Category Archives: autobiographical

“Boy” by Roald Dahl

All authors were once children, none more so than authors of books for children. They have that magical ability to remember the joys and sorrows of youth. Roald Dahl had that gift by the bucketload and it led to truly wonderful books like “The BFG”, “Fanastic Mr. Fox”, and many others.

I’m lucky, I think, because I never read his books as a child – somehow I missed out on Dahl. However a friend recently got me the box-set of his entire works for me to read to my own children and we’re loving them together. I was delighted to find the two volumes of Dahl’s autobiography in the set – “Boy” (which is on the 501 Books List) and “Going Solo” (which isn’t).

I enjoy autobiographies anyhow, but I particularly relished “Boy” because Dahl sets out to recount only the stories from his childhood which he can still see vividly in his memory as a middle-aged author. The result is a vibrant tale of mischief, school-days, and strange characters he encountered. Having read all his kids’ books recently it was easy to spot a few things which turn up later in his fiction. There’s his addiction to sweet-shops, some very tall people (including himself), and a plot involving mice. In the later volume, “Going Solo”, which covers his years working for Shell Oil in Africa and then flying for the RAF in World War II, there’s an amazing description of him walking amongst giraffes and talking to them which makes me suspect I know the original of the Giraffe in “The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me”.

But for “Boy” he mines his life from age zero to twenty. There are stories of his family’s annual trip to the remote islands of Norway, details of the tuck box system, enthusings about his lifelong photographic hobby, and wince-inducing descriptions of the canings he endured for misbehaviour in school. Any fan of his writing will enjoy this short, and fun life-story, but I think autobiography buffs will enjoy it too because of the light hand he uses in picking out the highlights. There’s a total lack of boring dates and facts, the photos are all interesting, and the details included are well-chosen.

“Boy” could be read by junior fans of his fiction, but I’d suggest keeping “Going Solo” for the ten-plus age range as some of the stories there are more brutal in nature.

In case you’re wondering, Boy is what he signed himself in his letters home from boarding school.

(read March 2012)

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“Walden; or, Life in the Woods” by Henry David Thoreau

Not having been educated in North America I had heard of Thoreau only because the quotation (below) from this book was used in the movie “Dead Poets’ Society” –

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die; discover that I had not lived.”

At only 216 pages, his detailed account of his two years living at Walden Pond in a cabin in the woods won’t delay you long, but while you read it you’ll feel like you’re there in the forest with him. You watch him building his simple house, sowing his beans, studying the lake on his doorstep, and musing on topics like economy, solitude, clothing, sounds, and visitors.

He had plenty of visitors. “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” I love that idea.  If more came, they stood and he had more than twenty in his single-roomed cabin more than once. I had assumed he lived a hermit’s life. But actually he used to walk into town most days, along the railway track, except during deep snows.

The sheer variety of concepts amazed me, and much of his advice is excellent. He tells readers to avoid new enterprises which require us to buy new clothes, but to try it in old clothes first. Everyone who bought new art sets, sushi kits, and exercise gear this January can relate to that idea.

He studied the ice on the pond in winter by lying down on it at all times of the day and stages of freezing to count the bubbles per inch. The wildlife, which became accustomed to him quickly, must have enjoyed that scene.

Having eaten fried rat when necessary, he believed that as civilisation progressed all men would stop eating meat. His largely vegetarian diet during his two years at the pond came from his economical but low-effort farming. He even gives the full accounts of his expenditure and income during the two years in order to convince others to try the experiment, because he believed we need to stop burdening ourselves with worldly goods to realise our full potential. Reading this in the aftermath of a major house-crash here made me realise how applicable much of his thinking is today.

This beautifully written, inspiring book should be read slowly and enjoyed as much for his ideas as for the language he uses. His love for Walden Pond shines through. He left the woods to try out a new life and to avoid being stuck in a rut. Clearly it remained with him forever, urging him, as he does the readers, to explore the vast worlds inside his own mind and soul, and to advance confidently in the direction of his dreams.

(read December 2011)

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“Confessions” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau (1712-1778) was a French philosopher and writer and, according to the introduction to my edition of this book (Oxford University Press), the originator of the modern autobiography.

For those reasons alone, it would be informative to read the story of his life. But, to my surprise, he had a very unusual life which merited documentation even apart from his celebrity as a famous philosopher. Reading the book took me ages which can be a bad sign (i.e. boredom) but in this case I was relishing it.

Rosseau wrote his life story over a fairly long period of time and strove to explain to readers about the negative as well as the positive parts of his character (hence the Confessions title). In later life he felt persecuted by his many famous friends and patrons. He certainly wassn’t afraid of pointing out their faults either, which is why the book was published only after his death. But it gave him the freedom to include events which otherwise would have reflected badly on him or landed him in jail for libel. If he was writing today, there’s no doubt the publisher’s legal team would heavily edit his narrative.

He was one of the first to include details of his early life and childhood in an autobiography. In his case he insisted that you couldn’t understand the grown man without knowing the formative events of his life. So I read about his poor relationship with his father, his education, boyish mischief (including peeing into the kettle of a grumpy neighbour while she was at church), early crushes, and his eventful young adulthood when he abandoned an apprenticeship. Thereafter he lived by his wits in great poverty, discovered girls and (sometimes sinister) clergy. He changes faith, travels widely, misses great opportunities, falls in love, steals, becomes a foreign diplomat, and becomes friends with high nobility despite his relatively humble birth in Switzerland. He’s also surprisingly frank about his amorous activities throughout his life – clearly 18th century French philosophers were a wild lot.

Considering Rousseau is well-known for his writing about education (which friends of mine studying that area tell me he is still referenced today) and remembering that he writes in a far from patronising way about his many female friends and patrons, it was surprising to find tucked away in the story the fact that his and his long-term partner Therese had five children, all of whom they gave away to orphanages. This wasn’t that unusual at the time, especially in improverished families, but I wasn’t surprised to find that his rivals used the information against him in later years. It’s clear, reading between the lines of his story, that he regretted the decision later but was unable to trace the children. This part of his life is only briefly included, so his confessions aren’t as complete as he boasts, despite their 650 pages of length.

Were the Confessions interesting even if you know  nothing about Rousseau? Yes. Are they a modern autobiography? Yes, but the writing is of the 18th century style and because you’re unlikely to be up to date on French celebrity gossip of that period you will need to use the notes to work it out. Who is likely to enjoy this book? Anybody with an interest in writers, France, music (he was also a composer and musical innovator), or human nature. But be warned – he does go on a bit about his health.

“No one can write a man’s life except himself” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

(read Septemeber – November 2011)

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“De Profundis” by Oscar Wilde

Before I get into the review for this book I should declare some bias first. I’m a huge fan of Oscar Wilde’s work, both his fiction, poetry, and plays. We’re both Dubliners too. Actually I was surprised to find that I hadn’t read “De Profundis” before.

The title, given to the work by Wilde’s friend Robert Ross, means “From the Depths”, is an appropriate name for a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas (a.k.a. Bosie) between January and March 1897 from Wilde’s prison cell in Reading Gaol. For anybody who doesn’t know, Wilde was in prison thanks to his affair with Bosie. Douglas had a more than difficult relationship with his father (Lord Queensbury of the Queensbury boxing rules) and after a series of public stand-offs between father and son, several court cases were taken with the final result of Wilde being disgraced form his position of famous playwright and leader of the aesthetic movement, and imprisoned.

The letter was written on blue prison paper, admininstered to Wilde one page at a time, not ideal conditions for great writing. It reminded me intially of the recriminations of any spurned lover towards the one who rejected them – half anger, and half continuing love. But Wilde moves on swiftly to analysing the demise of their relationship and attempting to counsel Bosie on the flaws in his character which he fears will ruin his future life. He freely admits his own flaws and claims to be a changed man thanks to prison life, the loss of access to his children, the ruin of his artistic life, and bankruptcy which included the forced sale of his cherished art and book collection to pay for extravagances prompted by Bosie.

Yet despite the anger he expresses towards Bosie and his clear depression over the new conditions of his life, Wilde devotes most of the letter to describing how in falling so low he has found himself a new life and wants to pursue that life once freed. He believes that his suffering (the prisoners’ conditions were not good by modern standards and breaking stones all day long probably wasn’t easy for a man used to high life and dinner parties) has enabled him to realise his true soul. While he professes not to be a religious believer, he does lay claim to a profound spiritual revolution in his life and likens himself to Christ in his understanding of the weak and the suffering. This is bound to irritate some Christians, but given that he was reading the gospels in ancient Greek each morning, it’s hard to dispute his right to speak on such matters.

At 114 pages, “De Profundis” appears at first glance to be a quick read, but I found it deserved a slow read as the prose itself is fairly dense with classical and modern allusions, and the concepts covered do need a little thought. So if you’re looking for a page-turner, keep looking. However if you’re interested in Wilde’s life, it is worth a read. He skims over salacious details. He doesn’t “kiss and tell” but the reader is left with no doubt that Bosie Douglas was no innocent victim of an older man. Interestingly, the letter fell upon deaf ears. In later years he denied that the letter was addressed to him and it certainly didn’t cause him to reconcile with Wilde upon his release.

I would strongly recommend that “De Profundis” is read in conjunction with Wilde’s great poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” as the two complement each other.

(read May-August 2011, intermittently)

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