I ventured, so to speak, into direct action, outside Academia, into French civil society to get the value of autobiographical writing acknowledged.
For the sake of clarity, I will deal with these two ventures one after the other, but, as you will see, they were inextricably related.
As far as the diaries are concerned, it all started from a conversation with my friend Eliane Lecarme in January 1987. We were speaking of today’s teenagers. She said : « Fewer of them keep diaries than in the past ». I maintained that the reverse was true and that, as they stay in school longer, more of them were likely to keep a diary. But neither she or I had any proof to support our claims. Scholarly books were silent on the subject. Nobody had any idea about it. Surely a survey should be launched, I thought. Then I suddenly realized that I had myself been studying autobiography for seventeen years and had completely ignored diary-writing all along, blinded as I was by the prejudices I had developed against the genre as an adolescent. In that respect I have matured. I have reverted to the practice of writing a diary, a practice which is less ambitious than autobiography but perhaps gives a more accurate picture of real life. In the following years, I started dreaming about writing practices that would combine the advantages of autobiography (construction) and of the diary (immediacy) while avoiding their inconveniences (phantasm and insignificance). With the benefit of hindsight, I am summing up and simplifying a change that spread over years and that I was not immediately aware of. Yes, I, a specialist of autobiography, no longer delighted in Autobiography with a capital A, and was dreaming about discontinuous, dated, autobiographical texts following flexibly, as a diary does, the metamorphoses of a life with the passing of years.
So, in 1987, there I stood, on the threshold of this domain which I had neglected before, but which, contrary to autobiography, had been seriously studied by academic critics in France. Indeed, there existed three great books of reference (by Michèle Leleu, Alain Girard and Béatrice Didier), but all three envisaged the diary only as a literary genre and were based on the study of published works. But the diary is first and foremost a life practice and a writing practice. It cannot be studied solely from books, for two reasons. The first reason is that for the diarist it is a unique trace rather the same way as a work of art is : the paper, handwriting, decorations, the documents attached, turn it into a sort of reliquary, and its very length often means that it cannot be adapted to the book format, as this would mean cuts. The second reason is that millions of diaries are written and only a few are published, a few dozen a year in France. Can we be sure that the few published diaries are representative ? No, in fact we can even be sure that it is the reverse. For instance, in France, 85 % of published diaries are written by men, whereas it is a well known fact that most diarists are women. Moreover, published diaries tend to be those of writers or well-known people or warmemoirs. The ordinary life of unknown people is grossly underrepresented.
Whereas, for my research on autobiography, I had started from a definition and a corpus of masterpieces, I did the reverse for diaries. I forgot to give a definition, and it took me twelve years to realize it. I then adopted the simplest and most comprehensive definition. For me, a diary is « a series of dated traces ». I had been obliged to define autobiography because its borderline with fiction is blurred. There is no such problem with the diary. If you invent your own life in your diary, it is not fiction, it is just lying or sheer lunacy. So, in a pragmatic way I started with a quest for real diaries. As sociologists and journalists do, I made surveys, sending out questionnaires in secondary schools and universities. And I made a public appeal in the press for testimonies of diarists : 47 persons answered. I engaged in correspondence with them and in the end published their letters without comment in a book called « Dear notebook », « Cher cahier ». Moreover, I had to go straight to the manuscripts and examine them. As far as diaries of the past were concerned, I made frequent visits to archives (for instance this is how I found the 115 diaries of girls which I mentioned a moment ago). For contemporary diaries, I relied on two associations. First, on an association which exists in France and which offers teenagers who feel like destroying their diary the option to donate it, with the right to reclaim it later in life. In the attic of this association, I was able to read diaries of contemporary teenagers, often dramatic, sometimes inventive. Even though the consultation of these diaries had been allowed by the authors, it proved to be a very disturbing, painful, but instructive experience. I mentioned two associations. The second one is the one I founded with a few friends, the Association for Autobiography, to receive autobiographical texts by unknown people. More of this later. Thanks to this network of friends, I was given access to a great variety of private diaries. I was often surprised by their seriousness, the quality of their language, their sheer beauty. They belied the prejudices that prevail in France against a practice that is often deemed childish, narcissistic and of no aesthetic value.
Soon afterwards, I was faced with the problem of sharing what I had seen. Writing about diaries was not just good enough. They had to be shown. The answer was to organize an exhibition, although it is tricky to display such intimate things. Thanks to the Association for Autobiography and my friend Catherine Bogaert, it was possible to hold an exhibition in the Municipal Library of Lyon in 1997. There we exhibited 250 original diaries, those of famous people alongside those of unknown people. We had built a narrative scenario telling the story of a diary from the first to the last page and this was illustrated step by step by exhibits in their glass cases. It could take a visitor several hours if he wanted to read every single transcription as he followed the trail. The exhibition drew a lot of people who reverently visited this temple of private life. Much to our surprise, a local choreographer, who had come almost by chance, came out of the exhibition with the project to make it into a ballet, and he did. He selected a diary written in the late nineteenth century by a young girl, Catherine Pozzi. In his choreography, the part of Catherine is played by three dancers, one of whom recited the text, while the dance and music conveyed what we read between the lines of a diary, the implicit messages. On the last day of the exhibition, Catherine Bogaert and I, on our own, made our farewell visit to these 250 diaries that had learned to live together for the last three months. They were going to be dispersed, the scenery was going to be taken down. Exhibitions are the art of the ephemeral. And our catalogue, which was sparsely illustrated, would not be sufficient to keep its memory alive. We deplored that and started a long strategic vigil, lying in wait for any opportunity that might arise. Meanwhile, I embarked on research in fields that had proved to be the weak points of the exhibition : the remote past and the immediate present. As far as the past was concerned, this meant the history of the diary in Antiquity and the great turning points at the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, such as the advent of paper and the invention of the mechanical clock, which changed our perception of time. As far as the immediate present was concerned, I studied diaries on line and devoted a book to them, « Cher écran », « Dear screen », an echo of « Dear Notebook » which I had published previously. And then the long awaited miracle happened : we got a proposal from a publisher for a large illustrated book with plenty of texts in it as well, a book that would be both an essay and an exhibition. Our book, which contains reproductions of 150 diaries and gives a survey of diary keeping in France was published in 2003 with the same title as the exhibition : Un journal à soi, A diary of one’s own (éditions Textuel).
Now, I told you of a second adventure, parallel to my discovery of the diary : the creation of a militant association, outside Academia. It all started from my becoming aware of a need that was not met by French society : authors’ need to preserve their autobiographical writings. Around 1986, I had launched an appeal for family archives in various newspapers. I was trying to find fresh sources for my inventory of nineteenth century autobiographies. I said : « If you have any nineteenth century autobiographical writing in your attics, in your closets, please contact me, I am interested ». And I got a number of positive answers, but also several strange letters. These said : « Sir, I am writing to inform you that I don’t possess any nineteenth century manuscripts ». Then, after a few embarrassed sentences, they came to the point : « But I happen to have something which, however, might be of some interest to you ». Of course, as you have already guessed, that something was the autobiography or diary of my correspondent who went on, apologetically : « I know I am wrong, I am not a nineteenth-century person, but… ». When I got such a letter for the first time, I just smiled. But when more came, I took the problem seriously. I agreed to have the texts sent to me and to read them, and then I was embarrassed in my turn. Let us try to understand the cause of their embarrassment and then of my own reaction.
My correspondents were embarrassed because they wanted to be read before they died and they wanted their texts to survive. There are only three solutions. Publishers ? They select only a very small number of texts, and that is why so many autobiographers fall into the trap of publishing at their own expense. The Archives ? At best, they keep your text but nobody reads it. But in most cases, your offer is turned down. In France, if you walk into the local archives with your diary under your arm, they will think you are mad, and they will tell you : « Here is the procedure. You have got to do three things : a) die ; b) wait 50 years ; c) come back and see us ». In fact they accept only texts that have proved their capacity to survive in a hostile environment. Once we’ve ruled out publishers and archives, that leaves families. Although families love family memories, they usually dislike the autobiographical writings of their members, these individual, indiscreet and dissident versions of the history of a group. They are an embarrassment. Many autobiographical writings just disappear at the times of deaths and removals. It is not infrequent in France to find autobiographical writings for sale in antique shops or flea markets. This explains why these correspondents wrote to me.
But what could I do, except to read and answer in sympathy ? And, in some cases, my sympathy is insincere. I cannot like everybody. As for keeping these writings, I had no solution to offer. I could not store them in my apartment : I will die one day too and my closets will be emptied. On both accounts, reading and storing, the solution has to be a collective one. A group or association can welcome the diversity of human experiences or personalities, and a public storage place, though it may not be everlasting – nothing is – at least can be expected to last long enough to store archives.
The solution dawned upon me when I heard about Archivio Diaristico Nazionale, created in 1984 in a small village of Tuscany by the journalist Saverio Tutino. He had persuaded the Mayor to put a section of the town hall palazzo at his disposal to store autobiographical writings. The fund was to be fed through a competition. A competition among autobiographies ! I was slightly shocked when I first attended the final and vowed I would never do such a thing. Apart from that, it was an undertaking worthy of admiration. Three years later, thanks to a friend, Chantal Chaveyriat-Dumoulin, I found a little French town, Ambérieu-en-Bugey, near Lyon. Its library had empty shelfspace and its mayor and librarian understood the interest of my project. We were going to do the same thing as the Italians, but without a competition, feeding our collection through word of mouth. That was what we did, and it works. L’Association pour l’autobiographie was created in 1992 and has already collected and dealt with 2000 texts, mostly contemporary texts written in the second half of the twentieth century. These texts are not statistically representative of reality, they are in inverse proportion : 75% are autobiographical stories (whereas such texts are infrequent, as they are difficult to write), 20% are diaries (even though 3 million people in France keep a diary) and 5% are letters (yet everybody writes letters).
Having rejected the idea of a competition, we imagined an original interactive system whereby we keep in touch with the people who send us a text.
Each text that is left at Ambérieu is filed and sent to a reading group. We have five reading groups of about ten people each, scattered in different towns of France. They meet once a month but work all the year round, reading, describing, and indexing the texts. I have been a member of a reading group since the very beginning. It is an extraordinary experience to discover texts that no one has selected, and to be able to read them without having to judge them. We don’t have to choose, since we don’t publish ; we accept everything. If a member of a reading group does not like a text, he just brings it back at the next meeting, and somebody else takes it. In the end, every text finds a congenial reader. After reading a text, we write a review of it that we sent to the author for his information. To make the texts accessible to readers, every other year, these accounts are published together in special volumes called Garde-mémoire, of which there are already six, with thematic indexes. Thanks to these catalogues, historians, sociologists or anyone interested can come to Ambérieu and consult the texts. The catalogues themselves read like novels, like the Thousand and One Nights, or rather the Thousand and One Lives, a vast range of varied and unexpected stories.
I spoke of interactivity. It also implies that each member of the Association can act in different capacities. Thus, the senders of texts can become readers, and vice versa. The APA is not a learned society, but a club of amateurs who practice the same sport. For the first time in France, diarists can have open exchanges with others about a practice that still arouses mockery and distrust. Besides the reading groups, there are groups that choose their own activities : reading published books, organizing writing workshops, discussing a theme, comparing writing experiences. These networks of exchanges, in which you are not caught up in power relationships but have an egalitarian rapport, explain why our exhibition of diaries was easily supplied with manuscripts. We also publish a journal, La Faute à Rousseau, Rousseau’s Fault, which acts as a link between us, keeps us informed of the latest development in the field of autobiography and includes thematic reports. The latest such reports were devoted to the body and to money in the autobiographical text.
There are not many of us, something like 800, and we have existed for only thirteen years. We enjoy our meetings, but have we changed anything in French society ? It would be presumptuous to think so. Let us say that we « accompany » its changes. In the last few years, women’s magazines have developped an interest in diaries and they interview me, much to the amusement of my family and friends. In literary reviews, and in TV and radio programs, you find debates on « autofiction », the rather confusing but laudatory term now used to describe autobiography and the autobiographical novel, both formerly reviled. Autofiction includes a number of extremely different works, an amalgamation which has led critics to consider it as a new literary movement, similar to what happened with the Nouveau Roman in the sixties. But the main change, the change that may have the most enduring consequences, is happening at the secondary school level. Since 2001, autobiography has been one of the five compulsory topics on the French syllabus in the eleventh grade. Thousands of teachers now have to teach it to hundreds of thousands of students. I sometimes fear that things have gone to the opposite extreme, that compulsion may be harmful, that autobiography may become a bore or a torture. Maybe I will have to found an association against autobiography in a few years’ time.
I am now getting near the end of this paper, fearing I have fallen into all the pitfalls of the autobiographical genre. The only one I hope I have avoided is the one stigmatised by baroness Staffe, affecting to speak disparagingly of oneself. If autobiography can, as I believe, aim at beauty and at the sort of truth conveyed by a work of art, it is doubtful that it can in itself be a scientific work. Can one dissect oneself ? Pierre Bourdieu tried to do so in his Esquisse pour une auto-analyse (2004), at the beginning of which he asserts : « This is not an autobiography ». What I have been doing here is autobiography, a mere testimony that ought to be integrated into a collective perspective, confronted with other testimonies, interpreted with tools that I don’t master. The « I » is but a small light, I am waking up from my autistic dream, and you are here, and I thank you.