Friday, November 15, 2013

Five notable anti-memoir memoirs

Marco Roth is the author of The Scientists: A Family Romance. He named his five favorite anti-memoir memoirs for The Daily Beast. Roth asks -- "Is it possible to write a memoir about how you mistook your own life, about what you didn’t yet know or failed to see, and when you didn’t know it? About how your character and judgments were formed and how you came to unlearn that first and not always painful formation?" -- and his answer seems to be, yes.

One anti-memoir memoir on Roth's list:
Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait by Henry Green.

“I was born a mouthbreather with a silver spoon in 1905, three years after one war and nine before another, too late for both. But not too late for the war which seems to be coming upon us now and that is a reason to put down what comes to mind before one is killed, and surely it would be asking much to pretend one had a chance to live.” So begins Henry Green’s Pack My Bag, which, as the title and first sentence suggest, he thought of as a farewell to the world he’d known, a world of English country houses, fancy boarding schools, trips to the continent, culminating with the expected Oxbridge education. What continually fascinates me about this book is that its strengths spring from a fundamental misrecognition in these opening lines. Green, whose older brother was killed in World War I, begins with the belief that he’s doomed to die in the next war, the inevitability of which he foresaw with greater clarity than most of Britain’s political class. In fact, he would survive it, working as a volunteer fireman in London during the blitz. As he recalls the scenes and settings of his aristocratic upbringing, however, he slowly begins to write his way into the realization that what’s ending may not be his life, but a way of life, the dominance of the aristocracy, and he’s happy to let it go. “It is only when one looks at it in the light of imminent death, that rather ghastly colour in the sky of mustard yellows with the sirens wailing their call of now you may have to die that one begins to doubt whether everything really has been for the best.” And this sentence too turns out to be misleading, since Green tells us he’d already doubted that everything had been for the best. He left Oxford, in 1926, to work on the floor of one of his family-owned iron foundries, and had already turned those experiences into his 1929 novel Living, one of the great portraits of English working class life of the interwar years. Green was able to write so well about the death of one way of life because his bags were already packed.
Read about another entry on Roth's list.

--Marshal Zeringue