ABSTRACT

These questions are fraught with more dangers than meet the “I”—fatal questions perhaps, insofar as they also raise the issues of writing’s relation to death and of the inextricable link of the autobiographical to the thanatographical, on which Blanchot, Barthes, Derrida and others have written so variously and so eloquently.1 Many of these characters write as they approach death-literally approaching it in the case of Yourcenar’s Hadrian: “Like a traveler sailing the Archipelago who sees the luminous mists lift toward evening, and little by little makes out the shore, I begin to discern the profi le of my death” (MH 16); Malouf’s Ovid writes up to the moment when he “disappears”; Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid appears to be dead from the beginning (CW 6). In Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s novel, Franco’s “autobiography” can be written by another because the dictator is dead. There is a certain authority (in both the limiting and fully assertive senses of the word “certain”) that comes from death. The words of the dying over the living have a power that comes from their fi nality, from their approaching the moment when time, already running out, can no longer run out. Testamentary words, as a voice speaking from beyond death, bind the living to their will. There is a certain authority that comes from history, the past, what has been and can no longer be changed. It is this authority that these works explore and exploit. To do so, they also exploit the structural generic di erence between biography and autobiography, the former written by the living subject about an other (preferably a dead other, because death is what allows for the completeness of the biography); the latter written by the living “I” about the past but (inevitably) still living self. Autobiography, by its own nature, is always incomplete, because the only autobiographical statement that would complete it, “I am dead”, is the one impossible assertion that cannot be uttered as a literal, autobiographical statement. The texts studied here, many of which place themselves and their subjects on the very edge of death, may thus be the only way in which the dead character can utter the statement “I am dead”, though through the agency of another, and achieve the completeness that autobiography is denied but that the subject desires.