Magnificent Memoirs

How long have we been living in the Age of the American Memoir? Autobiography has existed for centuries, of course, but sometime in the past couple of decades, in this country anyway, true-life stories seemed to overtake the novel in their mass appeal.

Funny thing is, while I have continued to read novels and various kinds of nonfiction books during this time, I pretty much stopped reading memoirs. Not sure when, exactly -- or why, exactly. Maybe it was in 2001, when the journalist and essayist Meghan Daum turned thirty and wrote a book called My Misspent Youth. I was forty-two then, and I recall chortling at the absurdity of the youthful memoirist – how much life can you have to retell, how much perspective to offer, when you are a callow thirty?

Of course it is true – or at least, I believe it is – that a great writer can make almost anything interesting. My turning-away from contemporary American memoirs may have more to do with the new prominence of certain themes and approaches – confessional chronicles of family dysfunction and the therapeutic modes associated with them – and the retreat of themes more appealing to me. Somehow, in my mind anyway, the contemporary American memoir got lumped in with reality TV and Jerry Springer-like talk shows where engineered conflict, personal damage and a penchant for noise, buzz and “edginess” were the rule.

And so – fairly or not, and surely in some cases to my detriment -- I have missed, or dodged, such sensations as Girl, Interrupted; The Glass Castle; The Liars’ Club; A Wolf at the Table; Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood; The Kiss; Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness; and many many more.

The memoirs I have admired most in my life – and admiration is not strong enough a word to describe the almost deliriously affective pull these books had on me – engage other themes:  love; loss; memory; the enigma of mortality; the battle with time and its implacable henchman, change; the allure of art and the kinds of life that can serve as springboard to it. The memoirs I read in my twenties and thirties take up these themes, often with writing that combines sharp insight with a capacity for opulent lyricism. Some of these memoirs are works of literature as precious to me as any.  

I’ll list them, but first let me mention, and recommend, a memoir I did manage to read recently. Peter Nichols’ 1997 book, Sea Change, is neither opulent nor particularly lyrical, but I was moved and impressed by it nonetheless. It describes Nichols’ attempt to sail across the Atlantic singlehanded in a somewhat tubby 27-foot sailboat, called Toad, that he and his ex-wife scraped money together to buy, years before, then lovingly restored and lived in. Nichols’ journey takes place in the aftermath of the marriage’s breakup, and the solitude he experiences while alone on the ocean conduces to reflection on the couple’s joys and triumphs over the years, and on what ultimately went wrong. Nichols as we get to know him exudes humor, intellectual curiosity, hunger for experience, a certain vagabond impatience, and a capacity for honest self-scrutiny. That’s an excellent combination for a memoirist. His book also offers a chronicle of characters he has known over his years of chartering in the Caribbean and elsewhere, and a good deal of nautical history and insight into seamanship as well. I tend to be drawn to narratives that take a nominal subject – in this case, sailing – and tie it to, or derive from within it, an underlying and more personal narrative. Sea Change evokes the sometimes sublime loneliness of a voyage spent navigating dangers both nautical and personal. (You can read the 1997 Times review here.)

With this as backdrop, then here is the list of my top-five all-time favorite memoirs. It’s actually a baker’s five, since I could not exclude any of these six masterworks of personal narrative: Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, an inimitable book (naturally enough, being written by Nabokov) written in exile and lavishly evoking his childhood in pre-Revolutionary Czarist Russia; Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa (later made into the film with Streep and Redford, which captured the beauty of the surroundings but not the commanding spirit of Dinesen’s prose); Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, the best personal account I’ve read of what it means to change cultures and languages in mid-childhood;  M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me (a memoir by a rapturous aesthete and food writer, conducted via recipes and the memory of meals in various places – a concept commonplace today, but novel in 1943); Ernest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast (I cannot finish it without weeping); and Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time (a brilliant precursor to today’s dysfunction memoir -- by turns alarming and amusing, distressing and fond -- about a family in tatters.)

I’ll toss in my next-ten list of memoirists and their superb books (eleven, actually, and with Peter Nichols it makes twelve), with links to info about them, in case you want to know more: Bill Barich, Laughing in the Hills; Annie Dillard, An American Childhood; C. L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary; John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers; James McConkey, Court of Memory; Edna Lewis, The Taste of Country Cooking; Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Eileen Simpson, Poets in Their Youth; Russell Baker, Growing Up; Friedrich Reck, Diary of a Man in Despair; and Nicholson Baker, U and I.

I hope you’ll dip into my list... and share yours. And I know, I know, I have to read Karl-Ove Knausgaard. But – like David Sedaris – he publishes his life faster than I can even live my own. And that kind of rankles, you know?

 

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Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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