A memoir is not an autobiography. For a start, autobiographies are generally in one volume. A Memoir can be one volume, or many. Autobiographies are usually written in sequence, from start to finish, or as close as they can get to it. Memoirs can start anywhere, go anywhere, pick up any strand of a life-story and give it to the reader along with whatever mood and state of mind the author is in as it is being written. That can be different each time, in fact it is bound to be, so the author you meet in one volume may not seem the same person as the one you meet in another.
I struggled with a list of topics and volumes, I thought had to start at the beginning. But where is the beginning? How far back can you go? Should you start before you are born, or when you come into first consciousness, or after you get a job and become famous or horribly disappointed? I thought I had to go along dividing my life into nicely equivalent chunks: this is what happened when I went to University, this is what it was like when I lived on a commune, this is what happened when I left my husband … and so on … sounds boring already.
Many writers seem to start memoirs with the death of a parent. There is a sense in which a parent’s death, or maybe both parents’ deaths, is the beginning of your life somehow, because there is no-one left to know you as you were, to criticise you or be disappointed in you. Or for that matter to praise you uncritically and behave inappropriately at parties. And I realised, without knowing it, I had begun my Memoirs project in the same way.
It doesn’t matter when or how these memoirs get published, which is also a great freedom. If none of them see the light of day before I die, they will be already written and edited and ready to publish then, and my literary executor will take care of it one way or another.
And it doesn’t matter how many volumes of them there one. One, three, more … no pressure!
A Dying Year will be Volume One, about the year my mother and my first husband both died, 2008. I wrote a little of it while my mother was in the final throes of her difficult and painful exit, aged 93. Much later, I read Joan Didion’s 2005 book about her husband’s death The Year of Magical Thinking, and her book about her daughter, Blue Nights. I can’t say these books influenced me but they made me aware of how differently writers inhabit their inner worlds, and how cruel is the passage of time.
Joan Didion’s suffering was intense. Is it possible to relativise the intensity of suffering? She seems to have written Magical Thinking very soon after her husband’s death, and published it more or less immediately. I don’t see my story as one of suffering. Rather, it will be more an analysis, critical, as far as possible objective. Feeling is there, but only as another element to be described.
I’m so glad I didn’t try to publish this first volume quickly because the next few years served to bring the awfulness of my own behaviour into ever more powerful focus and when I come to re-edit that part of the story it will be even more – what? – vivid? scary? cringeworthy? – than it is now.
Distant Early Warning will be Volume 2. It is about my family origins and my life up to when I was about to start at Sydney University, at the age of seventeen. My son Daniel and my granddaughter Lily have read it. Dan suggested some corrections. Lily liked it. Now I will go back to it for another edit.
Highand Fantasy is Volume 3. It is about a short interlude in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea spent with my second partner and my two young children in 1973. The first few chapters have been written, as well as a long section which will probably be added on as a kind of psychoanalytic novella at the end of the book, an extended meditation on the role of one of the book’s seemingly minor characters in my life.
While I still haven’t managed to read the whole of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s opus My Struggle in the way he wrote and published has been an inspiration.
It was his work which showed me that I didn’t need to follow a temporal sequence but could produce the component volumes in episodically random order. The first to be published in English was A Death in the Family 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 readers I was gripped by Knausgard’s second volume, A Man in Love, 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 woman’s story, now by a man. A lot of women writers seem to have approached Knausgard only to go away again. There is something about entering so deeply into a man’s mind – a man like him, I guess – which feels strangely disconcerting. We think we know how men think but it’s weird to have it confirmed in such detail.
For all the sense of alienation and irritation Knausgard stirs in me, I like the way he is trying to grapple with himself and come to terms with what a shit he was most of the time.
NOT AN INSPIRATION:
The second memoirist I must mention is the insanely popular 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 activity). Everything she has written seems to me completely fake. I really and truly cannot read it. I have tried, started one book, then another, tried going into the middle of the first one, then the end of the third and honestly I have to say I just don’t get it.
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, now largely ignored, it would seem that Ferrante works from the classic masochistic feminine position which a great many women still seem to find compelling and truthful for them.
Knausgaard on the other hand seems to me to exemplify the masochistic hysterical masculinism which our times have produced. This is not the place to conduct a forensic analysis of these writings, which whom loom so large over the recent “serious” reading scene. But it has been the experience of tangling with them both which has sharpened up so powerfully my sense of what Memoirs can, or maybe cannot, do. So thanks to them both!