Several unequivocal announcements about its status preface Scar Tissue: the cover says A NOVEL in small caps, the ISBN listing says “Fiction,” and the copyright page bears the statement, “This is a work of fiction. No resemblance to persons alive or dead is either stated or implied.” Yet this book, concerning a mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s, reads like a memoir, not only in its autobiographical opening (“I do not want to remember her last hour”) and its autobiographical end (“My fate has come to meet me. My voyage has begun”), but also, and chiefly, in its restriction to a single life.
The novel typically looks to a broader society for its canvas and though the term “lyric novel” has been used for a fiction that takes place chiefly in the mind and life of one person, even Virginia Woolf balanced Mrs. Dalloway with Septimus Smith. Thus one cannot help reading Scar Tissue as autobiography, even while one accepts that Michael Ignatieff has elaborated fictionally upon its painful situation—a son confronting the gradual disintegration of a much-loved mother. Even an autobiographer can claim privileged knowledge of only one sensibility—his own—and the personalities surrounding him (in Ignatieff’s case the father, brother, and wife of the protagonist) are necessarily fictional creations. And even an autobiographer cannot know how his own life will end—so the envisaged future, too, must be a fiction.
Recent theorizing about autobiography has treated it almost always (wrongly, I think) as a subgenre of fiction. Such theory rightly notes the unavoidably fictional aspects of autobiography, but it refuses to acknowledge the disparity between the imaginative impulse of autobiography and the imaginative impulse of fiction. Fiction favors wildness (even if it is the decorous wildness of Emma’s matchmaking or the secret wildness of Madame Merle’s plotting), and it obeys laws of internal form. Autobiography requires strictness (even if it deceives itself on fact), and it respects the contour of a life. Fiction begins in creation; autobiography begins in the given.
The given, here, is the decay of the mother’s mind. From it, everything else follows: the anguish of the narrating son and of his father, the irritation of the narrator’s neglected wife, the pragmatism of the narrator’s physician brother. Though other people in the story (the narrator’s grandmother, his mistress, his son) have proper names, the central characters do not. The narrating “I” refers always to “my father,” “my mother,” “my wife,” “my brother.” The other actors have no reality apart from his sense of them; their lives do not go on elsewhere; they exist only in his presence. This narcissism seems foreign to the form of the novel where we expect that the novelist will depart from himself and imaginatively participate in the whole life of at least one other person. Even the narrator’s mother—“my mother”—has no life of her own; her consciousness is not available to us, and we do not see her …