Category Archives: Life writing

ME-MOIR, SEMI-ME-MOIR AND FICTIONALIZED NON-FICTION

After the last few months of dizzying dance around the Memoirs, I’m pressing on now with a radical plan – submitting to an Australian publisher’s open call with The Dying Year, about the events in 2008 when my very elderly mother and fairly elderly ex-husband die in the same three week period. The events sparked off a cascade of disaffection from which this formerly tight family has never recovered. It is my third book of memoirs and will be the first to appear. Many recent memoirs are about a late parent or a deceased husband so I’m on trend here. If the publisher says no, I might try finding an Australian agent, and if that fails, well, it will be a DIY job, although I know it’s far from ideal for this kind of writing.

In my previous post I commented on memoir-writing which has inspired (and dis-inspired) me. Two of the writers I mentioned stay close to some version of “what really happened”. As far as Ferrante is concerned, who knows?

But now I am thinking about the rise of the definitely-not-really-me memoir, sometimes described as fictionalized non-fiction. In volume IV, still in progress, about my time in New Guinea, I found myself writing a long section, quite disconnected from the actual story, about a writer who I seem to have been shadowing for the past fifty years. I am thinking of appending it as a personal epilogue to the main account. She is a very famous figure in Australian women’s writing and you could say she was at the beginning of the movement of the semi-me-moir , as I think of narratives written in the first person about real people and actual events, who are nevertheless distorted and disguised.

One chapter in The Dying Year talks about G. W. Sebald’s book Austerlitz, where the narrator recounts a story told to him by the purported subject, so you read it as a biography but by the end you realize that it could be a completely fictional character but there are all these photographs and pieces of documentary evidence which lead you to suppose this person really did exist and these things really did happen.

The purported photograph of Austerlitz

I was so sure it was “real” that I found a copy of the famous Theresienstadt concentration camp film and searched through it to see if I could find the image of the woman who might have been Austerlitz’s dead mother and then I thought how insane this was as the image could have been of any woman at all and I couldn’t even find it anyway even though the text stated exactly at what minute and second the tiny briefly flickering image supposedly existed. But of course the film itself could have been edited to different                                                               lengths a hundred times.

Image from Nazi propaganda film Theresienstadt: was this Austerlitz’s mother?

In the Introduction to my Memoirs I vowed not to write narrative non- fiction or fictionalised autobiography, I wanted to write “the truth” as far as I could see it … but of course, there’s the problem right there, since the Rashomon effect is in full swing before you even dredge up the first images in your mind especially where it concerns deeply felt emotional stuff and your own family and your own memories and your own self-love and ambivalent feelings and your inability to remember even a fraction of things that actually happened in your past life and the absolutely refractory nature of “truth” as told by anyone let alone a self-absorbed and self-justifying author.

The Rashomon Effect: everyone has a different version.

I think I will be saying a lot more about this frustrating phenomenon. And if you are wondering, I’ve written a bit more about the project on this site, click on the tab above labeled, unapologetically, Memoirs.

More on memoir: inspirations

Last time I wrote a bit about the memoir I am currently reading, by Tara Westover. This led me to reconsider other memoir writers who have been especially influential (and otherwise) in my current project. I think it’s incredibly important to remain aware of the link between what you are reading and what you are writing. There are thousands of memoirs around, a lot of them extremely boring. But memoirs of writers … especially of writers who mainly write memoirs … it’s a whole area of literary scrutiny which seems weirdly appropriate in the present era of compulsory self-curation. So here are some thoughts about three recent literary memoirists who have had a big influence on my recent work.

JOAN DIDION.

Joan Didion’s book about her husband’s death The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), and her later book about the death of her daughter, Blue Nights (2011), were important for me in understanding how differently writers can inhabit and explain their  inner worlds. The story itself is heart-wrenchingly painful. From a young, happy creative woman with a loving family life, Didion suffers the ravages of time and random chance, far beyond what she ever could have imagined, with painful dignity. The passage of time itself seems almost a character in her books, enhanced by the publication in various places of photographs (though not in the books themselves). I have been wondering about whether to put lots of photographs in mine.  I love looking at other people’s snapshots of themselves and their families and friends as I am reading their memoirs. On the other hand, sometimes the imagination is the best illustrator.

Joan Didion with her husband Greg Dunne and daughter Quintana
Joan Didion, after the death of her husband

KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD:  MY STRUGGLE

knausgard-1
Karl Ove Knausgard – publicity still

Knausgaard showed me that I didn’t need to follow a temporal sequence but could produce component volumes of different lengths and time periods in episodically random order. His first  was A Death in the Family (2009 in the English publication sequence) and he was writing it round about the same time as I was writing my own maternal mortality story. His revelations about his father, which caused a violent storm in his native Norway, were pretty gruesome. I had nothing of that kind to contribute. My mother had done some pretty awful things like most of us do, but she was nothing like the kind of horror he described his father to be. If anyone was a horror, it was me. Sixty-three at the time, I still thought I had to excel in my career. I still thought I was much more important than anybody else. This was not the frame of mind to be in when trying to help a 93 year old woman through the last year of her life.

Like most English-language readers I was gripped by Knausgard’s second volume, A Man in Love (2013) about his relation with his second wife and their family. The texture of everyday existence and his internal monologues as he did his best to live in ideologically correct Sweden and please his feminist wife, the only man taking his little child to pre-school singalongs where he spent the time lusting after the kindie teacher – what happens when you want to be a writer but aren’t allowed to – a typical woman’s story, now being written by a man who had acceded to feminist expectations. A lot of women writers seem to have approached Knausgaard only to go away again. There is something challenging about entering so deeply into this man’s mind which feels strangely disconcerting. We think we know how men think but it’s weird to have it confirmed in such detail. Good feminists aren’t supposed to enter this terrain at all, or so it seems, but I found it liberating. Knausgaard exemplifies a masochistic hysterical masculinism which seems to have become a default position for many hetero male writers today.

NOT AN INSPIRATION:

Elena Ferrante (well, that is not “who she really is”; all l the hoo-haa has been quite absurd, unless you subscribe to the Author as Sacred Object school of literary thought) is very popular with women readers. Everything she has written seems to me completely fake.  I really and truly cannot read it. I have started one book, then another, tried going into the middle of the first one, then the end of the third and I don’t get it. Just look at those covers: Mummies and little girls in silly clothes, dollies and fairies, nakedness in the mirror, and a headless woman in a bright red dress. Really!

ferrante-book-covers

One of these days I will try again. If Knausgaard is the masculine consciousness of the twenty-first century,  Ferrante might be the feminine counterpart and not in a good way. Women seem to read books in order to identify themselves with the narrator, and in line with a lot of feminist theoretical work from the 1970s and 1980s, she works from the classic masochistic feminine position. It is so depressing that a great many women still seem to find this compelling.

 

Memoirs to the rescue …Tara Westover’s “educated”.

Everyone who writes is supposed to read all the time. I certainly do that, in part because of increasingly chronic insomnia. But reading too much (and watching too much Netflix) gets in the way of actually writing. So I am cutting right back. But at the recent Sydney Writer’s Festival (the one sponsored by Varuna at Katoomba, and only for one short day unfortunately) I heard Tara Westover talk about her just-published memoir educated and I had to buy the book and read it at once. Not finished yet, and will write more about it soon, but am loving it so far, and finding it inspires me with confidence about the value of life-writig. I love the fiction universe of course, the worlds created there, but the actual real world is pretty amazing!

As mentioned last time, memoirs are at the front of my priority list at the moment. I realise in retrospect that I have been reading memoirs now for several years. Westover’s book is about a young women who is raised in a fundamentalist Mormon household on a mountain in Idaho. The thing is, she never went to school – shock horror – and yet became a highly successful writer, historian and academic at the top universities in Britain. I haven’t found out exactly how she accomplished this, but I kind-of relate to it. Of course I did go to school, and my family was hardly survivalist or fundamentalist, but the ethos of my early life was pretty similar: anti-Government, pro-self reliance, no emphasis on education, the constant awareness that you weren’t like other people who took city life and money and happiness for granted. And of course, being in Australia in the 1950s meant something different: the shadow of World War Two, family disruptions, deaths and secrets and silences.

I have read – what? – maybe thirty or forty memoirs about growing up in communes or remote communities or outside the mainstream world. In many ways I was doing the same until the mid-1970s and then, strangely, I slid back into it, but that older life never leaves you, and I think, from what Tara was saying in her talk, it has never left her either.

And today I am reflecting on the strangeness of it:  reading other people’s life stories allows you in some way to rescue or re-inhabit your own.

Tara dad