Wednesday, June 12, 2013

On writing a memoir

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”:

Fiction, but memoir. Here you know
Motive and act who made them so.
Life falls in scenes; its tragedies
Close in contrived catastrophes.
Much is evasion. Some years pass
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.
How many celebrated memoirs of the last twenty-five years—the boom times for “creative” or “literary” memoirs—are indicted by those last two lines! I prefer to look elsewhere for models. The Amateur Reader’s account of Elias Canetti’s The Tongue Set Free is tempting: it “follows his education, which means, mostly, his reading.” My life has been eventful, but the events have almost always been strained through books. (See the one chapter I’ve published, for example—my memoir of Raymond Carver. Four books are mentioned within the first seven sentences!) If I were honest, and cared as little about the literary marketplace as I claim to, my title would be Mediated by Books or Books Do Intercede For Me.

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.


Paul Joseph Strassfield said...

I know they're famous, but what about Hemingway's The Green Hills of Africa and Dinesen's Out of Africa? They're good memoirs, too.

I'm happy for you, and hope that you publish your memoir, chapter by chapter yourself on A Commonplace Blog. A publisher should pay you to do it on your site, or another exclusive site.

If you choose not to then I hope that you continue blogging in the meantime because I'll be reading, and looking forward to your memoir.

Brandon said...

The first memoir I ever remember reading was A. J. Cronin's Adventures in Two Worlds, in what must have been freshman year of high school at the latest; I liked it so much that I went and checked out his novels from the library, and I didn't like any of them. I've never gone back to try Cronin's novels again, but I've always found the disparity in my first impression interesting.


Henry Green's "Pack my Bag", perhaps? for that call of the remote and interesting syntactical manner of writing.

George said...

I gave away my copy of Memoirs of a Superfluous Man a couple of moves ago. It seems to me that its motto is that of Theleme, "Do what you will," and that an ethics based on aesthetic judgments--however sympathetic I may find them--is not sufficient.

Does Witness perhaps suffer too much from the insider's view of the omniscient, omnipotent apparatus? Would one know from reading it that by about the time of its publication the FBI had so thoroughly penetrated the US Communist Party that Hoover was in a position to take it over, but though it not worth the trouble?

Sheed's In Love with Daylight: A Memoir of Recovery is well worth reading.

scott g.f.bailey said...

A memoir, excellent! I hope it takes you 20 years to finish!

(You will write other good things in the meantime, of course.)

zmkc said...

I don't know if Imre Kertesz's Fateless fits into the category of memoir. It is certainly very good. In a similar vein, there is Last Waltz in Vienna by George Clare, which is the best eye witness account of the anschluss and the startling revelations it brought to the many inhabitants of Vienna who thought of themselves as Austrians but discovered that their neighbours thought of them as Jews. The most horrifying moment is when Clare remembers that he himself wanted to join the crowds running along beside the German tanks with their flaxen-haired drivers. He understood that he couldn't, but he also understood the excitement of being able to. Shudder.

Andrew Fox said...

David, best of luck with Jew the Obscure. I'll certainly buy a copy! I have a bit of experience with some of the issues you raise in your survey of the best memoirs. I recently finished a small book describing my experiences heading up a six-year public safety education campaign to prevent celebratory gunfire in New Orleans, following the death of my counsin Amy from holiday gunfire on New Year's Eve, 1994.

PMH said...

Of what are you a special witness? What in your life is so unique that you need to recreate it for your readers? And, so that you "connect," what can you say about what you've witnessed and can recreate that engages the lives of your readers? We don't need writers to say/describe/witness to what we easily can express in our own lives or see in others. We don't need ax-grinders either. We need writers who say what, for some reason, we cannot admit or express. This is all "close to the bone" type stuff, but this is what we need to read. To my mind, there is no more perilous form of writing. The social, historical, and deeply personal merge (or those things of which you have a deeply personal or creative interpretation) and we read what we wish we could write ourselves.

PMH said...

One more thing (I used to teach this stuff so I'm full of what is probably worthless advice): what do YOU need to discover about what you've experienced? Begin with the feelings or ideas that are absolutely crucial but need to be fully discovered and articulated and, so far, have resisted both. Probably, this is what your readers need to know. Start peeling away those protective layers and get to the revelatory. Again, no ax-grinding.

D. G. Myers said...

No grinding axes? What am I going to write about, then?

marly said...

I look forward to it. May you have many years to write and revise and tinker!

Rand Careaga said...

Would you count A Fan's Notes as a memoir, and if so, as a worthy specimen?

D. G. Myers said...

I go around and around on A Fan’s Notes—have a love/hate relationship with it.

On the one hand, it is pretty clearly “memoir in fictitious guise.” (And from that angle, it’s not surprising that Exley could never repeat its success. The later books are terrible. Have you read them? Ugh.)

On the other hand, A Fan’s Notes is perhaps the most harrowing account of depression and anomie ever written; and in glorious prose.

Where would I classify it? I don’t know. I don’t know that I’d even recommend it, although I am scoured each time I reread it.

PMH said...

My dear Myers, your life is the best ax to grind. The social and political will be good for what they reveal about you, not the other way around. Now--start writing. I want a draft by the end of the summer.

Late '60s, Santa Cruz, begin there and circle back for the earlier stuff.

Rand Careaga said...

Concur regarding Exley's subsequent books, although I recall being happy to learn that he also admired Edmund Wilson. Some writers have just one book in them. Better A Fan's Notes than, say, Fifty Shades of Grey, no? Better for Exley, anyway. He'd have drunk himself to death that much sooner had he cracked the bestseller list.

I talked up A Fan's Notes to a woman I was keeping company with following the collapse of my domestic arrangements in the late 1980s. She found it deficient from the standpoint of, uh, enlightened gender politics, and since then I have been chary as well of recommending the title.