The rise of the literary memoir: How do you to balance truthfulness with drama?

The life story, fictionalised or otherwise, has exploded in popularity

Ian Thomson
Thursday 12 February 2015 17:00
Self-revelations: Reese Witherspoon in the film of the memoir 'Wild'
Self-revelations: Reese Witherspoon in the film of the memoir 'Wild'

Ours is the era of Everybody's Autobiography. Bookshops are filled with memoirs that dilate on the horrors attendant on anorexia, autism, cancer, childhood abuse or bereavement. The books might amount to solipsistic spouting, were the writing not up to standard.

When is a life worth telling? B.S.Johnson, the London-born novelist and tireless chronicler of himself, put the most humdrum of autobiographical details into his "truth-telling" novels. His fictionalised memoir Trawl (1966) fetched up in the Angling section of Foyles bookshop. It was an early example of an unsaleable literary hybrid. Most good memoirists make life more interesting than it is, blending truth with untruth to create a semi-fictional construct. Jonathan Meades, the architectural and cultural commentator, conjured a vanished Britain of 1950s Cracker Barrel cheese adverts and Aertex shirts in his recent childhood memoir, An Encyclopaedia of Myself. How much of it was elaborated? The memoir showed a novelist's hand in the use of big, polysyllabic words ("gingivitic", "leucous") and the heightened caricature.

Katharine Norbury's much-hyped first book, The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream, is a lightly fictionalised travelogue-cum-memoir, that shimmers with allusions to Celtic and mystical Christianity. Norbury had been adopted as a baby in Liverpool and knew almost nothing about the circumstances of her birth. Her book explores a particularly disturbed period in the author's life a few years ago when, in her mid-40s, she was diagnosed with breast cancer following a miscarriage; after a bilateral mastectomy she tracked down her birth mother only to find that she wanted nothing to do with her. Norbury writes wonderfully of life's uncertainty and transience. "My name had been Marie, but had then been changed to Katharine. I was born in the Convent and had then gone out in to the world."

With its pages of nostalgic childhood recollection and enchanted description of landscape, The Fish Ladder inevitably invites comparison with Helen Macdonald's bestseller H is for Hawk. Like Macdonald's ornithological memoir, Norbury's is on one level a work of filial devotion, that reflects a solitary child's attachment to her foster father and how much she misses him.

The literary memoir has been around for some time. Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father?, published in 1993, recast Edmund Gosse's Edwardian masterwork Father and Son as a very modern work of self-disclosure and confession. Today, the trend is for memoir to incorporate elements of anthropology, art criticism, travel, nature writing and other disciplines. Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), notably, went beyond conventional memoir to assimilate elements of allegorical pilgrimage and the continental tradition of the moral essay.

De Waal was not the first in recent years to turn the raw material of his experience into an unclassifiable work of literature. In 1984, Primo Levi's literary-scientific autobiography, The Periodic Table, had reached the UK bestseller list alongside Dick Francis. Incredibly, the memoir had been turned down by no fewer than 27 publishers in Britain before it was finally taken on. Such hybrid merchandise would never sell, editors feared. Peculiar in construction, audacious in conception, the book was not autobiography and it was not a chemistry treatise either. What was it? Only now, three decades on, can we see that Levi was ahead of his time.

Women especially seem to flourish in the field of the new hybrid memoir. Cheryl Strayed's Wild, chronicling the author's 1,100-mile solo hike from California to Washington, was turned into a film in 2014 starring Rees Witherspoon. The Iceberg by Marion Coutts and Gabriel Weston's Direct Red: A Surgeon's Story were each, in their different ways, unsparing and courageous reckonings with bereavement and human sickness. Weston's hospital memoir itself continued a tradition of scientific writing on mortality from Sir Thomas Browne to Levi.

Norbury may not be a writer by vocation, but, like Macdonald and others before her, she has much to say about human suffering and the puzzle of human identity. In the absence of traceable blood parents, she seeks an anchor point in the British landscape, undertaking a series of long walks across Scotland and north-east Wales in the company of her daughter Evie. The walks are intended to trace a number of rivers from mouth to source. Very occasionally the therapist's couch shows in the prose ("I had found a missing piece in the broken vase of my history"); otherwise Norbury attains a wonder-struck prose poetry as she struggles to make peace with her birth mother's refusal to have anything to do with her.

Of course there is always a special risk when putting a parent into "self-biography" (as Samuel Taylor Coleridge called memoir). Alexandra Fuller, one of Britain's great post-colonial memoirists, found that not all those who recognised themselves in her terrific account of 1960s and 1970s white-ruled South Africa, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, had appreciated their transformation. The author's own mother, Nicola Fuller, was disquieted to find herself as a character in that "awful book" (as she refers to it today). Was she really that flaky and drunk? Or was that how others perceived her?

For some years now I have been writing a memoir of my Baltic émigré mother, who came to Britain in 1947 through a series of Displaced Persons camps in Germany. Unsurprisingly, she was not always happy to have her past examined by a writer ("When a writer is born into a family", she likes to quote the Baltic-born poet Czeslaw Milosz, "the family is finished".) It was hard enough for her to believe that the memoir I had in mind was to be worthwhile and not a hurtful exercise in family exposure. But, selfishly, I persisted: the discovery of my mother's past was in some measure also the discovery of my past. I can only hope that my book, like Norbury's, will be a beguiling amalgam of personal anecdote, travelogue and family history, in which details from one woman's troubled life provide a documentary authenticity and truthfulness in the telling.

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