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Book Review

The art of the memoir: more than an exercise in navel-gazing

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert Braile
March 22, 2008

The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again
By Sven Birkerts
Graywolf, paperback, 192 pp., $12

It is hard to imagine a genre more misunderstood than memoir. Sometimes, these personal stories of our lives can illuminate the hearts and minds of writer and reader alike. Other times, they amount to little more than narcissism.

As a memoirist, critic, and teacher, Sven Birkerts is well positioned to explore this subject, and thankfully so. His "The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again," is instructive, observant, and astute, a meditation on craft and culture by a relentlessly thoughtful writer. It is even at times a memoir itself, as honest and artful as any he examines.

Memoir, Birkerts writes, requires the juxtaposed perspectives of past and present, of what one recalls and how one recalls it. The recollection should be intuitive rather than chronological, a "felt past" allowing the themes of one's life to emerge. They should be as relevant to the reader as they are defining of the writer, "universalizing the specific" in ways that assume "there is a shared ground between the teller and the audience."

Lyrical memoirists, like Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, and Annie Dillard, have pursued "restoration, searching out recurrences and patterns, but also then allowing for the idea that pattern hints at a larger order, possibly an intention to underlying experience." Coming-of-age memoirists, like Frank Conroy, Jo Ann Beard, and Maureen Howard, have sought to extract from this "most dramatically fraught period of our lives" a sense of "how I came to be who I now am," Birkerts writes.

Sons have sought reconciliation with their remote fathers through memoir, as in writings by Paul Auster, Geoffrey Wolff, and Blake Morrison. Daughters have sought distance from their domineering mothers, as in writings by Jamaica Kincaid and Vivian Gornick. Still others have struggled to confront and overcome trauma in their pasts, from incest to disfigurement, like Mary Karr, Richard Hoffman, Lucy Grealy, and Kathryn Harrison, Birkerts writes. Each memoirist has traversed the landscape between past and present in varying ways, using an array of literary techniques to craft their works.

Ultimately, however, memoirists share the human desire to know themselves, for their own sakes as well as their readers. They seek to recall and re-create their lives, and, in so doing, to compel readers to do the same. "Memoir is a narrative art," Birkerts writes, "but through its careful manipulation of vantage point it simulates the subjective sense of experience apprehended through memory and the corrective actions of hindsight. In other words it gives artistic form to what is the main business of our ongoing inner life."

Birkerts is as incisive a literary analyst as he is eloquent a literary essayist. His occasional forays into his own life further elucidate his points by way of example, while they offer glimpses into the mind of a memoirist writing about memoirists. His book, required reading for anyone interested in the genre, is an engaging study of how we come to understand ourselves through this most personal of literary expressions.

Robert Braile reviews regularly for the Globe.

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