PRYING OPEN THE PAST

The Universal Hunt for Meaning: 11 Memoirs to Read Now

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what makes a memoir great.

Having read my share of (non-celebrity) memoirs over the years, as well as written one myself, lately, I’ve been wondering what it is, exactly, about the genre that draws us. Is it that, like Mr. Darcy, most of us don’t “confess easily to strangers,” and are therefore fascinated by those who do? Is it that, locked inside the narratives of our own lives, we get a vicarious thrill out of watching someone else attempt to break out of theirs? Is it, given that most memoirs chronicle some form of dysfunction, the catharsis of tragedy that attracts us, that compels us to position ourselves, hanky in hand, behind the author’s shoulder as she walks into the past? Do memoirs offer us the not-insignificant gift of being able to say, “There but for the grace of God?”

I’d say it’s all of these and something more; that the memoir offers us the chance to participate in a universal human rite—the hunt for meaning, for self-knowledge, which inevitably involves looking back. Done right, this is dangerous business: the past is mined, after all. Which makes those who go in, armed with nothing more than their willingness to look at whatever they find there, hard to resist.

I don’t believe in 10 Best-anything lists, and I’m fairly sure that the instant I press “send” on this piece, a crowd of justifiably indignant alternates will begin to gather in my yard—but the memoirs I’ve listed here, in my opinion, deserve the superlatives so often applied to lesser books. What makes them “great” is hard to pin down—genius tends to slip the sieve—but I’d single out a feeling of necessity, the sense that the writer is willing to risk everything not because he seeks to be admired for his courage, but because he has to in order to go where he has to go. Personally, I need this sense of need. Throw in rigor, grace and precision—because nothing is more depressing than bad writing, the sloppy kiss of cliché; add a healthy helping of soul—ideally nowhere visible, everywhere present—and I’ll happily bow down and pay homage.

The following list is as idiosyncratic as my tastes, but I’ll stand by it even though fully half the titles, I see now, happily ignore much of what I’ve just said. Nabokov, for example, remains largely hidden behind his crystalline prose, and Markham’s memoir about growing up in British East Africa (perhaps the one book I’d recommend with complete confidence to a friend going on a week’s vacation) is first and foremost a mesmerizing narrative and less a coming to terms. Read it for the sheer adventure of it. In the same vein, Hemingway’s gorgeous and gossipy reminiscence, while it allows some room for regret, remains mostly in a kind of defensive crouch, and Alexandra Fuller’s irresistibly titled, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, despite its amazing story of a family in extended and colorful meltdown mode, maintains a certain British stiff-upper-lippedness that keeps the author hidden behind her story. Last in this category is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, which recalls a journey across Europe, on foot, just before the outbreak of World War II, fueled on nothing more than infectious good will, bottomless (and sometimes exhausting) curiosity, and an unrivaled eye for retrospective detail. There are passages here that will haunt you with their beauty, but you’ll have to earn them.

Which leaves the memoirs of the heart. Edmund White’s portrait of the artist as a young (gay) man, has passages of such transcendent beauty that as a writer I found myself having to put the book down, and breathe. But then, I could say the same for most of the books on this list. Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception, Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter, and Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City form, in my mind, a sort of matched trio, each in its own way chasing, with extraordinary courage, that most familiar and therefore most elusive of ghosts—the parent that shaped us, hurt us, loved us, and left us, if not necessarily in that order.

Mikal Gilmore’s memoir about his brother, Gary, the first man to be executed in America after the reinstatement of the death penalty, deserves a paragraph of its own. Searing is too weak a word. Brace yourself.

I’ve left Moritz Thomsen for last because his voice speaks to me in a way I can’t quite explain. Thomsen, who walked out of his life at the age of 50 to join the Peace Corp, then to hack a farm of sorts out of the jungle in coastal Ecuador, was a great, big-hearted, flailing mess of a man who carried his toxic relationship with his own father like a cross, who wanted too much, cared too much, got defensive and hurt too easily and then wrote it all down in beautiful, brave, unflinchingly honest books. I would have loved this man. Having missed him, I love his books instead, especially the shadows of my own life that I sense in his.

1. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory! 2. Edmund White, A Boy’s Own Story 3. Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts 4. Patricia Hampl, The Florist’s Daughter 5. Mikal Gilmore, Shot Through the Heart 6. Geoffrey Wolff, The Duke of Deception 7. Nick Flynn, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City 8. Moritz Thomsen, A Farm on the River of Emeralds 9. Beryl Markham, West with the Night 10. Ernest Hemingway, A Movable Feast 11. Alexandra Fuller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.

Mark Slouka is the author of, most recently, the memoir Nobody’s Son and the award-winning novel Brewster. His work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. He lives in Brewster, New York. www.markslouka.com.