Ackerley Prize 2009

Awarded each year to a literary autobiography of excellence by an author of British nationality and published during the preceding year, the announcement of the 2009 PEN/Ackerley Prize was made last month at Foyles, and drew the summer events program to a fitting close. The Chair of the judging committee, Peter Parker, introduced the evening, briefly outlining the origins and history of the Ackerley Prize, which was founded in memory of J R Ackerley over a quarter of a century ago. In conversation before the announcement of the 2009 prize were 2 former winners: Dan Jacobson, author of 1986 winner Time and Time Again, and Miranda Seymour, whose memoir In My Father’s House was awarded last year’s prize. Originally of South African stock, Dan Jacobson has taught at UCL, and was awarded the 1959 Llewelyn Rhys Prize for A Long Way from London and Other Stories, while Miranda Seymour’s work has spanned a wealth of genres, from short stories and historical novels, to memoir.

The discussion opened with a consideration of what had drawn both writers to memoir, in response to which revealingly contrasting opinions emerged. ‘A memoir is something that you’re dragged to kicking and screaming’, Seymour asserted – a form which demands that its author plays both heroine and ‘fall guy’, while meeting a need in them to engage with the past. Jacobson’s response was more reflective: in his own recollection the original impulse was born of an awareness of ‘things I was attached to and things I hated particularly’, coupled with a wry desire to ‘get on with it and tell the truth for a change’. Indeed the ambivalent relationship between fact and fiction is perhaps the most tantalising aspect of memoir; in a sense, Jacobson continued, the genre satisfied a wish for a different experience from that of the novel, offering a more calculated self-exposure while evading the explicit requirements of the personal history. Both writers have ventured into the twilight zone between fact and fiction, a creative space where the boundaries between revelation and the creation of character may be artfully blurred. In some sense, the semi-fictional narrative offers the author a rare opportunity to share responsibility for creation with a predetermined structure; in describing his semi-fictional novel All for Love, Jacobson commented that the appeal of the story was the piquancy and novelty of its historical reality: not only was it ‘a terrific romp’, but, ‘it was true’.

Is this, perhaps, a sense of freedom that is absent in autobiography? Jacobson would agree, identifying a fine distinction between the strict chronology of autobiography, and the meandering, mixed genre of memoir, upon which the burden of truth weighs less ponderously. Seymour would go further, identifying an element of surprise in memoir which draws it closer to biography. For her, memoir was a revelatory experience: ‘I found myself in my father’ she comments, a discovery which she found deeply unsettling given their strained relationship, and which had unnerving implications for ‘the self I’d always rehearsed and found in fiction’. Seymour’s comments highlight the complex relationship between performance and truth engendered by memoir, and indeed the notion of ‘character’ as both authentic and created. Memoir, in Seymour’s reading, has a propensity to reveal insincerities and insecurities in the author’s own character, subjecting it to the same scrutiny as the fictional protagonist. Continuing this theme, she recalls how, as a girl, she herself was also ‘fictionalised’ by her father, whose Pre-Raphaelite vision of womanhood had a profound influence upon her early life. Reading from In My Father’s House, she relates how, as a young woman, she returned home having had her hair cut stylishly short by Vidal Sassoon. Her father was outraged by the change, and ordered her to purchase a long blond wig, which she duly bought and dutifully wore, day and night, for 3 years.

Where Seymour was acutely aware of the other players in her drama, Jacobson seemed more at ease with the past, perhaps as a consequence of the geographical and temporal distances now set between them. ‘I wanted it to be as true as I could make it’, he affirmed, but denied feeling answerable to his family, or constrained by them or by chronology – though he laughingly admits that he received complaints from childhood friends nonetheless. Like Seymour, his attitude informs the structure of his memoir: where Seymour seeks elucidation through narrative, Jacobson illuminates and preserves the tableaux of his youth through a series of episodes selected at will. His reading recalls his schooldays in South Africa, taking as its subject a boy he had known who, continually shunned by the cricket team because he was illegitimate, was finally honoured by the school only when he was killed in WW2. When asked why he had chosen this subject, Jacobson remarked that, in retrospect, he had felt that there was something about this boy’s life and death that deserved memorial, and that might otherwise have been lost completely. This generosity of motive is in some sense the guiding spirit of Jacobson’s memoir – his stated aim to bear witness to the lives of others through the lens of his own experience. The desire to, as he puts it, ‘take a raw fact and try to keep it raw’, is in some sense an effacement of the novelist, subduing the storyteller’s dramatic art to the service of truth. Is there not an effort of will that must be made in taking this approach? Jacobson would agree, but added that this was a discipline he submitted to readily, his desire to remain true to Isherwood’s ‘brute facts’ overriding his impulse to fictionalise.

Miranda Seymour’s account of her early life is, by contrast, much more dramatically rendered. Structured as a continuous narrative which draws the reader in before revealing a dramatic denouement, In My Father’s House acknowledges a debt to the suspense novel – loaded images punctuate the text, among them the lake by which her father always sat, and in which his lover was ultimately buried. There is a greater sense, in Seymour’s memoir, of a need to explain the past, and to give shape and meaning to experiences that had been traumatic and disturbing. Her interrogations were not limited to her own memories: Seymour acknowledges that her mother strongly influenced her writing, both shaping the memoir and acting, in part, as her conscience. She admits that her experience as a biographer gave her ‘a certain coldness’ towards her subjects, especially in relation to her mother, who she was conscious of pushing back to memories she did not wish to confront. In addition, her interrogations of the past, and the contrast between her own and her mother’s memories, highlighted the elusive nature of truth in the context of memoir. The significance of writing the book was not lost on her brother, however; recalling one of the many ‘cautious dinners’ she had with him while writing, Seymour remembers broaching the subject of the book. ‘There are many truths, and then there is this one truth – that is the printed truth – and that becomes the only truth’, he replied quietly.

Before moving to questions, the conversation also touched briefly on the prominence of memoir in the English literary tradition, which Jacobson contrasted with the propensity of American writers to channel autobiographical experience into novels. ‘English life is generally more secretive than American life’, he commented, as a consequence of which, he suggested, personal experience carries a greater dramatic charge. There is a sense of intimacy and familiarity to the English tradition which lends memoir power and weight, and arguably enables a prize such as the Ackerley to exist. As the discussion drew to a close, Peter Parker moved on to presenting the 2009 prize. From a longlist of 46, a shortlist of 5 had been selected: Julian BarnesNothing to be Frightened of  (Cape), Julia BlackburnThe Three of Us (Cape), Susie BoytMy Judy Garland Life (Virago), Ferdinand MountCold Cream (Bloomsbury) and Sathnam SangheraThe Boy with the Topknot [originally published as If You Don’t Know Me By Now]  (Penguin). Having praised all the shortlisted titles, the 2009 prize was awarded to Julia Blackburn for The Three of Us, and was collected by Dan Franklin, Blackburn’s publisher at Cape, who thanked the speakers, the judges, and PEN, for an illuminating and thought-provoking evening.

Report by Lettie Ransley

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