What is a “midlife crisis”? Is it a wake-up call when one looks back on one’s life and wonders what could have been done better, or what different routes one might have taken had one married X instead of Y, chosen to live in country J instead of C, or earned a graduate diploma in E instead of H? Is it a kind of bewilderment and disbelief at where one has ended up, like the line from that song by the Talking Heads, a band popular in my teenage years: “You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”
Maybe that’s why some writers of fiction turn to sordid, semi-autobiographical accounts, thinly veiled, of their own lives when they hit a certain age, usually between their 40s and their 50s. The writer Paul Theroux commented once in a filmed interview that writing fiction—at least, his sort of fiction—is like holding up a mirror to oneself, only that the mirror is cracked. What emerges is a fragmented, distorted, and incomplete view of the person who writes it, whether “it” is a novel or a full-fledged autobiography smartly affixed with the “non-fiction” label.
But how could any autobiographical account be that truthful, fictional or non? Surely a person’s account of himself, no matter how carefully and methodically constructed, only reveals a small portion of the reality of his existence. And if, as some say, we human beings are constructed not simply out of our core “selves” but also and perhaps more importantly out of our relationships with other human beings--the myriad of beings who love, care for, teach, nurture, befriend, befoe, and otherwise guide us into our own unique futures--and out of their own memories of us, why then, only the painstaking work of an impersonal biographer might bring to light the true nature of a single human life, if such a “nature” exists at all.
Yet how many of us merit the attention of such a person, one who might spend years patiently wading through piles of documentation, reconstructing another’s life out of the skein of clues left by a life lived—letters, memoirs, second-hand accounts by friends, foes, and family (often one and the same), bills, blogs, and sundry other records, both public and private. All that sorting, sifting, and weighing of the evidence, working through the contradictions, taking account of personal and impersonal biases—such is heavy work indeed. Not many human beings merit being the subject of such hard work, and I certainly would not count myself among them.
Nevertheless, some people come to feel that the life that they have lived up to this moment, no matter how small, insignificant, and petty it may seem when compared to those lives that we tend to gravitate towards when we head to the biography section of the bookstore or library, is still worth writing down. Perhaps ultimately the motive of a writer in picking up his pen to record the steps of his own humble path in life is to try and make sense of that life—a hopeless task, yet one that we all engage in constantly, whether on paper or merely in our own minds.
When the novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux wrote his own autobiographical novel, My Secret History, surely he was looking for some answers to the conundrum of his own life as a writer, traveler, lover, husband, father, and keeper of secrets. And like Theroux writes in his novel, many of us live multiple lives in the guise of one—some of them quite public, others clothed in the deepest secrecy. We all have secret lives. Yet most of us have the decency and the sanity to maintain that veil of secrecy.
Then there are those among us who feel the itch to reveal our secrets. We call them “writers.” Some do so enticingly, slowly opening the inner workings of their lives and their minds like the blossoming of a flower or the outward radiation of waves when a stone hits the surface of a still pond. Others string their secret lives along like a pearl necklace and open the case for everyone to take a quick look, before closing it up again tight like the oyster that once held the shining pearls. Then there are the pearl divers, the brave few who dive deep beneath the water, sink their hands into the murky muck, and emerge hours later gasping for breath with armfuls of oysters, their knives ready to shuck the muddy shells in the effort to find those glistening beads. Think of all the beautiful oysters that give their lives to find just one pearl.
On the other hand, most pearls these days are cultivated in oyster farms, thus ruining the suspense of finding one in nature and thereby making them both far more ubiquitous and far less interesting and valuable than they were in times past. Dare I make a comparison to writers and to books? The analogy begs for such a comparison, and yet it would be presumptuous to state that many of the books one reads today are the product of the same sort of profit-oriented formula that goes into creating an oyster farm. Certainly one can find all sorts of “aids” to book writing today, including computer programs that practically write the books themselves. Perhaps someday we will have robots to do the job. Then we can all relax by the pool and simply enjoy being readers. Or maybe we are already surrounded by book-writing robots, or by computer programs churning them out by the millions, and we are simply unaware of this circumstance.
Getting back to the question of why Theroux chose his moment (the mid-1980s) to review his life and write something about it, and not years later when the sun was sinking on his life, or years before when all the characters and stories of his life’s vigorous youth still burned brightly in his brain, perhaps it is sufficient to quote from Dante: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura ché la diritta via era smarrita.
To get to Heaven, Dante had to go through Hell. Yet as Theroux remarks in his autobiographical novel, or more accurately, as his character Andre Parent remarks in his youth, Hell is a much more interesting place.