I see James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces has finally dropped off the best seller lists in New York, where it had stayed, classified as non-fiction, long after the revelation that for a memoir it was a pretty fanciful novel. You might remember this towering genius told Larry King:
“The genre of memoir is one that’s very new and the boundaries of it had not been established yet.”
I guess the guy’s never heard of Julius Caesar. We won’t get started on that twit Frey or I’ll never stop. But as a result of the scandal, apparently, publishers are currently looking askance at new memoirs. This is a real pity, because in memoir the reader can find some of the most insightful and often beautiful writing imaginable. Here are just a few that have affected me, in different ways, over the last twenty-five years or so:
If This Is A Man – Primo Levi
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – TE Lawrence
Coasting – Jonathan Raban
Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain
A Humming Under My Feet – Barbara Deming
Goodbye to All That – Robert Graves
Conundrum – Jan Morris (you knew I’d say that, right?)
The Fiftieth Gate – Mark Baker
The Woman Warrior – Maxine Hong Kingston
Paris, France – Gertrude Stein
My Childhood – Maxim Gorky
A Restricted Country – Joan Nestle
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter – Simone de Beauvoir
It pains me that I can’t add to that list Pentimento by Lillian Hellman, even though she was my hero when I was young, and even though it remains one of my favourite pieces, and even though she wrote “I trust absolutely what I remember about Julia”. It seems (can you tell this is a grudging admission, even after all these years?) to perhaps be not precisely true.
On the flipside of the coin, or memoir mixed with fiction, I can add to the list Siegfried Sassoon’s George Sherston novels, which really ought to be considered a memoir with a few names changed to protect the dead.
More recently I’ve loved:
A Mother’s Disgrace – Robert Dessaix
The Zanzibar Chest – Aidan Hartley
Tiger’s Eye – Inga Clendinnen
Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose – Sandy Balfour
Craft for a Dry Lake – Kim Mahood
Our Woman in Kabul – Iris Makkler
I’ve just read Still Life with Chickens, by Catherine Goldhammer. Marvellous. Because I work on a magazine for seachangers/small farmers, I get sent a lot of run-away-to-the-country memoirs and many of them are really boring. Still Life with Chickens is and isn’t one of that genre, but it is far from boring, and is also much more than a seachange memoir.
Still on the rural front, Richard Benson’s The Farm is a memoir of changes in his life, and his family’s future, that reflect sweeping agricultural change all over Britain – an important and moving book.
Any other bids?