The five most controversial memoirs

Setting Peter Mandelson’s “explosive” autobiography in perspective.

As details of Peter Mandelson's forthcoming autobiography, The Third Man, begin to emerge in this week's papers, his former cabinet colleagues, perhaps anticipating the worst, are queuing up to condemn its timing and contents.

"Peter fell in love with himself at an early age," claimed David Blunkett today in the Daily Mail. "His tragedy is that he rarely heeds the wise advice he gives others."

But though the memoirs, which will be reviewed in the New Statesman next week, will cause consternation within the Labour Party, they are unlikely to match the following selection for public scandal. Below is our pick of the top five most controversial memoirs of recent years.

Which autobiographies have we missed? Tell us in the comment thread below.

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (2003)

Thanks to its recommendation by Oprah Winfrey, this tale of its author's vomit-caked years as an alcoholic, drug addict and criminal sold more than 3.5 million copies, sitting on top of the New York Times non-fiction paperback bestseller list for 15 weeks. But in January 2006, large sections of the books were exposed as fake. In his crassest flight from reality, Frey had even invented a role for himself in a deadly train accident that cost the lives of two female high school students.

My Son Marshall, My Son Eminem by Debbie Nelson (2008)

On his 1999 debut album, The Slim Shady LP, Eminem rapped: "my mom smokes more dope than I do/I told her I'd grow up to be a famous rapper/Make a record about doing drugs and name it after her." Debbie Nelson responded by filing a lawsuit against her son, claiming the lyrics had caused hardcore fans to spit at her in the supermarket. She was awarded $25,000. In her memoir, Nelson took the opportunity to undermine her son's austere pop persona, claiming he had an imaginary friend named Casper, that he was heavily bullied by classmates, and that he used to charge friends in his neighbourhood a quarter to watch him breakdance.

Speaking for Myself: the Autobiography by Cherie Blair (2008)

Published in May 2008 and roundly trounced in the press, the book contained unbridled criticisms of the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, who Blair said repeatedly put pressure on her husband to step down, as well as details of how her youngest son Leo was conceived only because she was too embarrassed to take contraception with her to Balmoral. The author was also heavily criticised by the family of David Kelly, the government expert at the centre of the Iraq war dossier row, for writing about his suicide.

Don't Ever Tell by Kathy O'Beirne (2006)

In a harrowing tale of childhood brutality and sexual abuse, Kathy O'Beirne claimed of her upbringing: "The Devil himself could not have dreamed up a better hell." She was, her book claimed, repeatedly abused by her father and incarcerated in Ireland's Magdalene laundries. But shortly after publication, the writer was sued after five of her eight siblings claimed she had been unfair to her family, and that their sister's "perception of reality has always been flawed".

L'Innocente: an Autobiography by Lucie Ceccaldi (2008)

One of the biggest literary controversies of recent years involves the French novelist Michel Houellebecq. His international bestseller, Les Particules élémentaires -- translated as Atomised in 1999 -- included an barely disguised parody of his mother, Lucie, painted as a selfish nymphomaniac called "Ceccaldi". In public, Houellebecq accused Lucie Ceccaldi of abandoning him to his grandparents as a baby so she could travel across Africa with her husband; in his book, "Ceccaldi" leaves her young son in an attic in his own excrement so she can enjoy a life of free love as part of a bizarre hippie cult.

So enraged was the author's mother at the book that, in April 2008, aged 83, she hit back with her own memoir, L'Innocente, in which she wrote of her son: "This individual, who alas! came out of my tummy, is a liar, an impostor, a parasite and especially, especially, a little upstart ready to do anything for fortune and fame."

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem