Memoir: Unravelling lost pasts


Every living person should be forced to write an autobiography. They should have to go back and unravel and disclose all the stuff that was packed into their lives". So wrote Dorothy Hall in a journal that was posthumously passed on to her daughter, Diane Keaton.

Wise words or the floodgates to naval-gazing tedium? In the case of Keaton's autobiography, Then Again (Fourth Estate, £18.99) she proves her mother right, although Keaton comes at her life story sideways. The book is as much a memoir of her mother's life as her own. Dorothy's unwavering love, her unfulfilled ambition, her stridency, provides a context, and an explanation for Keaton's outlook and inner contradictions: the luminous actress who battled with insecurity over her appearance, suffered secretly from bulimia, and had love affairs with Warren Beatty and Al Pacino but speaks most affectionately of Woody Allen. Keaton's narrative tone is humble (a miracle, given decades of Hollywood stardust), and heartfelt without being heavy.

The psychology of another mother is unravelled in Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) Or two mothers, for there is the elusive biological one who gives baby Jeanette up for adoption (and who re-enters her life much later), and the abusive, adoptive mother, Mrs W.

Many will have first encountered the latter over 25 years ago in Winterson's debut novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, as the grim-faced Pentecostal Christian whose baffling acts of cruelty towards her daughter are no less shocking now (she locks her up in the coal-hole, burns her novels and leaves her shivering on the doorstep overnight). Winterson moves the story onto her depression, suicide attempt and craving for love in adult life. It is a startling summary of a damaged childhood, but also one of forgiveness.

Art Spiegelman's wondrous memoir of a memoir, aptly named MetaMAUS (Viking, £25) takes fatherhood as its theme. The illustrator reflects on his early life as an underground cartoonist and his Pulitzer-prize winning comic memoir, Maus, which depicted his father's Holocaust survival story (in animal form) in three critically-acclaimed volumes. This inventive coffee table book is a visual feast. There are preliminary sketches and previously unseen artworks of Maus as well as a transcript of interviews with his father, Vladek and a Q&A with Spiegelman in which he reveals Maus's genesis: "Actually, it all started with me trying to draw black folks." The cat-mouse metaphor of oppression came from the Nazi imagery of Jews as vermin, or "defenceless scurrying creatures".

Numerous memoirs take death as a starting point for interrogating the business of living. Francisco Goldman's Say Her Name (Grove Press, £14.99) is closely based on the death of his wife, Aura Estrada, who broke her neck while body-surfing, aged 30. Goldman has expressed his suspicion towards the supposed veracity that memoirs boast and prefers to call the book a novel. Frank is the bereaved husband, trawling through his memories of Aura. It is a fraught, desperate book, and also an incandescent love story with a tragic ending.

Joyce Carol Oates's A Widow's Story (Fourth Estate, £20) is a fevered account of her husband's death, told in riveting prose that sprints across the page. The memoir begins with the day her husband, Raymond Smith, the founding editor of Ontario Review, is admitted to hospital, where he dies of a secondary infection following pneumonia, bringing their 47-year marriage to an end. The book is a close, unrestrained study of grief. Thoughts of suicide stalk her and Oates is fractured from her former self as she begins this new, reduced life as "the widow", as if she were turned into a character from her own fiction.

Alongside the anguish begins the internal inquiry on how well she knew Ray, how well he knew her. He rarely read her fiction, she reveals, and she finds his only aborted novel, stopped short when he met and married her. Her existential quandaries on intimacy – can it ever be achieved or are two people only ever mutual mysteries to each other? - chime at times with Joan Didion's inquiry in her memoir of her daughter's death, Blue Nights (Fourth Estate, £14.99).

Sarah Manguso's The Two Kinds of Decay (Granta, £14.99) is an extraordinary story of critical illness which is profoundly life-affirming, for all its darkness. Manguso does more than merely chase her own ambulance in this slim, beautifully written autobiography about a rare autoimmune disease, diagnosed at the age of 21, that left her debilitated for nine years. Her illness reduces her spirit, yet simultaneously, it feeds an enormous hunger for living. Her life-story is a tale of desperation and terror but also one of wonder and joy as she emerges from the cold shadow of death, into glorious life.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?

    Some couples are allowed emergency hospital weddings, others are denied the right. Kate Hilpern reports on the growing case for a compassionate cutting of the red tape
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for