No less than a novel, an autobiography is a work of art or, at least, of craft. The two forms are opposite sides of the same literary coin: Fiction is a kind of autobiography and vice versa. “An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned,” novelist and journalist V. S. Naipaul has written, “but fiction never lies: it reveals the writer totally.” Some autobiographies, especially those of writers, have achieved great literary merit by virtue of their very evasiveness and stylization: Graham Greene’s A Sort of Life (1971) and Naipaul’s own The Enigma of Arrival(1987) come to mind. “When you are excited about something is when the first draft is done,” admonished Ernest Hemingway, whose standards were as severe as Naipaul’s or Greene’s, “but no one can see it until you have gone over it again and again until you have communicated the emotion, the sights and the sounds to the reader, and by the time you have completed this the words, sometimes, will not make sense to you as you read them, so many times have you re-read them.”
What William F. Buckley, Jr., and/or his publisher have chosen to bill as “an autobiography of faith” is, in Hemingway’s terms, a first draft. Less famous writers tend to be edited more stringently. It is necessary to say this, and its truth is self-evident in this book’s languid and excessively parenthetical, not to say lazy, discursive, and rambling, style. It is not necessarily a harsh criticism, though, if we call Buckley not a writer in a high-minded literary sense but what he is: a public political figure whose stock in trade is argumentation expressed in spoken and written English. Those who object to Christianity or to Buckley’s well-known right wing political views or distinctive and sometimes puzzling persona will find sufficient reason, in their own clusters of prejudices, not to like or, more probably, not to buy and read Nearer, My God. More open-minded people will find much of value in this thoughtful and interesting book.
Every writer confronts what Greene shrewdly called “the personally impossible,” the necessary evasion of which constitutes the writer’s art. Buckley comes up against it rather early in this ostensible attempt at artful self-revelation. His honest and disarming tactic is to shrug amiably and observe that he is better at some kinds of writing than at others. “My mode tends to be argumentative,” he explains. “For this I have to offer as an excuse only that when I entered the public arena, everybody (it seemed) was on the other side, and for that reason my polemical inclinations have always been reactive.” Buckley seems a rather private man, evidently ill at ease with the prospect of self-revelation, which is fair enough. On the other hand, effusive and misleading jacket blurbs, such as those perfunctorily given here by Buckley’s ideological allies and personal friends William Bennett and Charles Colson, should be banned; Colson, for example, is deceptively wrong to describe the book as “at times deeply personal.” At most, it is, at times, somewhat personal. Only in its evasiveness and in a few stilted, yet enjoyable, passages of personal narrative can it be called an autobiography.
Nearer, My God is a grab-bag assortment of chapters on religious topics on which its author felt inclined to comment, with only a faintly discernible narrative thread, if that, connecting the whole—a deficiency of which he is well aware. In the introduction, he relates how the project began “over ten years ago” when someone asked him to write a book titled Why I Am Still a Catholic. “I demurred, using as an excuse that I had books charted for two book-writing seasons ahead,” he writes. “But after a month or so, I thought to accept the commission, provided I could put off work on the book until 1992. When I sat down in Switzerland (which is where I write my books) to begin the project, one thing occurred to me quickly, something else later.” The casually explanatory and workmanlike tone alerts the reader not to expect anything too deeply personal. He elaborates at some length:
I didn’t want to call this book Why I Am a Catholic for reasons already given. As I put it to bed I realize, also, that its tone is not what I’d have hoped for. There is the temperamental...
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