Is it possible to write a memoir about how you mistook your own life, about what you didn’t yet know or failed to see, and when you didn’t know it? About how your character and judgments were formed and how you came to unlearn that first and not always painful formation? The project sounds like it should be doomed. How can you write about that earlier self without being either patronizing or maudlin? How can you write your way out of the after-effects of your earlier experiences simply by chronicling them? And yet there have been a number of remarkable attempts, often successful or successfully doomed books that capture fragments of lives, usually written at a crisis point in the writer’s life—the sense of mid-life coming as it does at different times to different generations and different individuals. It’s also worth mentioning that all the writers here had fraught relationships to the idea of a single, unified self, and two of them are best known by their pseudonyms. The genre doesn’t have to be male but the ones I most intimately know have all been written by men, and I wanted simply to acknowledge that my selection has that bias.
Memoirs of an Egotist by Stendhal.
Written in 1832, when he was 49, and one year after the publication of The Red and the Black, Souvenirs d’Égotisme (perhaps better translated as Remembrances of an Egotist, since Stendhal avoided calling it un mémoire) is an account of a 10-year period in the author’s life which was spent mostly failing to write, failing to find a lover, failing to fit in to an increasingly socially and politically conservative Parisian society, failing to find employment, and ultimately failing to commit suicide. It’s a remarkable document of what Stendhal often calls “The Pursuit of Happiness,” written with his typical speed and self-undermining chattiness. A scene of impotence while visiting a famous Parisian prostitute wouldn’t be out of place in a Philip Roth novel. Looking back, Stendhal recognizes his failure as its own kind of happiness, “How many humiliations I’ve suffered! But if I’d been more astute, I’d have become disgusted to the point of nausea with women, and thus with music and painting. Instead of that, I have the good fortune to be as naïve as at the age of 25. This is why I will never blow my brains out from boredom with life.”
Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait by Henry Green.
“I was born a mouthbreather with a silver spoon in 1905, three years after one war and nine before another, too late for both. But not too late for the war which seems to be coming upon us now and that is a reason to put down what comes to mind before one is killed, and surely it would be asking much to pretend one had a chance to live.” So begins Henry Green’s Pack My Bag, which, as the title and first sentence suggest, he thought of as a farewell to the world he’d known, a world of English country houses, fancy boarding schools, trips to the continent, culminating with the expected Oxbridge education. What continually fascinates me about this book is that its strengths spring from a fundamental misrecognition in these opening lines. Green, whose older brother was killed in World War I, begins with the belief that he’s doomed to die in the next war, the inevitability of which he foresaw with greater clarity than most of Britain’s political class. In fact, he would survive it, working as a volunteer fireman in London during the blitz. As he recalls the scenes and settings of his aristocratic upbringing, however, he slowly begins to write his way into the realization that what’s ending may not be his life, but a way of life, the dominance of the aristocracy, and he’s happy to let it go. “It is only when one looks at it in the light of imminent death, that rather ghastly colour in the sky of mustard yellows with the sirens wailing their call of now you may have to die that one begins to doubt whether everything really has been for the best.” And this sentence too turns out to be misleading, since Green tells us he’d already doubted that everything had been for the best. He left Oxford, in 1926, to work on the floor of one of his family-owned iron foundries, and had already turned those experiences into his 1929 novel Living, one of the great portraits of English working class life of the interwar years. Green was able to write so well about the death of one way of life because his bags were already packed.
Berlin Childhood Around 1900 by Walter Benjamin.
From his immersion in the burgeoning and as-yet undomesticated fields of psychoanalysis, surrealism, and Marxist cultural criticism, and fresh from his attempt to translate Proust into German, Benjamin wove this magical memoir of his childhood and teenage urban haunts. One of the inaugural “psycho-geographies,” this long essay—or very short book—is organized like a hedge maze or a cross-temporal map of thresholds, gateways, and meeting points, which include “the labyrinth of stories,” i.e. his childhood reading. Benjamin is interested as much or more in the how of memory as the what, “the room I slept in at the age of six would have been forgotten had not my father come in one night—I was already in bed—with news of a death … The deceased was a cousin, a grown man who scarcely concerned me … But that evening I must have memorized my room and my bed, as one observes exactly a place where one feels dimly that one will later have to search for something one has forgotten. Many years afterward, I discovered what it was, a part of the news that my father had broken to me in that room: the illness was called syphilis.”
Life Studies by Robert Lowell.
The snob memoir of declining privilege in settings urban and urbane is not only a genre for European Jews before the Holocaust, or English aristocrats, but has a place in American life, as Lowell reveals in “91 Revere Street,” an account of his family’s two year sojourn “barely perched on the outer rim of the hub of decency,” in his mother’s words. Lowell was 8 when his parents bought a Boston house with recently inherited trust-fund income, and it becomes the rook piece in what he shows to be his mother’s campaign to get his father to resign his officer’s commission in the U.S. Navy. The family has also inherited some furniture: “In the bleak, Revere Street dining room, none of these pieces had at all that air of unhurried condescension that had been theirs behind the summery veils of tissue paper in Cousin Cassie Julian-James’s memorial volume. Here, table, highboy chairs, and screen—mahogany, cherry, teak—looked nervous and disproportioned. They seemed to wince, touch elbows, shift from foot to foot.” Looking back, the adult Lowell ruthlessly anatomizes his parents’ contrasting snobberies, but most astonishing is Lowell’s recall of the dinner conversations, sounds, and bits of naval yard light verse that began to form his poetic ear. More frustration, disappointment, and yearning gets in to these 30 pages—written in the aftermath of one of Lowell’s confinements in mental hospitals and published in 1959 as part of the poetry collection Life Studies—than many longer memoirs. The poignancy is in the brevity.
W or the Memory of Childhood by Georges Perec.
In 1940, when Perec (changed from Peretz) was 4, his father was killed while with the French army, and, two years later, young Georges was sent to live under an assumed name in a Catholic orphanage in the alpine village of Villard-de-Lans, near Grenoble, Stendhal’s birthplace. His mother, who’d remained in Paris, was deported to Auschwitz, never to return. This book isn’t about any of those experiences, nor are they ever directly recounted. Instead, it’s a reconstruction of a story Perec says he first began to write at 13, about an imagined Spartan-type society, a lost civilization on an island off the tip of South America, given over to what he calls “The Olympic Ideal.” After a while, it becomes clear that this was his adolescent attempt to imagine what it was like to be in a concentration camp. Recovered and rewritten, the “story of my childhood” as he calls it, playing with the subjective and objective genitive, alternates with his attempts to collect whatever traces remain of the brief pre-war childhood he knows he can only ever partially remember, and only with the possibly distorting aid of other people’s memories and stories, never to his satisfaction. “I possess other pieces of information about my parents; I know they will not help me to say what I would like to say about them.”