With the sound of time’s wingèd chariot at my back, I have cautiously begun a memoir. I am no novelist. My peculiar talent, such as it is, is for phrase and argument, not for invention. Besides, I have memorized J. V. Cunningham’s poem “To a Student”:
Motive and act who made them so.
Life falls in scenes; its tragedies
Close in contrived catastrophes.
Much is evasion. Some years pass
With Some years later. In this glass
Reflection sees reflection’s smile
And self-engrossment is good style.
Fiction is fiction: its one theme
Is its allegiance to its scheme.
Memoir is memoir: there your heart
Awaits the judgment of your art.
But memoir in fictitious guise
Is telling truth by telling lies.
My memoir will include the story of my conversion, but it will not be a conversion memoir. It will include the story of my cancer, but it will not be a cancer memoir. I was convinced to undertake it by a former editor to whom I had described my ex-wife’s “mango-shaped breasts.” “You have got to write a memoir,” he demanded. The problem in writing a memoir, though, is not to describe the right shape of things, but to give some shape, any shape, to the disordered chapters of a life without resorting to the falsity of “contrived catastrophes.” Nabokov says it best: “[T]he true purpose of autobiography,” he writes in Speak, Memory, one of the great examples of the genre, should be “[t]he following of . . . thematic designs through one’s life.”
The Goodreads list of best memoirs leads off with a book that isn’t even a memoir (Anne Frank’s Diary) and includes ghost-written books, fraudulent books, memoirs in fictitious guise, and puddles of sentimental goo—except for Holocaust literature, there is little over twenty-five years old. The sole redeeming feature of the list is that Dreams from My Father ranks no higher than #38. The Education of Henry Adams, perhaps the greatest autobiography ever written, is not ranked at all.
Every would-be autobiographer should worry about the scene in Brock Brower’s The Late Great Creature (1971) in which the aging Boris Karloff-like horror star asks the magazine writer who is doing a feature on him what he’d really like to write. When the magazine writer confesses he’d like to write his autobiography, the horror star says: “Then may I say that I sincerely hope . . . that you soon find a halfway decent subject for it?”
There’s nothing worse than a memoir without a halfway decent subject. I’ve read dozens of them. A good memoir does not require a famous author, but it does require a good theme. Excluding Holocaust memoirs, which belong to a separate category, here are some of the best (or, at least, twenty-five of my English-language favorites, in addition to the ones I’ve already named):
• J. R. Ackerley, My Dog Tulip (1956). In middle age, the British editor of the Listener finds the love of his life—a German shepherd named Queenie (name changed to prevent jokes about the author’s homosexuality). Not a dog book, but rather a chronicle of unexpected happiness. An NYRB Classics book.
• William Barrett, The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals (1982). “I am not a walker in the city seeking narcissistically to capture myself,” Barrett writes in a slam at another remarkable memoir (see Alfred Kazin, below). What he is is the great portraitist of the New York intellectuals with all their changing loyalties, hot hatreds, and never-ending feuds.
• Richard P. Brickner, My Second Twenty Years: An Unexpected Life (1976). Brickner was only twenty years old when a car accident left him paralyzed from the chest down. All of the words that have been overused to describe memoirs (“honest,” “candid,” “unsparing”) were patented by him, but in supple unself-pitying prose.
• Anatole Broyard, Kafka Was the Rage (1993). A charming memoir of Greenwich Village in the ’forties by the New York Times book critic and master stylist, who also wrote autobiographically about the prostate cancer that killed him.
• Whitaker Chambers, Witness (1952). From Communism to anti-Communism to Christianity. Even today, the accuser of Alger Hiss remains a pariah to the literary world. Proof? Although Witness is undeniably one of the great American autobiographies, it will never be reprinted in a Library of America edition.
• Cyril Connolly, “A Georgian Boyhood” in Enemies of Promise (1938). Written in defense of Connolly’s claim that every critic is a “product of his time” who merely “affect[s] impartiality . . . while claiming authority over the reader. . . .” Connolly lifts the covers on his own critical authority by telling the story of his early life till leaving for Eton at eighteen.
• Lucy S. Dawidowicz, From That Place and Time (1989). The great Jewish historian was one of the last witnesses to see Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, while it was still a flourishing center of Jewish learning. Barely escaping the Nazis, she returned to New York to work at YIVO and watch helplessly as the Jews of Eastern Europe, the bearers of what she called the “Golden Tradition” in a remarkable anthology by that title, were put to death.
• Midge Decter, An Old Wife’s Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War (2001). As Dorothy Gallagher phrased it in her New York Times review, Decter’s book is an “argument against the 1960’s and 70’s in the form of a memoir.” One of the great practitioners of the harsh style, she is the mother of another great practitioner of it—the late Rachel Abrams, better known on the ’net as Bad Rachel, who died from stomach cancer last Friday at the age of sixty-two.
• Sidney Hook, Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century (1987). A memoir of the philosopher’s public battles against Communism, this is the rarest of books: a drama of ideas.
• Maureen Howard, Facts of Life (1978). Childhood, education, and career presented in vignettes by a writer who realized, nearly too late, that the women her age were ignoring their beauty and freedom while “we all yearned for the goods of dissatisfied middle age.”
• Alfred Kazin, Walker in the City (1952). Maybe the best New York book ever written, even with its narcissism (see William Barrett, above). Kazin is remarkably attuned to the textures, sounds, and colors of the Brooklyn in which he grew up, and he captures them along with his young self.
• Robert Lowell, “91 Revere Street” in Life Studies (1959). Could this slim 30-page memoir of his family, published as an afterthought in Lowell’s first volume of “confessional” verse, be the best thing he ever wrote? The prose is flawless. You’re afraid to touch it.
• Mary McCarthy, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957). I am going out on a limb here to say that Memories of a Catholic Girlhood is McCarthy’s best book—perhaps the only book of hers that will be remembered. Orphaned at six (along with her brother, the actor Kevin McCarthy), she was raised by her memorably cruel Uncle Myers (“no relation to us”). His “impartial application of punishment . . . did nothing to establish discipline,” she writes, but it did train her in a “policy of lying and concealment,” teaching her to become a “problem liar”—a novelist, in other words.
• Willie Morris, North Toward Home (1967). “Get the hell out of Mississippi,” his father urged the young Willie Morris, who took the advice to the University of Texas, the Texas Observer, and then to New York and Harper’s, where at the age of thirty-two he became the youngest editor in the magazine’s history and an aider and abettor of the New Journalism.
• Wright Morris, Will’s Boy (1981). The first volume of Morris’s autobiographical trilogy takes the novelist from his birth in 1910 (and the death of his mother six days later) to his first years of college, not yet “corrupted by an idea” nor “dampened by disappointment.” What does take shape over these years is Morris’s distinctive voice and style, which he demonstrates by intercutting passages from his novels.
• Albert Jay Nock, The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943). An autobiography in the tradition of Henry Adams’s, Nock’s says practically nothing about himself or his career. He doesn’t even name the schools he attended or give the titles of his books. What he writes instead is an autobiography of his thinking, and it benefits from the fact that Nock is not an influential philosopher but a “superfluous man” with ideas that few will subscribe to, but that he takes wholly seriously.
• Norman Podhoretz, Making It (1967). The dirty little secret of the New York intellectuals: ambition. More important to them than sex (although sex is pretty damn important to them).
• Gillian Rose, Love’s Work (1995). The Jewish philosopher (who converted to Christianity on her death bed) managed to finish this tough-minded account of her “life affair” before her death of ovarian cancer at the age of forty-eight. An NYRB Classics book.
• Philip Roth, Patrimony (1991). Roth’s “true story” of his father’s final illness. He tries neither to lyricize it nor to mythologize it—he tells it straight, in the plain “unseemly” prose for which he is famous. A guided tour to what I have called elsewhere the strange and distant planet of late-stage cancer.
• Lore Segal, Other People’s Houses (1964). Originally published as a novel—and if it is a novel it is among the best of the ’sixties—it is the story of an Austrian Jewish family who are refugees from Hitler and their efforts to find a new home in England, the Dominican Republic, and finally the U.S.
• Wilfrid Sheed, Frank and Maisie: A Memoir with Parents (1985). The Anglo-American novelist and critic tells the story of growing up as the son of the famous Anglo-Catholic publishers Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, who transplanted him from Britain to America as a boy, saving him from cricket and enabling him to discover baseball.
• Jim Thompson, Bad Boy (1953). Published as a paperback original to appeal to the readers of his unique brand of violent crime fiction (Nothing More than Murder, The Killer Inside Me), this is Thompson’s coming-of-age story—memoir as pulp fiction.
• Diana Trilling, The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling (1993). Among the New York intellectuals, it is a popular sport to revere Lionel Trilling and trash Diana, his wife of forty-six years. This is a deeply flawed book, a widow’s attempt to defend herself and salvage her reputation, but the experience that shapes and informs it—a decades-long marriage—is almost never the subject of a book, certainly not one as interesting and well-written as this one.
• Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning (1964). “Only when one has lost all curiosity about the future has one reached the age to write an autobiography”—Waugh’s great opening sentence. He was sixty-one when he wrote it, and he planned a multivolume autobiography, but A Little Learning was all he lived to complete.
• Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings (1984). Welty “shows us how close we all are to literature,” Anatole Broyard said in praising this book, “if we only knew it.” Only a hundred pages in length, Welty’s autobiography explores how her parents and her earliest reading conspired to make her into a writer—a great writer, although she is far too modest to admit she is that.
There are other obvious classics—Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, Richard Wright’s Black Boy—but you know me. I prefer the relatively obscure to the absolutely famous. Maybe that’s what I should call my own memoir: Jew the Obscure.