Writing an autobiography gives you the chance to relive your own life – and to edit it to suit yourself. Although we readers may think that an autobiography allows us inside the writer’s head, this is an illusion. We see only what we are allowed to see, and who is to tell how much is fiction, how much is fact? Often the better known the person, the less interesting the book. Generals’ and politicians’ memories tend to rehash old battles; showbiz autobiographies tend to revive old triumphs and pay off old scores. Some writers, as different as Maya Angelou and Laurie Lee, have made a speciality out of autobiography and because their books concentrate on place and other people’s characters as much as their own, they are often the most enjoyable of all.
Amis, Martin, Experience (2000). The énfant terrible of English fiction has now reached middle age, and this reflective book, moving in its meditations on time and loss, is one of the results. Very candid, funny and revealing.
Angelou, Maya, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). Singer, dancer and black rights activist tells scathing story of growing up in racist Southern USA. Also: Gather Together in My Name; Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas; The Heart of a Woman; All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes.
Brittain, Vera, Testament of Youth (1933). Upper-middle-class young woman becomes battlefield nurse in the First World War and finds her attitudes to herself and her society completely changed. A classic. Also: Testament of Friendship; Testament of Experience.
Chang, Jung, Wild Swans (1991). The author grew up in Mao’s China, only escaping to study abroad after the Cultural Revolution. Through her own story and those of her mother and grandmother, she tells the unhappy story of China in the twentieth century.
Douglass, Frederick, Narrative of the Life of an American Slave (1845). Moving recollections of life as a slave in the pre-Civil War South by man who went on to become the first great African–American orator and leader.
Durrell, Gerald, My Family and Other Animals (1956). Idyllic childhood of young naturalist in 1930s Corfu. The animals are described with zestful seriousness; the humans (including brother Lawrence) are like the cast of some eccentric farce. A classic. Also: Birds, Beasts and Relatives; Fillets of Place.
Feynman, Richard, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman (1985). Endearing, entertaining and intellectually stretching memoir by Nobel Prize-winning physicist who added new realms of meaning to the word ‘eccentric’.
Frame, Janet, An Autobiography (1990). Compendium of three books: To the Island, about growing up in rural New Zealand, An Angel At My Table, a scarring account of eight years in a mental hospital, and The Envoy From Mirror City, about trying to make a career as a writer, falling in love and finding happiness at last.
Gosse, Edmund, Father and Son (1907). Classic account of two generations clashing in the story of Gosse’s relationship with his God-fearing, terrifying father and his attempts to fashion his own character.
Holroyd, Michael, Basil Street Blues (1999). Acclaimed biographer of Strachey and Shaw turns the spotlight on his own eccentric family in a richly enjoyable, very funny book.
Keenan, Brian, An Evil Cradling (1992). Keenan turns his terrible experiences as a hostage in Beirut into a luminous, beautifully written account of suffering, friendship and forgiveness.
Lee, Laurie, Cider With Rosie (1959). A childhood in rural Gloucestershire is recalled with a loving exactness that never strays into unthinking nostalgia.
Levi, Primo, If This is a Man (1987). Levi’s unsparing memoir of life in Auschwitz forces us to contemplate both the depths and the heights of the human spirit.
McCourt, Frank, Angela’s Ashes (1996). Compelling story of surviving, with humour and humanity intact, a childhood spent in poverty and deprivation in 1930s and 1940s Limerick. Sometimes harrowing, often very funny. IT is is a sequel continuing McCourt’s story after he emigrated to New York as a young man.
Wolff, Tobias, This Boy’s Life (1999). How to survive the perils and pleasures of a typical American adolescence when you’re living in a very untypical (for the 1950s) family.
Andrea Ashworth, Once in a House on Fire;
Diana Athill, Stet;
Brendan Behan, Borstal Boy;
Bruce Chatwin, What Am I Doing Here?;
Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That;
Ben Hamper, Rivethead;
John McGahern, Memoir;
Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory;
John Peel, Margrave of the Marshes;
Lorna Sage, Bad Blood;
Wole Soyinka, Ake;
Peter Ustinov, Dear Me;
Joan Wyndham, Love Lessons.
Source Credits: Nick Rennison, Good Reading Guide: Discover Your Next Great Read, Bloomsbury Publishing, Seventh Edition