In which some memoirs are recommended

What’s the attraction of reading memoirs? Is it envy for a life one might have wanted, or relief of a life avoided? I studied history and for me its attraction has always been the lives of people, the details, the narratives, their stories. These have enlivened the most recent books I’ve been involved in writing: Retiring with Attitude and The New Age of Ageing.

What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? It is suggested that while an autobiography is the story of a life, memoirs are stories from that life. In other words, memoir has a narrower focus than an autobiography, and it is often more interesting because it is selections.

It occurred to me then that the memoirs you truly fall in love with have less to do with the people that write them and much, much more to do with who you are when you read them. Memoirs are blueprints. They are maps to the lives we wish we had, or cautions from the ones we’re glad we avoided. [Caroline o’donaghue in Memoirs to Change your Life. See below]

From time to time I read memoirs and in this post I recommend a few. The common characteristic is that they are all from the lives of bookish people: all writers or editors.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

How well I remember the BBC tv series of 1978, which coincided with the republishing of these memoirs. It spoke directly to my emerging feminism. The book was not exactly a feminist tract but it reminded us of the role women can play in war and peace, and in politics, and this can produce another generation to follow them.

I read Testament of Youth after finishing my history degree, and perhaps more than any other book Vera Brittain showed how history, especially the history of war is not only about men and their suffering. The Testament of Youth made me understand that the First World War defined the twentieth century, and that Britain before it was utterly different. It was one woman’s story, but she tells of the sacrifice of a generation and its aftermath. The scars are with us still as the current centenary has revealed.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. First published in 1933, republished by Virago in 1978. 661pp

Many volumes by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! (2015) By Diana Athill was the book choice for one of my reading groups in November. It encouraged some very interesting discussion, about her description of her miscarriage, her family home, her approach to relationships, her life in old age. A volume I go frequently return to is Stet for her stories of the writers she worked with as an editor at Andre Deutsch, including Jean Rhys.

And this is from Somewhere Towards The End (2008)

One doesn’t necessarily have to end a book about being old with a whimper, but it is impossible to end it with a bang. There are no lessons to be learnt, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer. I find myself left with nothing but a few random thoughts. One of them is that from up here I can look back and see that although a human life is less than the blink of an eyelid in terms of the universe, within its own framework it is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving – and also more particular opposites such as the neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness. (177)

Diane Athill has led a remarkable life and has the gift to reflect on her experiences, and gift is the right word here for her readers and friends.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

This is Jackie Kay’s account of tracing and meeting her birth parents as an adult. It is also a tribute to her adoptive parents. This memoir explores what it means to be connected to families known and unknown.

It begins when she met her father in Abuja, Nigeria. He will not acknowledge her unless she agrees to join him as a born again Christian, and he behaves in a way that seems bizarre, praying for her for two hours. In his working life he is a noted tree specialist (having met Jackie’s mother in Glasgow University where he was studying), known throughout Nigeria for his work with trees and their healing properties.

Her mother is less obviously successful, moved away from her own tight family in the Highlands, and with a failed marriage and two more children, eventually disappearing into dementia in Milton Keynes. Both birth parents are reluctant to reveal Jackie’s existence to their own children.

The memoir questions what people are entitled to from each other – should Jackie collude in the secrecy, for the sake of the parents who abandoned her? The final triumphant scene is a meeting with her brother at the airport an hour before she needs to leave for her plane. She is embraced by him and his family.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. Published by Picador in 2010. 287pp

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd

I read this memoir because of one of its themes, to which I was alerted by an article in the wonderful Slightly Foxed journal. It was about secrets and families. It is an account of a family’s unconventional relationships, although on the surface they are presented as quite smooth. This, I suspect, may not be that unusual: a Swedish mother, family with connections to Rajmai tea and Lalique glassware. These businesses gradually declined between the wars until there was nothing left for Michael Holroyd when he came to adulthood. His family lived together in ritualised hate and with some abuse.

Michael Holroyd is a distinguished biographer, so he knows a thing or two about stories from people’s lives. With interesting relatives he reflects what should or shouldn’t be revealed. Above all he makes it clear that stories from one’s life cannot be told without the stories of many other people.

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd. Published by Slightly Foxed in 2015. 364pp

Related Posts

Memoirs to Change your Life by Caroline o’donaghue in The Pool. November 2015. A list of suggestions from an American point of view.

And more recommendations

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, published in 2016 by Canongate. It is the author’s account of her flight from the Orkneys, into East London and alcoholism and returning to the Orkneys to haul herself back to sobriety.

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (2016) published by Bloomsbury, being both the story of her troubled adolescence and living with Doris Lessing, and her account of terminal cancer.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell first published in 1959, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow in 2016. This is Chelsea in the Blitz.

Do you have any memoirs to recommend?

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