The Lives of Others

“Except for This”

I once read a haunting short story in an anthology of European fiction about the life and death of a petit bourgeois Ivan Ilyich-type and his impact on his progeny and his circle of friends and acquaintances. Steadily and inevitably, that impact diminishes as the decades and generations dispose of him and everyone with direct knowledge of him until, eventually, every trace of his existence disappears from the earth forever. He might as well never have lived, and as far as everyone else now living is concerned never did live — “except”, as the bleakly reassuring last line noted, “for this.” Which is to say, except for the story itself.

Ironically, that threadbare old anthology has gone missing, and I have been unable to track down the story’s title or author (though for all I know, it could be well known.) Unlike Ivan Ilyich, whose fictional demise will “live” forever, this character, whose name I cannot remember, is now as thoroughly forgotten, at least to me, as his millions upon millions of real-life counterparts are to all of us.

Nonetheless, the phrase “except for this” lingers for me as a neat summation of the exceptionalism that writers arrogate unto themselves — the feeling that only they, their fictional alter-egos and invented others, and their ideas and images, can live forever in a world where everything else crumbles or evaporates. Needless to say, pretty much everything writers write fades away, but the effort itself is what makes most literature and journalism, even the kind that’s seemingly the most time-bound and transitory, worth reading now and into the future.

I was reminded of this phrase while reading Ben Yagoda’s exemplary new book Memoir: A History, because it succeeds so well in bringing back to our attention compelling testaments that otherwise would be lost to most of us forever. Consider these words, found in Yagoda’s book, from a slave narrative written by one William Grimes:

I am now entirely destitute of property; where and how I shall live I don’t know; where and how I shall die I don’t know; but I hope I may be prepared. If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave, I would in my will, leave my skin as a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious, happy and free America. Let the skin of an American slave, bind the charter of American liberty.

Here is a slave, and author, who wanted his beaten-down existence remembered badly enough to give not only his words but his skin to the cause — though not, as this passage makes clear, for reasons of egotism, but rather to deliver a posthumous message to the American people reminding them of their once and future commitment to liberty. But neither words nor skin preserved would suffice in Grimes’ case, nor for the scores of his fellow slaves who also wrote memoirs, if not for writers like Yagoda. (Yes, Life of William Grimes, Runaway Slave is available in paperback on Amazon, but unless one knows to search for it, it might as well not exist.)

Yagoda’s book covers not only the expected high points like Saint Augustine and Benjamin Franklin and Helen Keller, but also innumerable other memoirs that are now nearly forgotten, like A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, the account of a 15-year-old Pennsylvania girl who was taken into captivity by Seneca Indians, but “chose to remain with her captors for all of her very long life, even when given the opportunity to leave.” The book, written in 1823 in collaboration with a writer named James Everett Seaver, became “one of the biggest bestsellers of the 1820s”. Like Grimes’ book, Jemison’s account is available at Amazon (in hardback, paperback and Kindle, no less) but would be likely to be known to hardly any readers at all — except for this volume.

Vague to Vivid

Yagoda takes on another task beside recounting the history of the memoir and personal narrative and reviving the reputation of a few select examples of the genre. He also attempts to explain why, despite the genre’s susceptibility to triviality (Sanjaya Malakar, who lost on American Idol) and fraud (James Frey, who lost it on Oprah), it remains so resilient — to the extent, in recent years, of ubiquity. Indeed, the memoir has become so inescapable that, as Yagoda notes, the critic James Atlas, who in 1996 excoriated the genre — “we live in a time when the very notion of privacy, of a zone beyond the reach of public probing has become an alien concept” — published his own memoir nine years later.

In an interview accompanying his book, Yagoda explains the appeal of the memoir genre:

The fraudulent, outrageous, or maudlin books have gotten most of the attention, but many recent memoirs have shed light on (an) impressive array of social, ethnic(,) medical, psychological, regional, and personal situations. Many are just good books. Under the auspices of the memoir boom, voices and stories have emerged that, otherwise, would have been dull, impersonal nonfiction tomes, or forgettable autobiographical novels, or wouldn’t have been expressed at all.

There is another aspect to the memoir boom that Yagoda alludes to here and elsewhere. In so many of our public communications, we are being lectured at and condescended to in words that have been crafted by committees or focus groups; we are assaulted by jargon and generalities; we are lied to by left and right alike; we are buried by convention and cliché and, on comment boards and in chat rooms, we use second-hand facts and cut-and-paste links to nip at each others’ ankles like ugly, abused little canines.

The gulf between this “dull and impersonal” world and the vivid world we actually inhabit is vast, and it falls especially upon writers and other artists to fill it. That’s the role that the novel has always played and that the memoir, increasingly, is playing now.

In every literary genre, I believe that vivid particularity is, above all, what makes writing worth reading. Notwithstanding that there is probably a higher ratio of disposable schlock in the memoir genre than in almost any other form of literary writing, there still is something about the memoir that permits access to the particular and that makes the best memoirs so powerful, because the writer is by definition the world’s leading authority on his subject, and can, if skilled and honest, bring to the reader an unmediated account of a life strange, twisted, wasted, brave, and glorious — a life, in short, other than our own. These accounts include, as Yagoda notes:

… memoirs about dissecting a cadaver, growing up in an immigrant Vietnamese family in Michigan… being a deaf Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, spending from 1950 to 1952 at the polio rehabilitation hospital established by Franklin Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia, building public schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, being twins separated at birth and finding each other half a lifetime later, being kidnapped and held for ransom one night in 1998, being a brain scientist who suffered a stroke, being (as the memoir title put it) a “mean little deaf queer,” being the brother of a well-known author who committed suicide, being the addicted and troubled brother of a moderately well known deceased writer-editor, and being the song that writer-editor’s boss, not to mention a sufferer of agoraphobia, claustrophobia, and elevator, tunnel, bridge, flying, and parking lot phobia.

To be sure, some of these memoirs aren’t worth the E-ink they’re displayed on. Disposable ghostwritten memoirs by pseudo-celebrities purchased by fans as souvenirs rather than to be read belong at the bottom of the pile, along with the books that are flat-out lies. As Yagoda demonstrates, the fake memoir isn’t a contemporary phenomenon at all, and in fact has a long and dishonorable, but richly amusing, history.

Almost as bad are the memoirs that may or may not be true but that fail to convince because they are deficient in “the attention to particulars and specifics you find in almost all good writers.” Therein, whatever the genre in question, lies the crux: Great writing, the kind that lives on, is vivid and particular, and bad writing is vague and false.

It’s as simple, and as challenging, as that.