“Thoughts on Autobiography…” – by Janet Malcolm

A friend gave me a copy of an article from The New York Review of Books. The article is titled “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography” and is written by journalist Janet Malcolm. Herein I quote one paragraph that was just too good not to share:

“Memory is not a journalist’s tool. Memory glimmers and hints, but shows nothing sharply or clearly. Memory does not narrate or render character. Memory has no regard for the reader. If an autobiography is to be even minimally readable, the autobiographer must step in and subdue what you could call memory’s autism, its passion for the tedious. He must not be afraid to invent. Above all he must invent himself [bolding mine]. Like Rousseau, who wrote (at the beginning of his novelistic Confessions) that “I am not made like anyone I have ever been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence,” he must sustain, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, the illusion of his preternatural extraordinariness.”

A London Child of the 1870s, by Molly Hughes

I just finished reading A London Child of the 1870s, by Molly Hughes, which my friend KJ from Vancouver was kind enough to give me.  In the gift card that accompanied the book K wrote: “I really enjoyed this memoir – found it fascinating on a number of levels. Wanted you to have it for your collection.”

Lucky me! This is a gem of a book. It is the first in a trilogy, too, so I have reading pleasures in my future, should I choose to return to this unexpectedly warm Victorian world.

Warm, yes, but complex as well. Hughes’ memoir could easily have been written as a dirge for her lost family members, but this was not how she chose to remember her childhood. The work is mostly  a matter of imagination over reality – and a triumph of the former.  In brief, read the book. It is beautifully written and gives such a rich picture of the times.

Two points I wanted to mention:

One: In the preface, writer Adam Gopnik says: “There is also, I think, in the relative neglect of Molly’s writing, and its significance, a just detectable prejudice against urban memoir as opposed to pastoral one. At least, it seems to me that say, Lark Rise to Candleford keeps a higher reputation than Molly’s memoir because it takes place in the country. One of the things that makes Molly so moving is the intensity of her recreation of Victorian London, on terms that Chesterton would have embraced and italicized, as a place of adventure, folly, and romance.”

Note to self: discuss differences between urban and pastoral memoirs; these categories are new to me. Also: read Lark Rise to Candleford! What a delicious title – and so very British!

Two: I absolutely loved Gopnik’s concluding paragraph and would like to use it for an epigraph in my thesis:  “It is, I suppose, possible to see something unreal, or Quixotic, in Molly’s choosing to avoid all and every truth. But no realism can encompass all that is real [boldings mine]. Death and pain are enough pain to season any sunny memoir. If there is something evasive about her celebration, there is, in its minute detailing of a life gone already by the time she wrote it, something beautiful and permanent, too – happiness not merely recorded, but wrought, from a time and circumstances more iron and resistant than she is prepared to allow. Realism, like Parnassus, has many mansions, and a mantelpiece is as real as a marriage bed. The heroism of children, seeking happiness in the midst of their parents’ anxieties, is a kind of heroism, too. Molly’s book seems to me more painful now than it did when I first read it, but still finer as writing. Here is an ordinary life rendered truly, and joyfully, with a voice at once so self-abnegating yet so gay and funny and precise, that we are reminded, in the end, of the one truth worth remembering, that there are no ordinary lives.” Adam Gopnik, New York, 1987/2005 copyright: the author and The New Yorker