Thursday, November 08, 2018

'Under the Enchantment of Their Words'

Unless the author is named Saint-Simon or Grant, I don’t read memoirs. Their ongoing popularity has eluded me. The minimum I ask of any book is that it be well-written, which eliminates all contemporary confessions, victimologies and Whitmanesque self-celebrations. I hate inspirational tracts. If I want to read a man’s account of his trials and triumphs, I’ll reach for Nabokov or Whittaker Chambers. I recently started reading a memoir by a writer whose essays I’ve enjoyed. I made it to the second page. His words dripped self. As a newspaper reporter, I was told a hundred times by people I interviewed that someday they would write the story of their lives and rivet the world’s attention. I’m still waiting. We’re a species of self-aggrandizing navel-gazers. Nothing is more fascinating to us than us.

When a reader asked if I would write a memoir, I was appalled. What a terrible thing to say. I remembered “First Person Singular,” an essay Joseph Epstein published in The Hudson Review in 1992. It begins: “The best time to write one’s autobiography, surely, is on one’s deathbed.”  He identifies “only a handful of splendid autobiographies,” and goes on to identify them:

“Odd, but very few of these really splendid autobiographies have been written by novelists, poets, and playwrights. Saint Augustine, Cellini, Rousseau, Gibbon, Franklin, Mill, Alexander Herzen, Henry Adams, the men--and there have thus far been almost no women--who wrote the monumental autobiographical works were none of them primarily imaginative literary artists.”

I bridle at Rousseau but the rest is solid. His essay is part book review, and Epstein looks at six recent autobiographies, including those by Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess and Auberon Waugh (sad to think that all are long dead). In his evaluation of Burgess’ two-volume self-accounting, Epstein speculates that writers may be “the least qualified for telling us what their lives have been.” Too many travails, slights and disappointments. In a word, self-pity. Epstein adds a lovely passage:    

“Under the enchantment of their words, one is almost ready to believe them, no matter how chilling their account. Then one remembers that the world abounds in beautiful children, music, lush landscapes, friends, delightful food, and more than enough artworks to divert the mind through a lifetime, and the words, like frost on a wintry windowpane, melt away.”

Any rendering of a life, by self or other, must include the blessings, gifts and triumphs to drown out the inevitable whining. Epstein isn’t a neutral observer. As our foremost essayist and man of letters, he is forever calibrating the ratio of first-person to third-:
“This is not to say that the appetite for reading autobiography isn’t very strong. Certainly it is with me, so much so that autobiography is the only kind of book I should rather read than write. (I have myself long ago decided never to write an autobiography, preferring to spend my own autobiography, in nickels and dimes, in essays, memoirs, and anecdotes).”


Thomas Parker said...

It is perhaps so slight as to be out of place in such august company, but James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times is a book I've found worthy of many rereadings. (Its very slightness is probably its greatest virtue, come to think of it.)

Don said...

I very much enjoyed Kingsley Amis' memoirs, but Amis is the type of writer one enjoys reading even if one suspects his alcohol-addled memory is failing him.