The malleableness of memoir

The malleableness of memoir

Meeting the Devil: A book of memoir from the London Review of Books

edited by William Heinemann

$49.99 hb, 388 pp, 9780434022670

In his essay on James Bulger, the British toddler murdered by two ten-year-old boys in 1993, novelist Andrew O’Hagan tells the story of his own experience of childhood bullying – as the perpetrator, not the victim. Bulger’s ‘childish child-murderers’ remind him, he avers, of himself as a boy, and with this extraordinary expression of solidarity he launches into an account of the unremarkable violence layered into his own Scottish childhood, beginning with the story of how, at the age of six, he and a friend systematically beat a younger child to the point of serious injury.

It is a risky piece of writing. O’Hagan puts himself on the line to challenge the seemingly universal condemnation of Bulger’s young killers. But the risk pays off. Without a polemical word, he shows the falsity of the finger-pointing instinct by which ‘evil’ is both absolute and over there. In revealing the doubleness of his own childhood – he and his friends bit babies, tormented girls, and killed cats, while simultaneously going to church, singing in the school choir, and keeping up with their homework – he confronts us with our own submerged capacity for cruelty, stupidity, and even heinous acts.

O’Hagan’s essay is one of the more powerful in Meeting the Devil, a collection of pieces billed as ‘memoir’ that originally appeared over the past thirty years in the London Review of Books. No editor is credited, so it’s not clear how decisions were made about what pieces fitted that bill (memoir is narrowly defined on the jacket as ‘the art of the self-portrait’), but at times it seems as though the publishers decided simply to include any article in which the author used the first person. This is disappointing for the true lover of the genre. Certainly, there are some fine examples of memoir in this collection – O’Hagan’s essay is one – but there are also many pieces that bear at best a tangential relationship to the concept. Anne Enright’s not entirely coherent meditation on cell reproduction, for instance, ranges from cancer to gestation to the proliferation of knowledge on the Internet, but does not tell us anything much about Enright herself, while Jenny Diski’s facetious account of an ongoing conversation with her daughter about where and how she should be buried (in Highgate Cemetery, in as environmentally unfriendly a way as possible) would not fit even the most generous definition of memoir, though it works nicely as comedy.

Such pieces seem to belong more properly to the junk-shop category of the personal essay, though some do contain enough incidental self-revelation to edge into memoir. Historian Keith Thomas’s piece on his ‘working methods’, for instance, does not describe his life, but takes the reader on a tour of the venerable and beguiling genre of works on note-taking. Yet in guiding us through his own research process (which involves numerous scraps of paper, scissors, used envelopes, and a dizzying amount of floor space), he manages to tell us much not only about the power of juxtaposition but also about himself.

‘There are the pieces so serious in intent, tackling not just a moment, mood, or memory but an entire life, that they can only be considered autobiography proper.’

Several pieces, however, do not even qualify as personal essays. Emily Witt’s discussion of online dating begins with the lure of juicy revelations to come about Witt’s own experiences of OkCupid, but quickly changes into a string of mildly interesting facts about the origins and uses of Internet match-making services. Similarly, Paul Myerscough seems to promise insights into his own addictive relationship with poker, but delivers instead a thoroughgoing account of the rules and conventions of poker-playing, online and in clubs. Both pieces are workmanlike journalism masquerading as memoir.

The three poems in the anthology also stretch the genre, but in a positive way. August Kleinzahler’s ‘Closing it Down on the Palisades’ is beautiful and elegiac, though I could not determine what experience it recounts. Denise Riley’s ‘A Part Song’ is clearly an account of losing a child, and it is hard to imagine a prose memoir that could convey with equivalent economy and power the many dimensions of grief Riley depicts with her choir of forms, styles, and rhythms.

And then there are the pieces so serious in intent, tackling not just a moment, mood, or memory but an entire life, that they can only be considered autobiography proper. Lorna Sage’s sharp narrative sensibility propels the reader directly into the world of the curious, observant child she once was, whose towering grandparents are permanently ‘not speaking’. Edward Said’s reflection on his boyhood in Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt is charged with a significance and intensity often absent from this collection, drawing the reader effortlessly into the submerged, slow-burning confusions of his identity as an Arab in the West. Both sent me scurrying to the library to find the full-length works they clearly presage.

But the most enjoyable pieces are those that are, according to my schema, genuine memoir: self-contained stories of the writer’s life or of their encounters with others. Hilary Mantel describes her ‘hallies’ – as she affectionately dubs the bizarre and terrifying hallucinations she experienced while seriously ill – with characteristic sharpness and lack of sentiment. Although she dismisses Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘On Being Ill’ as ‘schoolgirl piffle’, she shares with Woolf a compulsion to take an objective view of even the most subjective experience, and a capacity for detachment from self-obscuring desires – qualities of the very best memoirists. Among those whose focus is on others, John Henry Jones’s account of the truly eccentric William Empson, Frank Kermode’s description of his service to several disintegrating naval officers during World War II, and Terry Castle’s brilliantly rueful hatchet-job on Susan Sontag are sheer delight.

Ann-Marie Priest

Ann-Marie Priest

Ann-Marie Priest is a literary scholar and the author of Great Writers, Great Loves: The Reinvention of Love in the Twentieth Century (2006). In 2004 she won the Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize for a short essay, and her work has twice appeared in Best Australian Essays. She teaches academic writing at Central Queensland University.