Extract, Preliminary to Autobiography

I said at the end of the last chapter that I was trying to make love to Mrs. Lackersteen, although Lackersteen was my best friend, & although I liked him much better than I liked his wife. He was much more the attractive of the two; more alive, more intelligent, less selfish, & even perhaps better looking. My feeling for him was affection, & for his wife a sort of hostility. Nevertheless I made love to her, & so acted treacherously towards him. This often happens.

To explain why I should do anything so curious, it is necessary to go back & say something about my early life. I am reluctant to do this, & I would not do it if I could help[1] it. To begin with, I hate[2] novels which go in for[3] everlasting[4] parentheses of the hero’s past history; & also I hold that in telling a story you should tell as little as you can of what happened before without[5] explaining how they became like that; & altogether use the least number of words possible[6]. But here[7] as everywhere you have to compromise, or else your novel must logically be reduced to a short story, thence to a paragraph, to a phrase, & perhaps even to a word. Adultery! There is a novel for you. But it lacks something. Very few people would buy it.

I therefore make my compromise, & ask myself, “What is it that I am writing?” Answer “The tale of John Flory.” What is this tale? It is the tale of the degeneration & ruin, through his native faults, of a gifted man?[8] How was he ruined? That is the story; my degeneration began when I came to Burma, aged eighteen. But a boy of eighteen is not a blank sheet to be written on; his character is half formed already, & so, dear reader, you are in for perhaps ten thousand words about my childhood. It is not enough to say “John Flory was a man who got drunk at least once a week, & made love to any woman who would let him.”[9] There are many men like that, but they are not all the same. You have to go˚ little deeper.

To understand any act which a man performs, even the lighting of a cigarette, it is necessary[10] to know his entire history from the moment of his birth, & beyond that the entire history of the universe. Fortunately no novel has yet gone to this extreme. I myself am trying[11] to err in the other direction. Also I shall do[12] my best to avoid weeping over the lost beauty[13] of my youth, & I shall try not to make myself out a more poetic young[14] creature than I was. If, in spite of these promises, the reader feels that he cannot face this chapter, there is an easy[15] remedy. Skip it.


[1] avoid

[2] have always disliked

[3] beg crossed out; introduce you to the hero

[4] eternal

[5] and try to avoid

[6] interlinear insertion

[7] Here

[8] man

[9] This and next sentence inserted

[10] you have

[11] have tried

[12] I should also like to say that I have done

[13] poetry

[14] inserted

[15] a ready

Written 1926-1930?, handwritten in ink on reverse of Government of Burma paper, CW 72. Preliminary sketch for Burmese Days