On Memoirs

February 15, 2010

About Mary Karr’s third memoir Lit: The woman is fifty–has she lived three lifetimes? Some will say yes, I suppose, given the hardscrabble childhood (The Liar’s Club), the rollicking adolescence (Cherry), and the booze-addled then redeemed adulthood depicted in her latest book. Too, if Augusten Burroughs gets to urp up contested autobiographies every two or three years (and he’s what, thirty? Thirty-five? I guess I could Google it, but you go ahead if you care), it seems fair that Karr should produce her trio. 

I was invested enough to read it through, though I got mildly annoyed and impatient with her sobriety account, which probably says a lot more about me than her. There’s a familiar shape and language to the recovery narrative that borders on template, even when emerging from a poet’s pen, if you practically grew up going to AA meetings as I did (via one alcoholic parent plus one enabling parent). It’s still a meaningful journey, possibly a necessary arc to beat down addiction, and perhaps as fascinating to program outsiders as her Catholic conversion was to me–though I felt that got incredibly short shrift, as did her writing life, her marriage, and her almost-next marriage. Possibly she was too respectful of her former partners’ privacy–and of her relationship with God! I do love that Karr’s sobered-up mother was still pretty much a hot mess until the end, proof that the straight life need not be dull.

I was on an Out of Africa-themed headtrip awhile back and though it did not result in my actually reading Out of Africa (sometimes the film is so good it deters me from the book), I did luck onto the purported memoir West With the Night, likely penned not by the powerfully cheekboned aviatrix Beryl Markham but her lyrical journalist third husband, Raoul Schumacher (according to biographer Errol Trzebinski, who makes a strong case in The Lives of Beryl Markham), and The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley, two moving accounts of growing up in a still-colonial East Africa in the early twentieth century. Both are heady prefaces to Alexander Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, which chronicles the messy end of colonialism as viewed though a white British family’s chaotic traipse through Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in the 1970s. Life was probably no less tough in those earlier accounts, but the closer proximity of events paired with the senseless deaths of three of the author’s siblings strips away all genteel, nostalgic veneer.

A life needs only to be interesting (or perhaps only rendered so) to merit a memoir, but “interesting” in recent years has come to largely mean rife with sexual abuse and/or delirious self-destruction, which may be why some pretty sketchy fiction has gotten recast as scintillating autobiography (the most egregious culprits will go unnamed here; they’ve gotten enough attention). The only memoir I’ve encountered in recent years that actually brags about depicting a happy childhood is Marianne Gingher’s A Girl’s Life: Horses, Boys, Weddings & Luck. If you’ve overloaded on anorexics, asylum-dwellers, self-cutters, and junkies, it’s a pure palate cleanser.

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4 Responses to “On Memoirs”

  1. Annie Says:

    I must confess I loved Mary Karr’s Lit. If anything, it made me a little jealous that I wasn’t a recovering alcoholic with such an intense, friendly support system of friends!

    Have you read Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World? I read it just a month before J.D. Salinger died. It’s so much more than about him. It’s a gem.

    Hey, June. I’ve entered the fray, too. Check out http://www.thepapersandwich.blogspot.com

    Wanna blogroll each other? Ooo, doesn’t that sound nasty??

    xo Annie

    • junecspence Says:

      Yeah, I remember liking the Maynard memoir. There is a super bitchy column about her and her motives on Slate by a former classmate–something old, but ran across the link during all the recent Salinger aftermath. Consider yourself blogrolled!

  2. Scott H Says:

    Another absolutely interesting piece. I love your idea that the movie “Out of Africa” is so good it deters you from reading the book; I believe I’m in the same position. I love this blog.


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