Forget Me Not

The Argument

A memoir might be earnest and truthful, but only context can make it truly compelling.

February 13, 2005|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

A cartoon appeared in The New Yorker a few years ago depicting a typical New York street scene: hot dog vendor, street sweeper, bookseller, typist in an office window, bus driver. Each had the same thought balloon: "My story is really interesting -- I ought to write a memoir."

Which raises the question: To whom, exactly, is a life interesting? There's a certain hubris, an unrestrained ego, in thinking one's memoirs are worthy. I saw Tatum O'Neal touting her memoir on Oprah with the same earnest zeal displayed by women telling husbands they've slept with his whole family on Jerry Springer. One can't help but be awed by the uber-vulgarity of the spectacle. But reading a memoir demands a deeper commitment than an hour of talk TV. At the very least, it should reveal some really dirty laundry; at best, some true insight. But most memoirs are the literary equivalent of having to sit through your neighbors' slide show of their vacation -- just not that interesting.

Walking into any bookstore means being bombarded with memoirs.

Presidents, politicians, scientists, doctors, actors, artists, rock stars, porn stars -- and those are just the famous people. Even the pets of the famous, like Barbara Bush's dog, Millie, have memoirs. Was Andy Warhol right? Is everyone famous for 15 minutes? Or just until the memoir is remaindered?

America is such a voyeuristic society, it's hardly surprising that memoirs reap huge returns. We inquiring minds want to know the juicy details, the gossip, the dish. The millions who bought Bill Clinton's My Life likely were scanning the index for Monica Lewinsky, not public policy in the Middle East, particularly if they were disappointed by Hillary Clinton's glancing over the scandal for more weighty matters in her memoir, Living History.

Scandalous details lead readers to a host of celebrity memoirs.

Salacious tidbits are certainly reason to pore over the 600 pages of Jenna Jamison's How to Make Love like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale. The Religious Right might balk at the title -- and adolescent boys drawn to the tale of the infamous porn star's life might choke at the length -- but this utterly disarming, surprisingly witty tale of a good girl gone bad, then good again, has an Horatio Alger quality that typifies the best in memoir. Highbrow it ain't, but tantalizing, titillating and, finally, redemptive, it is.

Marcel Proust's classic series of autobiographical novels, Remembrance of Things Past, detail the most sublime, rather than salacious, elements of memoir. Proust's life work is an expansive portrait of the artist as young, middle-aged and old man. These romans a clef put most memoirs to shame, they so perfectly, so exquisitely revisit a life and explore the very nature of memory. As Jean-Yves Tadie notes in his brilliant biography, Marcel Proust: A Life, "He lived in order to write, and his life became his laboratory." The concept of memory -- the interior exploration of our past experiences and what those experiences mean -- was literally and literarily defined by Proust, who could arguably be called the father of the modern memoir.

A number of years ago I was living in New Orleans, soon after the publication of Pentimento, Lillian Hellman's second book of memoirs, following the award-winning An Unfinished Woman. I was a young, earnest student and a devotee of Hellman. When I wasn't outright stalking her in the streets of the Garden District, I raged at the vicious critiques of her book. Hellman was, reviewers asserted, a liar who invented memories to enhance her tale and stoke her flagging career.

In the intervening years, I have written a good deal about Hellman and a good deal about liars and in the context of Proust conclude that it is irrelevant whether or not Hellman lied or invented in Pentimento -- it was then and is now a stellar book. But the debate over Pentimento remains central to memoir: How do we define the authentic, particularly if, as Proust delineates with such elegance and subtlety, our memories are fraught with personal torments and, as a consequence, are eminently unreliable? Memoir demands contextualization.

Two of the most wrenching memoirs of the 20th century were written by and from the memories of children. The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel's Night recall the Holocaust as experienced by a young teenaged girl and boy. Frank's memoir stops when her life does; it ends when she is captured and killed by the Nazis. Wiesel's tale begins and ends in the carnage of Auschwitz where survival is animalistic and the absence of God terrifying.

The sweetness in Frank's story belies the horror she is living. Her memoir is her ultimate legacy, asserting as it does that life goes on in its dailiness even at its most primal and awful.

Who would debate the authenticity of these memoirs? Somehow, memories seem less suspect when framed by history's tragedies.

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