Thursday, April 7, 2016

Fiction or Memoir?

Some time ago I had a brief exchange with John in which he said that he found memoirs preferable to fiction. Reading Le Clézio reminded me of the benefits of memoirs, but it is still a thorny issue for me to decide what to read. The appeal of fiction is related to our innate attraction to stories, folklore and oral history, which all predate written language and contribute to the fabric of culture. Modern fiction performs some of those functions, but, whether in purely commercial or literary form, it now contains unrelated elements that divert it from some of those earlier purposes. In the simplest terms, fiction's appeal can lie in entertainment, information or aesthetics. Popular fiction consists mainly of the first two, and literary fiction, in theory at least, consists primarily of the third. A memoir could be any of the three, depending on who wrote it and how well it is written.

The problem with fiction is that once you've read enough of it it becomes increasingly less compelling for those who dislike repetition. For example, I have never read any works by Charles Dickens, and at this stage I'm not going to bother, because from what I can gather his novels are excessively sentimental; I'm sure I've already read better ones, and it would probably be torture for me to read Dickens now. Many adults lose interest in fiction and turn to nonfiction, which is more useful in most cases. Some readers like fiction for its information value, where the author knows a lot about a subject or has done extensive research on it. These readers find it more enjoyable to absorb information that way, but I would rather go straight to the sources in nonfiction and skip the extraneous when I'm curious about something. Under these conditions I am confined to aesthetic fiction, which tends to be the most contrived type. You're probably sick of hearing what I have to say on this topic, but the reason I go on about it is that it's my best hope if I'm going to read fiction at all. In general it suffers from deficiencies similar to those that I find in modern art. The works skew toward literary fashions and the pretense of whatever the leading critics, creative writing programs or publishers happen to considered meritorious at any given moment. What I have usually found is that I don't share their taste. Commercialism directly or indirectly places an upper limit on the quality of new fiction, and although literary fiction isn't as commercial as other types, the literary establishment, which is accountable to no one, has been falling down on its job for as long as I've been reading.

At first glance it appears that the reading of memoirs might avert some of these problems. However, there is still a minefield to contend with. These days a memoir is likely to meet the specific agenda of the author and relate to objectives that don't interest me at all. Politicians write them to promote their political careers. Businessmen write them to promote their business careers. Writers write them to promote their literary careers. Many people would be fine with rewriting their life story in order to make themselves appear more desirable than they actually are. Even so, though I haven't as of yet read many memoirs, I think that they have the potential to offer the kind of writing that would suit me best. That would be the writing of an author who has lived a little, has thoughtful observations to make, is articulate and isn't dull and unimaginative or constantly alluding to the works of others. This sounds simple enough, but I can't say that I've come across much writing that meets these criteria. Rousseau's Confessions is a favorite; I liked The African and an excerpt that I read from Julio Ramón Ribeyro. Technically Walden is a memoir, and I liked that. I could have done without Dreams from My Father. Otherwise I've read memoir-like fiction, which sometimes works, e.g. The Mandarins. But fiction lets the author off the hook through the mechanism of the fictive voice; when that is the only voice in a work the author may never be held accountable for misconceptions and untruths present there, which can conveniently be attributed to artistic license; elements within that fiction can be factually incorrect with impunity for the author. Depending on your point of view, an extended fiction can be construed as a lie. I would prefer writing in which the author says "I think that...," taking full responsibility for every word. Frustratingly for me, it is difficult to find honest first-person writing that has been written by someone who has genuine insights, whose motivation is not primarily financial or professional, and who possesses true eloquence. You are more likely to find it in nonfiction, where there is a basic accountability with respect to facts, but the price you pay for that is nonfiction's often impersonal, dry narrative, in which the technical nature of the writing makes it unpalatable at times.

My next reading project will be to identify suitable memoirs or autobiographies to read.


  1. I haven't enjoyed or even finished any of the Le Clézio I've tried (a novel or two, years ago); I had better luck with Modiano's novels, some of which I at least finished.

    Rousseau's Confessions also irritated me, and I didn't finish it. I found myself disliking him intensely. Every day, on my way to work, I ride by a plaque saying the building it's on was the site of the house (since demolished) where he was born.

    A memoir I've enjoyed tremendously is Casanova's. It's thousands of pages, and I think I've read them all, but not in order. An atypical section (since it's not about his pursuit of women) is an account of his escape from "the Leads," a prison in Venice. It's excellent.

    In the past two years, I've been reading Salón de pasos perdidos, an excellent multi-volume diary by the Spaniard Andrés Trapiello. I have one one and half of the eighteen or so volumes left to read.

  2. The African struck me as good, but I may not like his other writing and am not pursuing it at present. I've been looking into Modiano, and the detective aspect doesn't appeal to me. I'm not sure why you dislike Rousseau; he seems spontaneous and likable to me, and I agree with some of his ideas – the desirability of naturalness – though others seem a little idiotic now. He would not be considered a serious thinker by today's standards, but at the time he was one of the most influential thinkers alive. I probably wouldn't like Casanova, because he doesn't seem to be known for much besides womanizing; for historical purposes he might provide more information than Rousseau does – in a way they were both hustlers trying to earn a living. I have somewhat of a dislike for theatricality (both of my parents were too dramatic at times), and this diminishes the appeal to me of Casanova. Also, it is easier for me to be patient with shorter works, because long and rambling ones seem more likely to be repetitive and short on clear ideas. With a background in philosophy, I prefer concision and a certain amount of self-discipline on the part of authors – these are relatively modern phenomena.

    Coming up on my reading list (in addition to the two scientific books mentioned earlier) are: Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, by Czeslaw Milosz, Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman, by Richard Feynman, and Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, by Simone de Beauvoir. These may not be your cup of tea either. Everyone's taste is different, and in my case I've felt encouraged just by finding books that I don't dislike. For me this is a significant improvement over reading articles on the Internet.

  3. I read the Rousseau years ago, before I knew French, and I remember being supremely irritated by his account of a relationship with someone he called Maman--Mme. de Warens, maybe. Stendhal (who was an admirer of Rousseau) wrote of a similar relationship in what, for me, was a far more rewarding way in The Red and the Black.

    The only contemporary (or relatively contemporary) French novelist I consistently enjoy is one Roger Grenier. But I haven't tried many others, as I haven't found much that I've liked.

  4. Yes, his relationship with Mme. de Warens was strange by our standards, yet his account of it is thought to be accurate. I admired his sincerity. You also have to give him credit for his originality: this was the first memoir of the modern era. His freedom of expression was liberating to future generations, especially those growing up in a stuffy Victorian environment. I may try Stendhal one of these days but for the time being prefer works closer to the present.

    It's probably easier for you to adopt a slightly jaded attitude toward European literature since you're living right in the thick of it, but for someone like me who sometimes feels stranded among hillbillies in Appalachia much in France and Switzerland still seems sophisticated and exotic. I'm sort of a counterpart to Marcel Inhoff, who lives in Germany and thinks American poetry is great: from my point of view he is delusional.

    1. I thought Rousseau seemed to want credit for his sincerity, or to think that it somehow excused his bad behavior, and in this his Confessions is the archetype of a common kind of memoir that I very much dislike. The editors of the Casanova books I read included a number of footnotes saying that Casanova was lying outright about this incident or that. The funny thing is that he still struck me as a far more honest narrator (and person) than Rousseau. And that Rousseau called his lover "Maman" had to be ridiculous even at the time.

      I like Stendhal because, unlike so many other classics, he seems modern. My favorite of his books is La Vie de Henry Brulard, a memoir of his childhood in Grenoble. I used to wonder sometimes how much different my late adolescence and early twenties would have been had I discovered his work when I was fifteen to seventeen rather than in my late twenties.

      That may seem stupid, but a couple of years ago, for the first time, I read Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, and came across an immensely gratifying bit on his discovery of Stendhal.

  5. It's been a while since I read Confessions, but at the time Rousseau seemed to me to be merely stating what happened without being particularly self-critical. It was more appalling to me that he couldn't be bothered with caring for his children and shipped them off to orphanages. Certainly he had gall to write a book about childhood education (Emile), having dumped his kids and no experience in childrearing. I've not read a biography to find out more about the actual circumstances of his life.

    As far as Stendhal goes, you should just be happy that you've found a writer whom you can appreciate. If he's as good as you say, you may not have been able to appreciate him when you were an adolescent. I don't think I would have liked George Eliot before the age of 30.

    1. Maybe I'd like even Rousseau if I read him now.


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