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Connecting Proust’s madeleine to Lenny Bruce’s ‘memoir-rant’.

By DEB OLIN UNFERTH [from Guernica] A few years ago, when I began writing a memoir, I read piles of them to get a feel for the genre. I read the older “autobiographies,” where the author tries to cover every event in his or her life. The modernist autobiographies are especially good: Paul Bowles, in his dry, witty manner, writes Without Stopping as a Leviticus-style document of every person he met, place he visited, and conversation he had. (My own father’s father wrote such a book and left it for us when he died: he lists every parking ticket, baseball game, and tank of gas, with, sadly, little mention of my father.) Gertrude Stein, in a brilliantly subversive way of sidestepping the problem of having to describe herself, writes her wife’s autobiography, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—which turns out to be a hilarious biography of Stein written by Stein.

Continues in Chronicle & Notices.

In the final decades of the twentieth century, the autobiography transformed, as writers began to see the disadvantages of writing blanket summaries of their lives and comprehensive lists of events: the messiness involved in such a project, the inevitable incompleteness, the necessary lack of an arc (if one was going to be honest). Writers began framing their autobiographies, selecting experiences that would contribute to an overall narrative shape of their choosing. The resulting books were as much studies of memory and memory’s mishaps and strangenesses as they were records of lives. These books have become what we think of as the memoir. I count Stop-Time by Frank Conroy as a transition book—too scene-filled to be an autobiography, but not narratively muscular enough to be a memoir (and, interestingly, although Conroy was born over twenty-five years after Bowles, his memoir was published in 1967, a few years before Bowles’s, so you can here witness evidence of the messy transition period). Also consider Lenny Bruce’s fierce How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (1963), which opens like an autobiography—with earliest memories and childhood pranks—but grows into a sort of memoir-rant against the police forces and censors, which were eventually his undoing.

Continued at Guernica | More Chronicle & Notices.

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