Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Speak Memory

Life Itself and the art of the memoir

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Roger Ebert

Over the weekend, I finally picked up a copy of Life Itself, the late Roger Ebert’s extraordinary memoir and valediction for one of the richest of recent American lives. I’m not sure why it took me so long to read it, but I suspect that it had something to do with my own resistance to Ebert’s shifting cultural role in his final years: as someone who grew up on his reviews—and basically learned how to read and think in the process—I liked to think of Ebert as more of a private friend. As the reaction to his illness and death made abundantly clear, though, that’s how he seemed to many of us. He was funny, accessible, unfailingly wise, and the last of the great figures from a golden age of journalism. Not surprisingly, his memoir is a delight, the first book in ages that I’ve been physically unable to put down. Ebert’s personality always came through in his reviews and essays, which amount to a disguised autobiography delivered over five decades, but here he speaks more candidly about the subjects he couldn’t discuss before: his alcoholism, his love life, his struggles with weight, and the curious business of being both a critic and a public figure with greater name recognition than many of the filmmakers he covered.

Life Itself is organized thematically, which allows me to skip from chapter to chapter in search of whatever tidbits I feel like reading about at the moment. There are juicy sections devoted to Ebert’s friendships and interactions with such directors as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Russ Meyer, and an especially memorable chapter on Gene Siskel, all crammed with anecdotes, jokes, and memories. Ebert’s closing mediations on sickness, silence, and mortality are all the more moving because of the crowded eventfulness of the life that preceded it. And the way the memoir moves from one subject to the next, allowing the reader to browse with ease, creates a curious impression: it feels less like a book than a conversation, or even like the man himself, as if we’ve all been given the chance to hear Ebert’s voice on whatever we feel like talking about one last time. As far back as Montaigne, who concealed his autobiography beneath a series of seemingly disconnected reflections, readers and writers alike have known that an author lives most fully within a structure that makes that kind of interaction possible, allowing us to open happily to the middle and dive in—which, after all, is the way we experience the lives and minds of those around us.

Vladimir Nabokov

When I look at the memoirs and autobiographies I’ve enjoyed and revisited the most, I find that most of them have this kind of thematic structure, so that the life becomes less a dry series of dates and events than a set of perspectives that allow us to regard the author from every angle. As Borges writes:

A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of all the organs of his body; another, on the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and with the dawn.

Such a book, with each chapter devoted to a different inner history, would be much more readable than the staid chronological scheme favored by most biographers. (Borges continues: “One life of Poe consists of seven hundred octavo pages; the author, fascinated by changes of residence, barely manages one parenthesis for the Malestrom or the cosmogony of ‘Eureka.'”) And while this book can only be written by one person—its subject—that’s all the more reason to wish that more writers would take this approach when the time came to set down something meaningful about their lives.

My own short list of favorite memoirs, for instance, consists almost entirely of works with this sort of arrangement: Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, Self-Consciousness by John Updike, I, Asimov by you know who. (Curiously, one of my favorite autobiographies of all, Asimov’s earlier volumes In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, takes the opposite approach, treating each minor event in the author’s life as if he had no knowledge of what was coming next. The fact that Asimov gets away with it—especially given that most of his life was spent at a writing desk—only speaks to his talents.) It’s perhaps no accident that all these books, like Ebert’s, are obsessed by the idea of mortality, as expressed in Nabokov’s opening lines: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Writing one’s memoirs, like writing of any kind, is an attempt to cheat death, or of ensuring that some fragment of our thoughts or personalities will survive us when we’re gone. And if you want to outlive yourself, the best way is to tell us what you thought about a few important things, as Douglas Hofstadter writes of his late friend Randy Read: “Perhaps these musings, dancing and sparking in the neurons of a few thousand readers out there, will keep alive, in scattered form, a tiny piece of his soul.”

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