Friday, September 8, 2017
Memoirs are all the rage. On every third show of “Fresh Air” I hear Terry Gross open with the words, “In his/her latest memoir . . .” Soon the Pulitzer Prize committee will have to create a new category to accommodate a form of writing that is neither fish nor fowl.
My focus here will be on memoirs written by famous authors (or about them, by a relative or friend or lover or enemy). Ernest Hemingway provides a good starting point. How many books have used him as the subject? He was colorful, he led an active life, he was sociable. He wrote his own memoir, A Moveable Feast, which came out in 1964, three years after his death. An elegiac sense of loss pervades its pages; he will leave Hadley and his child behind and become the bigger-than-life Papa. But Ernest was a man who held grudges, so he included an unattractive portrayal of Gertrude Stein and a mean-spirited one of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
It’s natural for a person who works with words to turn to their own lives for subject matter (especially if their ability to create fictional worlds has dried up). Though some keep limits on what they’re willing to reveal, in this confessional age such reticence seems outmoded and even evasive. In 1990 William Stryon cast aside propriety with Darkness Visible, in which he chronicled his bout with debilitating depression. He restricted himself to his disease; he had no other enemy to attack, and his only confession had to do with a past of excessive drinking. But more and more authors are coming out with the dysfunction-deviation memoir. John Bayley wrote about his wife Iris Murdock’s decline and death from Alzheimer’s; he included all the gory details, and along the way disclosed her affairs with both men and women. (A reviewer in Commentary described the book as a form of “spousal abuse.”) Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss is about her incestuous relationship with her father, which took place when she was an adult. Susan Cheever wrote about her addiction to sex. Frederick and Steven Barthelme coauthored a book about their gambling addiction (they lost over $300,000, much of it inherited money). And Styron’s daughter, in Reading My Father, did the revealing he didn’t. Including the fact that his depression, which he had found release from with medication at the end of Darkness Visible, would return to plague him (and those around him) all his life.
The memoir has become a therapeutic activity: a way to release (or unleash) pain or to bare one’s darkest secrets. Or to get back at someone. When Joyce Maynard was forty-four she wrote about a ten month live-in affair she had with J. D. Salinger when she was eighteen and he was fifty-three. Nobody comes out of this unsullied. The young Maynard was not seen by many as an innocent waif but as someone with an eye on advancing her literary career. Even her parents got heat for encouraging the relationship. Writers who reveal and attack often don’t find a sympathetic audience. Even Hemingway was posthumously criticized for his portrayals of Stein and Fitzgerald.
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking has no mud to sling, no dark secrets to reveal. In it she describes coping with loss and grief at the death of her husband, the author John Gregory Dunne. Because it won the National Book Award in Non-fiction I’ll use it to examine my “neither fish nor fowl” remark. Didion’s memoir beat out three finalists: a biography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an account of the attack on the Twin Towers, and a study of ecological invasion. Was it fair to place these heavily researched works in the same category as Didion’s personal piece? Plus, Didion had the advantage of being an accomplished wordsmith. It would be more fitting for her to compete with the seventy other memoirs published that year.
Since the memoir exists as a separate form of writing — not an autobiography, not a novel — it must abide by a separate set of rules. If the Pulitzer committee creates a new prize for the memoir I have some suggestions for guidelines. In a memoir (from the Old French memoire, memory), the author should deal with an issue that’s confined to a certain sphere. It should not cover a life (or a large chunk of one), for that’s the domain of an autobiography; as a rule of thumb, one should look warily at a memoir that’s over three hundred pages. And it should not be written in the style of a novel. It can have narrative, dialogue, scenes; but, since it’s bound to facts, it should retain the tone of a factual account. It can certainly express the author’s feelings, opinions, etcetera; and, in a memoir (as in an autobiography) avoidance of certain issues is permissible. But it can’t invent.
Most memoirs abide by these guidelines. Angela’s Ashes, however, presents problems. It was labeled a memoir and as such won a Pulitzer in the Biography/Autobiography category (its main competition was a work on Herman Melville). In reading Frank McCourt’s book I often got the feeling that he was serving up an exaggerated (or, to put it a harsher way, a sensationalized) version of events. A little research backed up my hunch: many residents of Limerick, Ireland accused the book of being a gross misrepresentation. McCourt’s mother, attending a reading by Frank and his brother, stood up in the audience and shouted “It’s all a pack of lies!” Others, it must be noted, corroborated the validity of Angela’s Ashes. Fact-checkers can make sure that a biography of Melville has accurate information, and an autobiography by a famous author is subject to scrutiny. An unknown like McCourt got such scrutiny only after his book became a best-seller. Actually, a rule that a memoir must contain no fabrication is already in place, something that the author of A Million Little Pieces can attest to. He told lies, he was caught, he faced scorn and disgrace.
When I read Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life it rang true. But, though it’s classified as a memoir, it reads like a novel. At the end the boy falsifies his records and gains entry into the prestigious Hill School. Years later Wolff wrote a novel (which reads like a novel) entitled Old School, about a boy — a budding writer — who gets into a prestigious prep school by falsifying his records (the cover has a photograph of the Hill School cafeteria). Wolff might claim that in the first book he was writing about things that actually happened, and that much in the later one had no basis in fact. But elements of both place them in the sphere of the autobiographical novel. Though Sons and Lovers closely follows D.H. Lawrence’s life, it has always been considered to be fiction.
Recent authors of autobiographical novels are Pat Conroy and Jamaica Kincaid. The Great Santini was about Conroy’s abusive father, and he was the son in that book. Similarly, I see every indication that Kincaid was the girl and young woman in Annie John and Lucy. Both these authors have written memoirs. Conroy’s The Death of Santini was completed a few years before his own death. In My Brother Kincaid returns to Antigua to care for her dying brother. I haven’t read the Conroy books, but I’ve read all three of Kincaid’s. In My Brother she sticks to my rules about the limits of the memoir. The novels are novels, My Brother is a memoir. Kincaid is the same person in all three, but the telling differs.
Fiction, memoir, autobiography, autobiographical novel — they share a kinship. In subtitling Jane Eyre “An Autobiography” Charlotte Bronte was expressing the closeness she felt to her creation. Because authors must attain emotional contact with their main character, most novels have an autobiographical aspect. This is true even if the character is abominable or crazy. In Evan Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist and Robert Coates’ Wisteria Cottage there’s compassion for people who do atrocious things; this compassion must stem from empathy. Of course, the degree of affinity between a fictional creation and the author varies. A line could be drawn; on one end we could put something like Look Homeward, Angel and on the other Around the World in Eighty Days. At the halfway point, most fiction would be on the side with Thomas Wolfe. Some authors, like Philip Roth, would stay closer to him than others.
To write a memoir, or an autobiography, or a novel in which you’re the protagonist takes a big ego. Which is not criticism — not if the result is very good, or great. What amazes me is how a person can remember so much. My past is a fragmented jumble. Even chronology is shaky. If I try to recall an image of my boyhood home I come up with a child’s crude sketch. I know emotions and an outlook on life were formed in that house, but I couldn’t put it into a coherent narrative.
Authenticity is especially suspect if an author is looking far back into his or her past. With the passage of time one’s memory becomes more and more precarious. Part of my belief that This Boy’s Life should be categorized as an autobiographical novel stems from the fact that it was written twenty-five years after the events depicted. How could Wolff remember so much, in such detail and with such specificity? In conversations I don’t expect him to recreate the exact words spoken. Here fiction must come into play: something along these lines was said. I accept that a memoir must incorporate a degree of fiction. The question is, how much is allowed before the scale tips?
And what about the human tendency to rearrange life events to serve one’s needs, to make one’s role more acceptable? I know I’m guilty of such rearranging, and I don’t believe that authors of memoirs or autobiographies are immune from it. But, since we’re seeing things through their perspective, they have a right to express their feelings. In My Brother Jamaica Kincaid harbors a consuming hatred for her mother; whether that hatred is justified is not the point. What she can’t do is engage in intentional distortion to put her mother in a bad light.
Frederick Exley recognized the dubious ground he was treading in A Fan’s Notes. It’s subtitled “A Fictional Memoir,” but in a Note to the Reader Exley writes, “I have drawn freely from my imagination and adhered only loosely to the pattern of my life. To this extent, and for this reason, I ask to be judged as a writer of fantasy.”