In July 2002, I have been invited in Finland by the « Academy of Autobiography » at Kärsämäki, near Oulu. Here is the speech I delivered.

Reading autobiographical texts with APA

It is my purpose today to present the French experience of APA. We call ourselves an association, in the same way as you call yourself an academy, and our Italian friends at Pieve and German friends at Emmendingen call themselves « archives ». We all have this in common that we all begin with an A and have a passionate interest in Autobiography. But our histories, as well as our characteristics, are slightly different.
First I’m going to give you a sketch ot the APA, then of each of its two founders, then I shall concentrate on the problem of how to read autobiographical texts.

Let me introduce the APA : this acronym stands for « Association pour l’autobiographie et le patrimoine autobiographique », which means Association for Autobiography and the autobiographical heritage. It was founded ten years ago, in 1992, by Chantal Chaveyriat-Dumoulin and myself. It is registered under the 1901 law, an act of Parliament which stipulated how associations should be run in order to be recognized. The membership fee is 35 € and we now have some 800 members, foreign members as well as French ones. You can join if you wish, and thus receive three times a year a copy of our journal La Faute à Rousseau. This journal is written in French, I am sorry to say. The membership elects a governing body of 20 people that meets three times a year for a full day session. It’s our parliament. This governing body elects an executive of four people, which is our government : it includes a president (Gilles Alvarez at present), a vice-president, a treasurer and a general secretary. The official address of our association is in a small town, near Lyons : Ambérieu-en-Bugey, which gives us space in the town library and asks its librarian to look after our collection of archives. We get there an half-time secretarial help, and, as I just said, space to house the autobiographical texts we receive. There are some 1400 texts so far, ranging from straight autobiographies to letters and diaries. I will presently tell you how we get them and deal with them. Collecting, reading, keeping these archives and making them known is one of the two main activities of the APA. This we have in common with the archives of Pieve and Emmendingen. The other activity is organizing events : the Apa is an active organization, it has a dozen groups, in various parts of France, that meet regularly in order to reflect, discuss or write ; it publishes a journal, La Faute à Rousseau, each number of which both deals with a special theme, and tries to reflect all the aspects of cultural life in France and abroad linked to autobiography. The APA organizes three general meetings a year : a colloquium in Paris, every March, with a round table (this year the theme was « censorship and autocensorship » in autobiographical texts), a week-end in June, either in Ambérieu or in another provincial town, and in November a Diary Day in Paris,, which will have this year as its central theme « Monster Diaries » (how can one read or re-read a diary of 30.000 pages ?). The APA also organized several exhibitions, among which a large one in Lyons in 1997, A Diary of one’s own. There is a social club-side to such activities ; they bring together people with a common passion (most of them keep a diary or have kept one, or contemplate writing their autobiography), they have also a public relations aspect : we try to offer French society a positive image of personal writings, and to struggle against strong prejudices.

Let me now introduce the two founders. Chantal Chaveyriat-Dumoulin in 1990 was a librarian by profession working in Lyons and living in the small town of Ambérieu-en-Bugey. She bought a book I had just published, Dear Diary : it’s a compendium of 47 testimonies of diarists who describe how they go about it. She herself had kept a diary in her youth, her mother had kept a diary ; so had her great aunt, and so had her great-grand-mother. Chantal wrote to me and sent me four typed pages of excerpts from her great-grand-mother’s diary, a young miss Claire Pic who lived in Bourg-en-Bresse in the 1860’s. I fell in love with Claire Pic : this young girl was so clever, so sensitive ! – and how strange, she wrote the same sort of things in her diary around 1860 as I had written in mine in the 1950 – but she wrote much better ! This encounter had two consequences : first I started a study on French girls’ diaries in the nineteenth century – a field that had never been studied before, and which led me to the publication in 1993 of a book, Le moi des demoiselles  (the self of young ladies, but the title in French is a play on words) ; the book presents about a hundred diaries framed by my own research diary. The second consequence of the encounter is that Chantal and I became friends. She took an interest in my projects on autobiographical archives and gave me a sound piece of advice just when I was giving up any hope of anybody being interested in my ideas : everyone fobbed me off with kind words. She said : « Philippe, you must found an association and register it under the 1901 law ». God help those who help themselves, in other words. How right she was. The first step to take is to create something by yourself, prove that it works, that it is useful, and then, only then, ask the authorities for their help. She had another bright idea : to locate our association in a very small town (Ambérieu has 11000 inhabitants, it is comparable in size to Pieve, Emmendingen or Kärsämäki…) and to ask the town council for help in kind and not subsidies. In Paris or Lyons, we would have been lost in the crowd and invisible. In Ambérieu, we are visible and we contribute significantly to the local sense of identity. At the entrance of the town, on the roadside, a huge sign post announces : « Ambérieu, ville de l’autobiographie » (Ambérieu, the town of autobiography) !

The other founder is myself. Who am I ? Apparently an academic whose speciality is autobiography, an author of theoretical books and books of literary criticism. But it would certainly be more accurate to put it the other way round : I am rather an autobiographer strayed into academia. My passionate interest in personal writing was born in 1953, when aged 15, I started writing a diary, and it led me, later on, to choose autobiography for my field of research, a genre much neglected by the French tradition of literary criticism. I first wrote a general survey of Autobiography in France, I then reflected over the theoretical problems of the « autobiographical pact » and studied the major works of that genre in France, from Rousseau to Michel Leiris, as well as Gide and Sartre. Then, by the end of the 70’s, I widened my horizons by going beyond lieteray autobiographies and considering what is called, in French, « écritures ordinaires », everybody’s autobiography. My great-grand-father, Xavier-Edouard Lejeune, a 19th century shop assistant, had left an autobiography. When I first read it in 1970, I thought it was nice, but schoolish, boring and simplistic. In 1978, on second reading, however, I discovered that I had been simplistic, that it was a prodigiously complicate text written in a deceptively naive fashion that had fooled me. It is then that I started « getting off the rails », drifting away from academic orthodoxy, as my fellow academics specializing in literature describe it, just as if I was a member of a terrorist organization. They frown on me as they ask : « But where so you think are the limits of literature ? ». There are no limits to literature, it may be everywhere.

Up to that day I have gone on studying contemporary works of genius, such as those of Claude Mauriac, Georges Perec or Nathalie Sarraute, but I have concurrently developed a passionate taste for ordinary writings. I have studied oral history, ghost writing, autobiographies published at the author’s expense (vanity press), but above all ordinary writings of the nineteenth century. Indeed, in the 80’s, I started launching regular appeals in the press or on the radio, asking to be lent any autobiographical writings that families might have kept. It’s some of the answers I got that gave me the idea of creating what was to become the APA. One day, I received a letter which ran more or less as follows : « Sir, I have read your appeal in… I am writing you to tell you that I have no autobiographical writings in my family archives. » I was all the more surprised as the rest of the letter was very long. After a few convoluted sentences, my correspondent came to the point : « But I have something that might interest you… », and it was his own autobiography. Then he became profusely apologetic : « I am sorry, I know I am not born in the nineteenth century, but… ». The first time I got such a letter, I was amused, I smiled. After getting a few more, I started meditating. And now I am going to meditate in front of you first on my correspondants’ predicament, then on the predicament I was now in.


Why had my correspondents feigned to misunderstand my appeal ? Because they were in a quandary. People who have kept or keep diaries or have written autobiographical texts, when they reach the second half of their lives, inevitably ask themselves what will become of their writings after their death. Moreover, especially when they have written a life story, they would like to share it still alive with a few fellow human beings. Three solutions are available. The first would ideally be publishing : but this is almost impossible. It is an illusion to think that publishers will print a thousand copies of all life stories and find readers for them. Publishers turn the manuscripts down and the refusal is very painful for the often naive person who has sent it. If a publisher turns down a novel, you curse him, but tell yourself that you are going to write a better one. If he turns down your autobiography, it is not only your text, but your self that he is turning down and you will certainly not write a second autobiography. You are so desperate that you fall into the trap of those who publish at the author’s expense. You pay, you are printed and nobody reads you. Or you may be wiser and print yourself a few copies to give family and friends : a reasonnable but rare reaction. A second solution could be the archives : in France, unless you have witnessed something historically important, you don’t stand a chance. Archives have no storage room. Archivists often have no imagination or shelf place. If you turn up to the regional archives with your diary under your arm and offer it, they will think you are mad and give you useful advice : « Sir, or Madam, you are not following the right procedure. This is what you ought to do : first, die ; then wait fifty years, then come back and see us ». A piece of personal archives is worthy of being accepted in the archives only if it has proved its ability to survive for fifty or a hundred years in a hostile environment. The third solution is to leave it up to your family. Families don’t care much for autobiographies. They do worship official memories : in any family you will find someone – usually a woman – who collects souvenirs and memorabilia, sticks photos on albums. You will almost always find a genealogy buff. But this has nothing to do with autobiographies or diaries which offer a self-centered vision of the world which is at variance with and sometimes contrary to that of the family group. You are likely to embarrass or shock them. No man is a prophet in his own country. God knows what will happen to your inheritance. A lot of things are thrown away in such cases. At best, things are kept carelessly. At the next succession the risk of things being destroyed are multiplied by ten. Nobody will remember clearly who you were. It will be thought that « it can be of no interest for anyone ». Consigned to the dustbin. Such is the future of your writing. So you write to me…

 So what am I to do - with you ? I am neither a publisher nor an archivist, nor a member of the family. I am just a human being who seems to have understood the problem. I am a life buoy on which to cling. But I can’t be a life buoy on my own ! Of course I always wrote back to say : « Yes, do send your text ». I always read it and commented on it. But I was greatly embarrassed for two reasons. First, I have my own limitations too. I am not ready to like everybody. There are people I dislike, experiences that disgust me, opinions that I find revolting. I cannot identify with everyone or everything. I can understand experiences that differ from mine, but I do not wish to be forced to approve of them. When I read a published book, or a text left in the Archives, I don’t have to give my impressions to the author. I am unswerable to no one, I am free. When I am sent a personal text, it is no longer the case. I am in direct contact with him (ou her), he or she expects me to react. In Le pacte autobiographique (1975), I had stressed the referential nature of the commitment to truth which makes both biography and autobiography different from fiction, but I failed to emphasize the relational nature of the commitment which makes biography and autobiography different : somebody who tells the truth about his or her own life is requiring to be approved of, esteemed and loved. This is the minimal requirement. More often than not some admiration for the text and style is expected. In my answer I must show cannot sympathy or admiration, it would be rude and disrespectful not to do so. But in the long run, it is untenable. The solution is for texts to be read by a group.

The second reason for my embarrassment was the concern for the future of the texts I am sent. What can I do ? Warn those who want to be published to be cautious. Direct as best as I can and without illusions those who are trying to find welcoming archives. But I have no one to whom I can give the text to read. And the cupboards in my flat cannot provide a long term solution : they are overflowing with papers and when I die, my own as well as any other papers will be thrown away. I have nothing to offer… so far at least.

I was in that predicament for a long time. And I was worried about another problem, too. There is no systematic catalogue in France of the autobiographical texts that have been published or that are kept in public archives, whereas such a catalogue exists in Anglo Saxon countries, as well as in Finland, I presume. It took me a certain amount of time to establish my priorities : cataloging texts that are already preserved is less urgent than saving texts that would otherwise be lost. In the late 80’s two encounters acted as eye-openers. First I met Pierre de Givenchy, a catholic educator in Orléans. He had created an association to help teenagers in trouble. He offered them to correspond on a regular basis with an adult, and this had led him to keep not only these letters, but anything that the teenagers would trust him with : texts, poems, diaries. He would tell them : « You want to destroy your diary ? Don’t, you will be sorry later. Give it to us to keep. You can take it back later, in ten or twenty years’ time. We will read it only if you wish us to do so ». About a hundred diaries have been left in that sort of left luggage office, as well as score of other texts. This has given me the first opportunity to read a series of contemporary teenagers’s diaries, an impressive experience. Then I heard of Pieve S. Stefano and in 1988 and 1990 attended the yearly festival when the prize for autobiography is awarded. I was both dazzled by the friendliness and inventiveness of the Archivio, and revolted that a price for autobiography would exist : it was so crual for the ten nominees to wait on the platform, and then there was the danger of encouraging disingenuity as the winner’s text was to be published. When the APA was founded, I made a firm resolution not to imitate the Archivio in that respect. I have reverted to a more flexible attitude since, as the prize does not reward one text only, but enhances the value of all the contenders’ texts and of the genre itself. And it is a way to ensure that all texts will be read and kept. By the way, in the last few years, in France, large government offices (such as the Post-Office and the Inland Revenue) have organized competitions of autobiographies among their retired staff. I accepted to be a member of the jury and did not regret it.

By the end of the 1980’s my drift away from orthodoxy had increased. Not only did I take an interest in ordinary autobiographical writings, but I developed a passionate interest in diaries, which I had never studied before. I then embarked on a series of inquiries which ended up in the publication of Cher cahierDear Diary)  in 1990 and Cher écran (Dear Screen) in 2000. In 1991, in collaboration with the historian Michelle Perrot, I organized a full day’s symposium on « Autobiographical Archives », which examined the various undertakings for collecting and keeping autobiographical texts that I had found abroad – shame on the French who have so few. I approached all the important French research bodies (CNRS, EHESS) to explain my plans for the establishment of a catalogue ; I approached local authorities to get help for my plans for organizing events (Parc romantique George Sand, ville de Chambéry). Everywhere I was rejected. Chantal conforted me, advised me and we then both decided to found the APA.


Now let me describe our system for collecting and reading texts, leaving aside the organization of events, though the two aspects are inextricably mixed.
When we began in 1992, we were full of good intentions, we had a few firm principles and not the faintest ideas of the difficulties that were awaiting us. We improvised and formalized as we went. In october 2000, after eight years of existence, we organized a week-end of critical reflexion on our pratice. This took place in a manor house in Normandy, with forty of our readers who were being watched and listened to by a psychosociologist, who is also a good friend.

We have two great principles.

First, we don’t want to deal with publishing, we never publish any of the texts we are entrusted with. Those who deposit them retain the intellectual rights and full property of their text. If they ask us for information or advice on the world of publishing, we answer them. But we never take it upon us to advise them to publish, as we know that 99% of the attempts fail. This attitude is consistent with our refusal to organize a competition : if we did, the prize could be no other than publication. We don’t want to establish a hierarchy among texts, but to give each of them a chance of being read. Our ambition is to establish a system of « micro-reading » (reading on a small scale). Our aim is not for 3 or 4 texts to be read each by a thousand people, but for a thousand texts to be read by 3 or 4 people. It’s a challenge, but we manage to ensure each text to be read, I shall explain how in a moment.

Our second great principle is that we make it our practice to read « in sympathy ». It means that we try to give each text a chance, by stressing in our account its interesting or attractive aspects, while giving our future readers honest information on its contents and style. It’s sometimes a balancing act, but what an isolated individual, such as I was, could hardly achieve was feasible by a group.

How do the texts reach us ? Through newspaper articles, public meeting and word of mouth, the help we offer gets to be known. At present, we get about 180 texts a year, some manuscripts or photocopied manuscripts, but most of the time typed texts. More women than men send texts. 75% of the texts are narratives, 20 % diaries, 5% letters. We get few XIXth century texts and few texts by young people. Most come from people born in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The size of the texts range from twenty pages to a series of 65 notebooks of 200 pages each, so it’s difficult to give an average ! We ask people if they want their texts to be read straight away, but there is also the option of postponing the reading till after their death or after many years. The texts are received by our secretary’s office in Ambérieu, where they are immediately filed. Each month the texts are sent from Ambérieu by post to various parts of France to be read. We have five reading groups, that each meets once a month : a group in Strasbourg, one in Aix-en-Provence, one in Normandy, two in Paris.

What happens during those meetings ? First the leader of the group presents the new texts that have just arrived from Ambérieu, it’s a bit of an « auction », if I may say so. The participants handle the texts, try to form an impression and then share them according to the supposed affinities and the curiosity of each of them. When you take a text, you commit yourself to reading it for the next session : however if, unluckily, there is an incompatibility between the text and yourself, you can bring it back, explain why you fill unable to review it (it is always a most interesting moment) and someone else has to be found to read it. The texts we receive are very varied, and sometimes surprising or schocking. The member of the groups are varied too, have known each other for a long time, and therefore formed an opinion of each other and the readings have occasionnally revealed personality clashes. Each session is something of a friendly psychodrama, if I may say so.  Restrained and moderate as our accounts of texts may be, the discussion in the groups are free and lively. Never a dull moment in those meetings – and I have a ten years experience ! After the new texts have been distributed, we proceed to the second phase of the meeting : each member gives an account of the texts he or she has taken at the last session. When you take a text, you commit yourself to three things : writing an account of it, about one page, that will be published in our twice yearly volume Le Garde-mémoire (Memory-safe) ; writing a personal letter to the depositor ; filling an index file. Although this is an individual work, although the review is signed, there is a collective responsability of the APA, and therefore everyone’s work is examined closely. The review is read, its contents or style are criticized, questions are asked, amendments suggested. The merits of the autobiographical text are throroughly discussed, and so are the existential problems it raises, and it’s compared with other texts previously read. The wording of the account is a delicate matter : the reader of the Garde-mémoire must be accurately informed but the depositor must not be hurt. Indeed, he is sent the account before it is published and he may correct inaccuracies, make remarks. In nine case out of ten, everything goes smoothly. In one case out of ten, there is some friction : the author wants to correct a few expression, to add a few paragraphs and sometimes to rewrite it all himself ! What a blesssing not to be on one’s own to face this trial ! In the end the author is told that since he is not satisfied, his opinion will be respected and the account won’t be published in the Garde-mémoire. At that point the author usually gives in. The last part of the meeting, which is the most relaxed of all, is devoted to the second or third reading of texts that have already been reviewed. Some of the texts goes straight back to Ambérieu after being read once : others are circulated among the group and are ultimately read by more or less every member – we call them our best-sellers.

Just to illustrate the difficulties we come across when reading, I am going to tell you about a case that was discussed at the latest meeting of my group in June. One member, a 65 year old grand-mother, happened to read two recent years of a diary kept by a sexist and dirty-minded man, full of obscenity and scorn for women. The casting was all wrong, for this should have been read by a man – but there are two men only in my group as against eight women. So she reads her review aloud : it was very well done, objective, distanciatied, it described the text with almost no trace of irony and kept aloof from such vulgarity. She then added that in her letter to the author she would try to persuade him not to send more of his diary. We protest and start an animated discussion. The autobiographical heritage must not lie on the Procustean bed of our personal tastes or ideologies. We must accept, read and keep everything. It does not mean that each of us must, as a person, approve of everything. The discussion goes a step further : what if we should receive anti-Semitic or racist texts ? Well, they should be accepted. It would certainly be difficult to read them « in sympathy » and they would be circulated as little as possible. But it’s our duty to accept them. The discussion then embarked on the Renaud Camus affair. I don’t know if it was at all echoed in Finland. Renaud Camus has been the target of a violent press campaign for having written what many deem anti-Semitic passages in one entry of his published diary. Basically, the interest of an autobiographical text is that the author should depict himself as he sees himself, in a spirit of truthfullness. People are no saints… neither are we ! We are not supposed to award prizes for virtue. And we are not supposed to impose our values upon others as if they were rules of nature.

Another of our difficulties is how to react to the autobiographical texts of those who have been wounded by life and for who writing is an outlet rather than a way of overcoming unhappiness. What are we to do with texts full of despair, hatred, revenge, obsessions, mania ? We don’t get many, but enough to be concerned. Autobiography is no longer then a heritage but a hospital. Reading in « sympathy » and writing an account that will soothe the depositor by showing him that his complaints have been listened to, that he is respected, and that will at the same time give the reader of the account a hint on the mental state of the author, is a most difficult exercice. At first we considered creating a specialized psychological cell, but we gave up that medical approach, and these cases are discussed by the group together with the others, and we try empirically to find ways to help the depositor (letters, meetings…) and sometimes to protect ourselves as well.

Since I am dealing with difficulties, let me mention another : that experienced by a group that has to read the autobiography of one of its member. If the narrative is about carreer or holidays, no problem. But if it relates traumatic or difficult experiences, you are faced with the problem of changing the way you see a person that you meet regularly, and who, through this text, forces his intimate life on you. It has happened this year to one of our groups, which has resisted for several months one of its member’s offer to speak of her adolescence diary.

And speaking of diaries, let us mention their specific difficulties. There are two types of diaries : the live and the dead ones. A dead diary is either the diary of a dead person, or the diary of a living person that has turned away from it and sends us episodes extracted from it that read almost like narratives in their own right. A living diary is a diary that the authors still keep and send us in instalments (we ask them not to send us updates every three months but only once a year). Then they are diaries that are the size of a book and the monster ones (a full trunk of handwritten notebooks). We decide for each case which type of reading is best suited. There are four solutions : 1) send the text to a reading group in the normal way ; 2) give the text to a special reader who will become the correspondant of the diarist ; 3) give the text to a group for collective reading (each member reads part of it and then meetings are organized to pool opinions and synthesize them) ; 4) wait…

There is a last difficulty that should be mentionned and which arises with diaries as well as with narratives. We are sometimes appalled by the damage that could be done by a text if it was read by the family of the author, or at his work place. Names are mentionned (though we sometimes advise the author to use a pseudonym) and many unpleasant or indiscreet things are said. It is a surprise to us to discover that it did not occur to the author, or that he did not care. We must think for him…

The remarks I have just made may sound negative and give you the wrong impression about the atmosphere of our reading groups. We are happy readers and not for the reasons some may imagine. We are often asked compassionately : « Do you ever come across anything worthwhile, across texts that could be published ? ». It is very difficult to make the questioner understand that this is a meaningless question. All sorts of things are published that I find very mediocre. Our aim is not to publish. Our first pleasure is being surprised : contrary to the unhappy people who read only books (that is to say works chosen by others), we are totally free, nobody dictates what we should read, we know nothing about it in advance and each text is a discovery. With autobiography quality is not a problem as it may be with poetry or fiction. The aim of a novel is to be a good novel, therefore it can be judged a bad one. The aim of an autobiography is not to be good but to be true, which it rarely fails to be.

We are not first degree consumers who require to be given ready-made enjoyment or truth. The enjoyment experienced by the reader of autobiographies partly derives from his own activity, which feeds even on the apparent « defects » of an allusive, badly planned, badly written, unpleasant or dishonest text. A part of us gives a second degree hearing to the text and in a way we become its co-authors, the more so as we integrate it as a part of a kind of unanimist fresco composed of all the other texts we have read with APA. The pleasure is the greater if it is shared and the texts contribute to the permanent exchange we have with the group’s members (it is a characteristic dynamics of all « reading groups », whether they read books or unpublished texts).

The only limit to our happiness is that we would like to share it, however difficult it is. As you have now understood, we don’t want to « publish », it would spoil everything. We want to develop networks of « micro-reading ». We tried depositing texts in public libraries ; it is a lot of work and it does not give good results. We proposed to the APA members to set up a « circulating library », but with no success yet. We try hard, and this seems to be a more promising approach, to persuade researchers in history and social sciences to come and read a series of our texts.

I will end by telling you about the decision taken last month by my group. Indeed I have not mentionned another problem we have : the fact that we do not receive enough texts to satisfy the appetites of the fifty people of our five reading groups. When Chantal and I founded the APA, kind souls had warned us : « You are bound to be swamped with large flow of texts ». Wrong. We haven’t been swamped. It is very hard to part with an autobiographical text or a diary in order to launch it even in the confidential space of the APA. Those last three or four years, the number of texts we got remained stable. Consequently, our group decided to stop reading for one year, in order to reread. We chose the 1939-1945 period : each of us will try to establish a personal reading agenda out of the Garde-mémoire, the catalogue of the texts received in the last ten years. If I come back for your next meeting in two years’ time, I shall tell you our achievements.

Thank you.

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© Philippe Lejeune 2002