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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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