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Autobiographical writing – Critic’s corner



Franco D’Intino, L’autobiografia moderna: storia, forme problemi, Rome: Bulzoni, 1998

by Stefano Bragato 

What is autobiography? What makes a text an ‘autobiographical text’? Scholars seem to agree on one point: there is no such thing as an ultimate and comprehensive definition of autobiography. It is something everybody recognises (an ‘experiential fact’, said Philippe Lejeune); but nobody can exactly tell what it is. Writing about one’s self escapes definitions: Individuum ineffabile est [the self is unutterable], such is the epigraph of Karl J. Weintraub’s book on the theme.

Although published fifteen years ago, D’Intino’s book still stands out among the many scholarly contributions on the topic. Previous studies used to rely mainly on one particular interpretive method: e.g. Philippe Lejeune focused on autobiography’s textual and extra-textual aspects, whereas Weintraub (just to name two main scholarly directions) adopted a more historical reading. The value of this book lies instead in the uniqueness of its approach. Autobiography is looked at from different analytical perspectives (historical, formal, structural, critical, etc.), taken one by one. This allows the author to very neatly identify many of its peculiar traits, eventually outlining its profile from various points of view. By condensing different approaches in one study and making them interconnect, D’Intino offers the reader an impressively comprehensive treatment of the topic. Moreover, the constant attention paid throughout the book to the historical dimension of autobiographical artefacts, to which all the different approaches are always linked (and which is outlined in chapter one), considerably enriches the deepness of this kind of research.

Each chapter deals with a particular reading strategy, and is part of a carefully structured architecture. The second chapter focuses on the different communicative contexts, readers, addresses, publishers, and other figures involved in the production of autobiographies. By emphasising instead the similarities and differences between autobiography and related literary genres (biography, novel, etc.), the third chapter goes searching for its historical and formal boundaries. Chapters four and five conduct instead an analysis ‘from within’: here D’Intino stresses autobiographies’ formal features such as time and space of the narration, structures, plots, and also surveys their most frequent sources.

Such a systematic study is carried out under the surveillance of a constant historical eye. D’Intino traces the evolution of the genre, highlighting its modifications and adaptations to the various historical ages of the Western culture, from classical literature to contemporary writing. In line with Weintraub’s research, a particular stress is given to the romantic age, seen as the very moment in which autobiography becomes ‘modern’: man becomes aware of his identity as an autonomous self, detached from society, and therefore becomes able to start writing about it. Moreover, the legitimation of the act of writing, a concept on which I would like to focus briefly, is profoundly shaken.

What gives a person the right to narrate his own story? Up until the eighteenth century, it was the collective interest in the life’s events of exceptional people (often supported by ideological and economic agents like the Church and publishers) which entitled them to write about themselves: political leaders (e.g. the classical res gestae), writers (Saint Augustine, Rousseau), religious figures (saints, ascetics, martyrs), often presenting themselves as examples to be followed, or (as it was for Rousseau) performing a confession. With the romantic discovery of personal identity and of the private dimension of life, no longer does an autobiographer need to rely on these external justifications: his own will to narrate his own self will suffice. In other words, what legitimises autobiography now is no longer the subject-matter, but the very act of writing. This brings along two main consequences. Firstly, anyone then can be an autobiographer, especially within a literary paradigm which has just shifted the focus of art from adherence to classical models to originality (hence the contemporary booming of autobiographies). Secondly, and more importantly, the purpose of a modern autobiography does not need to be the meticulous narration of a life’s event, but the representation and expression of the ‘monolithic block of a personality’ [‘il blocco monolitico di una personalità’]: the better such personality will be represented and communicated, the more successful the autobiography will be. Under such perspective, the tools of writing, language, style, discourse become crucial, since they are the means to express effectively such personality. The moment of writing then turns out to be more important than the events narrated, because the whole universe of a self can be better expressed in written discourse rather than in history. It is no longer life producing material for writing, but it is writing which gives unity and meaning to a life.

Furthermore, in the last chapter D’Intino emphasises another important consequence of the romantic rupture. Modern autobiography is born in the very moment of history in which authority and tradition begin to be questioned and challenged: individuals, having become self-aware, start to see themselves in opposition to those. Autobiography, argues D’Intino, is always the expression of this conflict, a conflict between the individual and authority. But whereas in biography the protagonist engages such conflict with his actions, the autobiographer transfers it from the plan of history to the one of narration and discourse. The biographical hero acts; the autobiographical hero writes.

Another very valuable quality of this book is its extensive bibliography, gathering a vast array of autobiographical titles and critical studies, articulated into critical sectors. As the author says, ‘it is not just a mere critical back-up to the book, but an autonomous part of the research’. This is another factor making this text an essential stop for anyone interested in autobiographical writings.


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This entry was posted on March 12, 2013 by in Critic's corner.
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