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Turning to Memoir

ISSUE:  Summer 2006

The Year of Magical Thinking,
by Joan Didion. Knopf, 2005. $23.95

All Will Be Well, by John McGahern. Knopf, 2006. $25

Let Me Finish, by Roger Angell. Harcourt, 2006. $25


In December of 1988, when I was forty-one, I contracted a virus that targeted my brain and left me in neurological tatters. I could not write, struggled to understand the simplest sentences I read. My memory systems were wrecked, leaving me unable to store new information or find and assemble old information. Without a reliable working memory, I had difficulty learning new things. My word-finding and concentration powers were compromised, abstract reasoning and the capacity to form structures were damaged, my IQ diminished nearly twenty percent. I walked with a cane for the next fifteen years.

At the time that I got sick, I had been publishing poetry for almost twenty years, short stories for fifteen years, and had completed the manuscripts of two novels and most of a third that would all appear in the 1990s. My poems were mostly short, lyrical pieces, tightly structured. My fiction, also short, also tightly structured, emerged from characters and their voices, with minimal plots (and minimal readership). I had never written personal essays or memoir. My nonfiction writing was confined to book reviews, and memos or position papers in my work as staff to various governors or legislators or corporate management.

Illness silenced me for a year. What returned first were scattered images, phrases I would jot down in bedside notebooks quickly, before they vanished from short-term memory. Soon I had notebooks everywhere, because I could never risk waiting till I was near one. It was two years before I tried to write anything more sustained than a short poem, before I could begin to piece together the notes jotted down here and there, and find something like coherence among them.

I needed to write about what was happening to me, but realized that poetry, as I was capable of writing it, would not allow the scale of exploration I was after. Without the capacity to make structure or develop abstract thoughts, unable to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time—proceeding with little idea of where I was heading—I had to come up with a new way to write at length. And to my genuine surprise, the genre I turned to was memoir.

The impulse to write fiction had vanished along with the voices that used to trigger it. The lesions on my brain, holes scattered throughout the cerebral cortex, were where I believed those voices had disappeared. In their place, it seemed, was my own voice, distant still but demanding that I tell my own story, that I combat this illness, which seemed determined to silence me, by writing about it.

Memoir, in a way that sounds melodramatic but is true, saved me as a writer by allowing me to give voice to my experience. Also by demanding that I read and research in the areas of neurology, cognitive science, virology, and philosophy of mind, so I could begin to grasp the facts of my case more fully, so I could discover—and make sense of—what happened to me. And by forcing me to put shards of memory back together, to create some sort of window into my past, so that I could see who I was and connect him with who I had become.

Fiction was not an option, but even if it were, I do not believe fiction would have worked for me. I needed to tell the truth, without the option of making anything up, because it was the only way I could understand what I was going through. I needed to find out how the fragments I had jotted down fit together, work I could do only by writing, by putting them on the page and seeing what I had. Thinking, with my limitations, would not work.

It is not surprising that I have, over the past sixteen years, become an avid reader of memoirs. I am especially drawn to the memoirs of writers who work in other genres, and who for various reasons turn to memoir later in life. Recently, three writers I have long admired have, in their seventies and eighties, come to memoir for the first time: Joan Didion, John McGahern (who passed away in March), and Roger Angell. Didion takes up memoir to write about a period of catastrophic, life-changing, personal loss in The Year of Magical Thinking, winner of the 2005 National Book Award. In All Will Be Well, McGahern, one of Ireland’s most distinguished fiction writers, deals in fuller detail with the harrowing childhood that fueled his novels and stories for forty years. He comes to memoir as to a legal deposition, and seems intent on leaving nothing out. Baseball writer and editor Roger Angell approaches memoir like a grandfather gathering a lifetime of scattered notes, or a snowed-in raconteur holding forth before the fire. Let Me Finish is an example of the memoir as a summing-up, and it looks back on a long life through those insistent details Angell compares to sunken branches that stick up from a stream and snag “a mat of memory.”

*  *  *  *  

Joan Didion has been confronting loss through her entire writing life. The novel Run River, her first book, appeared in 1961 and chronicled a disastrous marriage, ending in murder, that played out in a California landscape empty as its characters’ lives. Hope, illusion, intimacy—everything positive is stripped from heroine Lily Knight’s life.

By the beginning of Didion’s second novel, Play It As It Lays (1970), loss is a given. The narrator, Maria Wyeth, says right at the start, “Everything goes,” and though she works “very hard at not thinking about how everything goes,” the novel is an obsessive account of Maria’s loss of her mother, separation from her daughter, ruined marriage, vanished lover.

In three subsequent novels, four books of essays and political journalism, and three studies of place, Didion’s work seemed centered around this vast, deeply felt sense of loss. Where I Was From (2003) examined California and her own family’s history there, ending with her parents’ deaths and, on the penultimate page, the realization that “there is no real way to deal with everything we lose.”

It is as if she had been preparing all along, as a person and as a writer, for the events she would face between December 2003 and August 2005. In those twenty months, Didion’s daughter, Quintana, contracted a flu that morphed into whole-body septic shock and coma. With Quintana still comatose, Didion’s husband of nearly forty years, writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack as the couple was sitting down to dinner after leaving their daughter’s bedside. Quintana’s slow recovery was interrupted a month later by a pulmonary embolism suffered in the same New York apartment where Dunne had died, and two months later she suffered a near-fatal neurological calamity at the airport in Los Angeles, where she had gone to recuperate. Months of touch-and-go rehabilitation followed. Then in August of 2005, shortly before publication of Didion’s memoir about all this, Quintana died.

It is difficult to imagine enduring such a direct and extended onslaught of loss. The Year of Magical Thinking obsessively chronicles these events, going over and over the details, observing and recording Didion’s actions and thoughts, trying to remain resolutely in the present, in the data of illness, death, mourning. Didion dips only occasionally into memories of her marriage or of being a parent, and when she does she’ll stop herself: “No. The way you got sideswiped was by going back.” This is a memoir in which memory is an enemy. And because she fears reminiscence, the book has a tendency to drift, especially in its latter half, into undeveloped tangents: her attendance at the Democratic National Convention, party chatter that brings to Didion’s mind long quotes from her own early fiction, an evaluation of Alcestis, a list of dead characters in Dunne’s last novel.

The very nature of Didion’s material in The Year of Magical Thinking guarantees that readers will be stunned, sympathetic, rapt. But that sort of reality-show titillation is not what Didion wants most for a reader or for herself. She wants to go deeper, to penetrate. She wants to capture not just what happened, with all its astonishing force, but what it meant and how it changed her.

“The way I write is who I am, or have become,” she says near the start of the book. It appears that the genres she had always used—novels, essays, political journalism, studies of place—were no longer appropriate for the person she became after the events of 2003–2005. They left her unmoored. Although she had written about herself and her life in parts of her earlier nonfiction, she needed now, for the first time, to write a full-fledged memoir, placing herself as both observer and subject at the center of her seasoned, shrewd scrutiny. She needed, quite literally, to get hold of herself.

A significant problem with The Year of Magical Thinking is that Didion could not shed old habits of language or tone as she sought to write in a new genre and about the rattled new self she had become. “Grief is different,” she says. “Grief has no distance.” But Didion is a writer, and cool, dispassionate distance remains what she does. Even as she is astonished by what is happening, unhinged by grief, and telling us, “I had no answers. I had no prognosis. I did not know how this had happened,” Didion is stuck with her composed no-nonsense seen-it-all demeanor, expressed in glazed, hard language. She seems fully aware that language as she customarily used it would not work. “This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning,” Didion writes. “This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.” But limited to using words, Didion as a memoirist relies on the irony, repetitions of phrasing, and technical gambits that always sustained and distanced her. The mannerisms feel out of place here, melodramatic in ways Didion seldom allowed herself to be, as in the sixth or seventh italicized recurrence of the wording that opens the book, each sentence standing as its own paragraph: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.”

In many ways, the most moving aspect of her memoir is the way Didion reenacts her befuddlement and derangement as she searches for the understanding that continues to elude her. The book’s repetitions and disjointedness, Didion’s obsessions and her awareness of her obsessions, do suggest powerfully what it is like to be shattered by grief.

Though Didion struck a hospital social worker as “a pretty cool customer,” which is also how she and her characters appear in the previous books, The Year of Magical Thinking is premised on the fact that her daughter’s illnesses and her husband’s death left her, often, “incapable of thinking rationally.” That is what “magical thinking” refers to. The way Didion refused to throw away her dead husband’s shoes because she felt he would still need them, the way she hoped an autopsy would show what had gone wrong so they could fix it and bring Dunne back. The way she tried to figure out, on the night of his death in New York, whether he also was dead in Los Angeles: “Was there time to go back? Could we have a different ending on Pacific time?”

Didion in her grief tries to live in the now, tries to manage. She records dates and data (her first words about her husband’s death were written “May 20, 2004, 11:11 p.m.”), gathers numbers (temperatures, mortality rates, telephone numbers). “Information is control,” she says numerous times. But unlike a character in a Didion novel, Didion herself also wants to look for reasons, is determined to understand and discover what her experience means.

Clearly, what Didion had to manage was so awful that management was not enough. Preparation was not enough, either. In fact, though she says that what happened was “unthinkable,” there certainly was a lot of warning about Dunne’s likely death by heart attack. Not only had a pacemaker been implanted six months earlier but Dunne had been having a series of atrial fibrillation episodes followed by procedures to correct them. “He believed he was dying,” Didion writes, and she recounts a long history of heart-related problems, gloomy predictions by Dunne of death by heart attack, acknowledgment that his father’s sudden, cardiac death was a clear warning.

While there is something vaguely off about her ongoing feeling of surprise over Dunne’s death, it is true that some events are so fundamentally distressing that the shock of them feels like surprise, rendering the predictable unexpected. And it does seem that such unmanageable, shocking events compel a writer to turn to memoir.

Early in The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion writes that her book “is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck and good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.” This is a sentence that stops a reader as much for its length—since Didion is far more likely to present two-word rather than two-page paragraphs—as for its litany of lost beliefs. And it suggests why memoir, a genre Didion had never used at book-length before, was where she turned. She needed to discover what her experience meant to her. What Didion also hoped to do in The Year of Magical Thinking, what most writers hope to do with memoir, is to “collapse a sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to [her] now.” And to do these things, she apparently needed to go over and over the events, to put them on the page before her and keep coming back to them, looking for clues, thereby recreating what the experience of grief feels like.

In the end, what Didion learns—the place to which her writing penetrates—is what she knew all along, what she knew from the start of her writing career more than forty years ago: “The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none.” Words as she uses them in The Year of Magical Thinking do not lead to fresh understanding. But her rendering of the life-changing experience she endured is both moving and terrifying.

*  *  *  *  

Irish novelist and short story writer John McGahern faces a daunting challenge when writing a memoir: “[It] is impossible to know oneself, since we cannot see ourselves as we are seen.” Further, he acknowledges that “it may be almost as difficult to understand those close to us, whether that closeness be of enmity or love or their fluctuating tides.” Almost, but not quite: understanding others is, at least, not impossible. Yet now, at seventy-one and urged on by his siblings, liberated by his father’s death, living again along the same lanes where he spent his traumatic childhood, and facing his own mortality, McGahern feels compelled to write a memoir, to see and know himself despite his doubts about being able to do so.

McGahern’s approach as a memoirist is further complicated by the fact that his fiction has almost always been highly autobiographical. He has said it all before: the rural Irish childhood with seven siblings in County Leitrim; the brutal policeman-father and kind teacher-mother; the mother’s early death from cancer, the son’s wild grief, and the father’s ongoing bitterness, ongoing savagery; the son’s subsequent battles with his father and efforts both to protect his siblings and to escape; the discovery of literature and writing; the return many years later to settle in the same landscape where he grew up.

Full of doubts about the possibilities of self-knowledge, having seldom as a writer strayed far from the core material that constitutes the memoir, McGahern makes the only choice he must have seen open to him. He raids the fiction. Vast sections of All Will Be Well, often with nearly identical wording, appeared in McGahern’s fiction—the son hiding in the outhouse to escape a beating, the son meeting with a priest to discuss educational opportunities and the father’s efforts to sabotage them, family life in the police barracks. The memoir is more than familiar to a McGahern reader; it presents the same settings, same characters, the same events, sometimes almost scene by scene, all told in the same lyrical prose laced with fury which defines his fiction. As a result—to be expected from a writer convinced he cannot know himself—All Will Be Well is ultimately a memoir that sheds more light on the fiction than the man, giving readers a sense of confirmation that, indeed, these awful things McGahern always wrote about were true-to-life.

None of this makes All Will Be Well a failure as a memoir, especially for a reader new to McGahern. Neither does the fact that it is a hesitant, sometimes repetitive, misshapen book, with the first two-thirds of its 289 pages devoted to the first ten years of his life and the remainder a rushed summation of the next sixty-one years. “This is the story of my upbringing,” he writes late in the book, having recognized its odd proportions, “the people who brought me up, my parents and those around them, in their time and landscape. My own separate life, in so far as any life is separate, I detailed only to show how the journey out of that landscape became the return to those lanes and small fields and hedges and lakes under the Iron Mountains.”

McGahern’s writing about his childhood is deeply disturbing and deeply moving. There is a grace and elegance, a genuine poetry to his presentation of rural life and its rhythms, to the time he spent with his beloved mother, and to his connection with various aunts or uncles. When he discovers reading and study as a teenager—the world of books—he writes tenderly of the boy he was: “Now I had the heady feeling that my life was gathering like cupped rainfall in my own hands.”

But there is such savagery in his time with his father, who is presented as unrelentingly dangerous and dominating, who beat the children so viciously that his police colleagues occasionally had to interfere. One daughter lapsed into a protracted state of catatonia; all learned how to placate and dodge, how to stick together. “All our energies,” he says, “were concentrated on surviving under our father. We learned to read his moods and to send out warnings in an instant so that we could vanish.” After their mother died, lacking any buffer, “we were in disarray. We had no defense against the sudden rages, the beatings, the punishments, the constant scoldings.”

McGahern is given to pronouncements, resonant and hard-won. “A child can become infected with unhappiness,” he says. “Though children are seldom fair, they have a passion for fairness. In their need of certainty in an uncertain world, they demand that all promises be kept.” When he generalizes about children in distress, he speaks with grave authority. So too when he speaks of a dying parent, having spent months alone with his mother as cancer destroyed her: “[T]hose who are dying are marked not only by themselves but by the world they are losing.”

Sad and mournful, especially as it remembers the mother, All Will Be Well is also, understandably, an angry, often ferocious book. As it progresses, and as the scenes of abuse are presented without significant shades of difference, its details tend to proliferate rather than penetrate. McGahern seems to be building up an elaborate case against his father, to be settling the score by incorporating as many instances as he can, even though the point has already and devastatingly been made. He is a more rigorous fiction writer than memoirist, especially in the novels—The Barracks (1963), The Dark (1965), Amongst Women (1990)—that deal most fully with his childhood.

“All true stories,” McGahern says, “are essentially the same story in the same way as they are different: they reflect the laws of life in both its sameness and its endless variations.” With so many memoirs covering a subject similar to McGahern’s—abuse and family dysfunction, childhood misery and the thrill of escape—All Will Be Well risks being just another account of mistreatment, an Angela’s Ashes from Leitrim instead of Limerick, an Irish Bastard Out of Carolina.

The quality of McGahern’s writing and the vividness of its scenes lift his book from the ordinary. So does his ultimate return home, an intriguing variation on the usual theme of escape. McGahern left Ireland and his family situation for several years—for two marriages and a successful literary career—and then returned, mature and sufficiently balanced, to live in the very landscape where his awful childhood took place. “My relationship with these lanes and fields extended back to the very beginning of my life,” he says, emphasizing the way in which he has embraced his past. All of it.

“In certain rare moments over the years while walking these lanes I have come into an extraordinary sense of security, a deep peace, in which I feel that I can live forever. I suspect it is no more than the actual lane and the lost lane becoming one for a moment in an intensity of feeling, but without the usual attendants of pain and loss.” Given what happened there, this is an astonishing, impressive achievement, one made possible by McGahern’s repeated imaginative engagements with his past, and made convincing by the aptly titled All Will Be Well.

McGahern may feel that he cannot know himself, but he does know his own story cold—the events he lived through, the things he witnessed—and he knows his landscape as well. This enables him to put together, in memoir, a composite picture that adds up to a believable likeness of himself after all.

*  *  *  *  

At eighty-five, Roger Angell might seem to need four or five hundred pages for his memoir. His has been a long, culturally engaged, celebrity-filled life. Associated with The New Yorker for more than sixty years, Angell edited, worked with, and befriended many of our leading writers—James Thurber, John O’Hara, Ogden Nash, John Updike, Donald Barthelme, V. S. Pritchett—and contributed articles about baseball that made him one of the most beloved sportswriters of our era. He saw baseball’s old-timers—Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx and Babe Ruth—as well as today’s stars—Barry Bonds and Mariano Rivera and Mark McGwire—and wrote about them all. Angell is the son of Katherine White, also an editor and writer for The New Yorker, and stepson of beloved essayist and children’s author E. B. White, and he grew up among the prominent cultural figures of the century. He served in World War II; bummed around postwar Europe for a while with S. J. Perelman and his family, stopping in to visit with W. Somerset Maugham; he edited William Maxwell while Maxwell edited him.

But Angell’s memoir, Let Me Finish, is a taut 291 pages, a selective, meditative, bittersweet collection of reminiscences he has been publishing over the last decade in The New Yorker. These reminiscences, especially those of his first three decades, are the sorts of “old stories we tell ourselves in the middle of the night” that “require no more than a whisper or street noise to get them whirring again in a fresh production.” Wistful, full of rich details of life in the 1930s and 1940s, and of midcentury times at the magazine, Let Me Finish has none of the desperation that marks Didion’s account of life-changing events, none of McGahern’s obsessive, repetitive focus and rage.

There is a ruefully old-fashioned, skeptical air to Angell’s recollections. “Memory,” he writes, “is fiction—an anecdotal version of some scene or past event we need to store away for present or future use.” He approaches memoir as a string of such anecdotes, a baggy assemblage of the things that have been stored away and that present themselves to him most insistently. It bothers him a little that this is how his story, and the stories of those who matter to him, will be presented: “What gets left out of an account like this, of course, is most of a life.” But Angell also realizes that these selected moments, by their very endurance, are vital to explore. “Life is tough and brimming with loss, and the most we can do about it is to glimpse ourselves clear now and then, and find out what we feel about familiar scenes and recurring faces this time around.”

The book’s title gives a clear indication of how Angell views what he is doing in offering up his recollections. It also gives a sense of how comfortably, how mellowly he writes. “The title of this book,” he says, “isn’t about wrapping up a life or a time of life but should only evoke a garrulous gent at the end of the table holding up one hand while he tries to remember the great last line of his monologue.”

The garrulous gent’s monologue, though, contains some painful moments when the part of life that is tough and brimming with loss overwhelms the poised recitation. Angell’s childhood was jolted by his parents’ divorce, which occurred when he was eight and his mother fell in love with E. B. White. For years, Angell lived uptown with his father and sister, traveling downtown to visit his mother and White. Each December, the children celebrated a pair of grim Christmases, shuttled by taxi. “Is it this cut-rate Dickens tale,” Angell writes, “that makes me glum in the middle of Christmas every year?” And though he doubts that it is, a reader can see the pain beneath the panache of the telling.

Clearly, Angell does not want to dwell on this sort of material. “Tales like this were not uncommon for people of my generation, to be sure, and have grown into cliché.” He examines his father’s sometimes prickly behavior, tries to understand the forces that produced it, and concludes that he “turned out to be an exceptional father, with heroic energies.”

He had help. A few years after the divorce, Angell’s father hired a young Columbia University student named Tex Goldschmidt to provide the boy with company (“at eleven, I had outlasted the final governess”), and this proved to be a fortunate pairing. “Tex saved my life, and perhaps he did more than that for Father,” by being a friend to both, taking Angell on long trips, teaching and encouraging him to follow his curious mix of interests, to find himself.

The early part of Let Me Finish, before Angell turns to his years as an editor and writer, is peppered with charming accounts of car trips in his mother’s Franklin sedan or traveling with Tex Goldschmidt all the way to Detroit, of avidly watching movies and feeling kinship with other moviegoers in the theater, of going to his first ballgames, hanging out with pals. The old days are always seen as so much better than today: “Driving nowadays it nothing like it was.” “The same wished-for, uniting experience . . . sends us out to the movies today but too often without reward.” “Sports were different in my youth.” But Angell tries hard not to sentimentalize, not to swoon with nostalgia or to disdain everything about the world of the new millennium, and for the most part he succeeds.

He is good at evoking the process of maturation, “the discovery of what sort of men and women we would become, to ourselves and our friends.”

He is also good at evoking the process of writing. Having studied his stepfather’s methods, Angell knows well “the uses of patience in waiting to discover what kind of writer will turn up” on the page.

Oddly, his memoir’s final section, much of which is devoted to Angell’s days at The New Yorker, seems impatiently presented. It is a pastiche of sketches, most of them interesting enough—especially to readers who are themselves writers—but, as Angell himself says about a passage devoted to his erstwhile colleague, “Bill Maxwell shrivel[s] to an anecdote.” Names are named, glimpses caught, but the overall tone is one of exasperation at the task, at the pile of recollections remaining to be sifted: “That portrait belongs in another book that I no longer plan to write.” There is a feeling that Angell, in turning to the memoir, wanted to write about his first quarter century and had to write about his professional years.

The quality of his prose and the tone of his voice make Angell a pleasure to read even when the material seems dutifully rather than passionately offered. And he remains a delightful raconteur, as in the story of his stepfather’s funeral. E. B. White, known to his intimates as Andy, was a notoriously private man, a near-hermit in his final years, unwilling to venture out of his home in Maine. So at White’s funeral service, Angell remarked, “If Andy White could be with us today he would not be with us today.”

Joan Didion, John McGahern, and Roger Angell have all come to memoir after achieving mastery at other forms of prose writing. There was something they needed, and needed now in the twilight of their careers, that they could not find in fiction, journalism, or essay: an intimacy of encounter with their own true stories and selves, with no recourse to fabrication and no escape from accuracy.


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