Memoir Out of Memory!

How many of us enjoy reading about other peoples’ lives? Certainly there is a voyeuristic appeal to reading a tell-all about a person's life written by that very person. But more than that, a memoir written by the person who has survived a harrowing experience may make the reader feel that if anyone could survive that, then so can I. In fact, the trials and tribulations of the reader may pale in comparison with the memoirist's experience. Or we may look to find some positive affirmation in the memoirist's tale which bears certain similarities to our own life. Regardless of whether we feel an affinity with the author's life, or can identify with certain similar situations, some of us read memoirs to be amused, entertained and/or enlightened.

When I was young, I used to believe that memoirs were written by older people after they had lived, what then seemed to me, a lifetime qualifying them to construct a narrative of their extraordinary life. Laden with wisdom and rich with insight, their memoir would impart a positive life-lesson so that I, the naive reader, would gain a better perspective about life having learnt from the wise memoirist's perceptiveness. I was wrong. Nowadays, it seems just about everybody has a tale to tell about something good, bad or ugly that has happened to them. While discretion is a fine characteristic, when it comes to memoir-writing, discretion is usually thrown to the winds. Or we will find a memoir filled with the tedious minutiae of an ordinary life which the writer misguidedly saw fit to write about. If you do a search for memoirs on Amazon, you will get a list with 269,275 results!

So what exactly makes a excellent memoir, worthy to be read and treasured?
Neil Genzlinger (New York Times Book Review, Sunday, January 30, 2011) asserts that a good memoir is not "...a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery."
Librarian, Nancy Pearl, who confesses that she has a "love/hate relationship with memoirs" reads memoirs for "engaging characters, enlightening and/or entertaining stories and good writing."
Pearl, Nancy. "Happy Holidays, Voyeurs: Nancy Pearl Picks Memoirs." NPR. 03 Dec. 2010. 

I love literary memoirs. If you enjoy good writing, then few memoirs can compete with Nabokov's Speak, Memory and Experience:a Memoir by Martin Amis. Both Nabokov and Amis display a wonderful mastery over words.  In these eloquently written memoirs you will find good writing as well as plenty of engaging characters and entertaining stories. For the sheer beauty of the language, Speak, Memory remains one of my favorites. It is an evocatively written memoir about Nabokov's idyllic childhood in St. Petersburg. In haunting and lyrical prose, Nabokov re-creates his past that was changed by the Russian revolution.

In Experience:a Memoir, Martin Amis writes candidly and movingly about his father as well as some seminal figures of our times such as Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens. Amis is, of course, the son of the famous writer Kingsley Amis. The younger Amis declares, "...why should I tell the story of my life? I do it because my father is dead now, and I always knew I would have to commemorate him." 

On the subject of father and son relationships, here are two memoirs and, though unrelated, both writers share the last name Roth.
The title of my blog comes from the memoir, TheScientists: A Family Romance by literary critic Marco Roth, who writes, "My decision to go back through it all, as much as I can remember, was made to remind myself that I can consciously choose to make memoir out of memory." Roth's memoir emphasizes the fact that a memoir is really a story constructed from what an individual remembers. He recounts his experience growing up on Central Park West in the 1980s and '90s. Roth's scientist father died of AIDs when Roth was 19. Haunted by grief and guilt, Roth's memoir is cited as "... a ferocious literary exercise in rage, despair, and artistic self-invention," by Publisher's Weekly.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Philip Roth - the acclaimed novelist of our times - in his memoir Patrimony, describes the physical disintegration of his 86 year old father who was diagnosed with a brain tumor. With an eye for detail, Roth writes with empathy and humor as he became his father's caretaker. In the process of spending time with his father and taking care of him, Roth becomes aware of the importance of memory and staying connected.

Another writer born in Newark, New Jersey, Paul Auster, pens an elegant meditation concerning life and death in Winter Journal.  From the mundane to the sublime - beautifully and lucidly rendered - Aster writes about his getting old, his mother's death, his panic attacks and his feelings of inadequacy.  Compared to a fugue, Aster writes in the first chapter: "Your bare feet on the cold floor as you climb out of bed and walk to the window. You are six years old. Outside snow is falling, and the branches of the tree in the backyard are turning white." And he concludes with, “Your bare feet on the cold floor as you climb out of bed and walk to the window. You are sixty-four years old. Outside, the air is grey, almost white with no sun visible. You ask yourself: How many mornings left."

Christopher R. Beha (A Long Goodbye. Sunday, January 6, 2013. New York Times Book Review) declares that "A great memoirist, even one moved primarily by love and devotion, must possess a certain amount of ruthlessness - towards himself if no one else." Bearing out this dictum are the following two memoirs, both of which left me in awe: DarknessVisible: a Memoir of Madness by William Styron and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.
Spare, (a mere 84 pages!) and precise, Darkness Visible is a candid exploration of the author's descent into and recovery from depression. It is still the seminal book I have read on that topic.

In TheYear of Magical Thinking, a memoir of heartbreak and loss, Joan Didion turns her writing skills inwards as she tries to cope with the death of her husband of forty years. Unsentimental and unflinchingly honest, Didion's memoir is a study of how an intelligent and strong woman indulges in self-deception in order to deal with grief. Though the subject of this book is tragic, Didion's writing skills make the book a wonderful read.

I will end my blog by quoting Martin Amis from his memoir, Experience "...what everyone has in them, these days, is not a novel but a memoir. We live in the age of mass loquacity. We are all writing it or at any rate talking it: the memoir, the apologia, the c.v., the cri de coeur. Nothing, for now, can compete with experience -- so unanswerably authentic, and so liberally and democratically dispensed. Experience is the only thing we share equally, and everyone senses this."

So grab a memoir from this list, or choose one from our library shelves, and wile away the long summer afternoons on a journey of discovery!

- Rina B.


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