Portnoy’s Complaint, Anton Chekhov and a young Bosnian woman …

I have a complaint. Not Portnoy’s, thankfully, nor any of the ones considered traditional among Englishmen of a certain vintage, but one that – if I might briefly channel Maureen Lipman – has a ‘phobia’. (If you’re going to have a complaint, have one with a Greek suffix: it carries much more weight.) No: I have autobiographobia.

I wondered if such a word existed, having become curious after a mild rant one evening about writing that seems obsessed with explorations of the self and the curious way that ‘fiction’ conflates that with words like ‘authentic’. (Surely the word ‘fiction’ was a clue?) Being a modern-ish type, I Googled it and got a pleasant surprise. It turns out that I have something in common with Chekhov.

Before you start wondering if I’ve randomly developed the early symptoms of chronic delusion, the word ‘autobiographobia’ turns up in this most literary of medical practitioners correspondence, and is described as a ‘horror of self-exposure’. (Anything else I have in Chekhov will have to wait will I practise.) Those who were with me on a fated morning on a narrow boat in Chester many decades ago may be laughing up their sleeves at this point (unlike the unsuspecting lunchtime drinkers on the canal-side terrace, who might have wished for rather less by way of ‘self-exposure’, no matter how unintentional), but as I’m writing this blog, that’s as much detail as you’re going to get. And yes, I’m probably hiding behind attempts at wit right now. (Gratuitous additional aside: at least only a small wit was required.)

Much like David Jauss (although less often, of course), it intrigues me that one reaction you so often get to your own fiction is ‘Is it a true story then?’ In the case of the story recently published in Mechanics Institute Review 10, it was possibly a reasonable question: I am a middle-aged gay man, but I doubt that I’d successfully pass as a Mancunian, let alone an astronomer. And my probable lack of accuracy with both jam-jars and mathematics – albeit in rather different ways – make the rest of the story frankly unlikely in terms of autobiography. At least reading an extract of it aloud (you can listen online) wasn’t too uncomfortable an experience: I was narrating as a character, not as myself – and as a character that wasn’t an implausible stretch from the reality of me. (Well, give or take the actual details of my life beyond my rough age and hopefully not-quite-so-rough sexuality.)

The previous time I’d read in public – a short piece called Thrown – the questions afterwards amused me. One or two people did ask me if I’d ever been thrown through a window – interestingly, the answer is ‘Yes’, although in rather different circumstances. (The explanation starts with “I was mistaken for a skinhead …”) But no-one noticed that the story never reveals the gender of the narrator: in my head, the speaker is female, although it doesn’t actually matter – the story really isn’t about her. Or him, or whoever. Thankfully, nobody asked me if I actually killed my father as a small child, so maybe the fictional penny dropped. Or perhaps they were just scared …

Next Monday, I’ve been invited to read again: it’s a great honour, and I’m delighted and flattered in equal measure. The ‘narrating in character’ element will be a very definite stretch, however. No amount of putting on a t-shirt that reads ‘Live from Jodrell Bank’ will be sufficient to convey the persona. So I shall ask the audience’s indulgence, and politely request that they use a modicum of their imagination(s). Fingers crossed they enjoy the story, and I hope that I manage to read it well. But anyone who asks me afterwards if, twenty years ago, I was a young Bosnian woman might have to buy their own next drink.


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