WHEN THE NATIONAL Book Critics Circle announced its decision earlier this month to finally recognize autobiography as a separate award category, few members could resist raising an (affectionately ironic) eyebrow. ''It's the joke that won't die," executive board member Kera Bolonik told me over the phone last week, referring to the seemingly bottomless well of wisecracks inspired by the James Frey debacle. ''But I'm not going to let Frey drag down the Joan Didions, Francine du Plessix Grays, Vikram Seths, Judith Moores, and Orhan Pamuks of the world," she said, naming the formidable contenders for this first award.
The winner was Francine du Plessix Gray, the venerable novelist and biographer whose 530-page memoir of her parents, ''Them" (The Penguin Press), came out to rave reviews this spring (mine among them). The story of the enormously ambitious Tatiana Yakovleva du Plessix and Alex Liberman is made for the big screen. The tale of their escape from Vichy France and ascent to the highest ranks of New York's fashion and media elite-she came to be a prominent hat designer, he the longtime creative director of all of Conde Nast-abounds with far-flung locations, glamorous homes, and boldface names. But Gray's sharp and sensitive retelling wrestle this blockbuster material to the page, infusing the historic sweep with the human scale necessary to creating a nuanced family epic.
Given the range of Gray's career-among her 10 previous books are biographies of the Marquis de Sade and Simone Weil-the 75-year-old belle lettriste seemed to me well-positioned to talk about the state of memoir not only as a memoirist, but as a cultural historian.
IDEAS: You've been writing and reviewing books since the 1960s. How do you explain the enduring popularity of the memoir?
GRAY: Well, the novel has been running out of steam for a while. Somehow, we've come back to home base-to a very realist, 19th-century, Trollopian novel. We're at an impasse. It seems to be cyclical.
IDEAS: How do you mean?
GRAY: A certain period of Western culture has ended, and a new era of enormous uncertainty has begun. The post-Cold War world is politically much more terrifying than the Cold War era was. We're at the edge of some very awesome possible transitions, and whether we think of it rationally or not, subconsciously the dread is there, along with the sense that it's time to make a summing-up of our lives and what we stand for. It's times like these, classically-one age coming to an end and a new age beginning-when the great autobiographies have been written. I call it an Augustinian time.
IDEAS: An ''Augustinian time"?
GRAY: St. Augustine was the first great autobiographer. I mean, there are certain precedents, like Marcus Aurelius's ''Meditations," in which he used fragments of his own life, and some people would even trace the form back to Socrates and his summing-up of his life before he drank the hemlock. But as a total book, ''The Confessions of St. Augustine" is really the first great work. And it came at the end of Classical Rome, as the Vandals were about to seize the city-a time of great spiritual upheaval and political chaos.
After St. Augustine there's a hiatus, until the Renaissance, when a few short autobiographies are written, and then there's nothing again until Rousseau. The Enlightenment was an age of terrific spiritual transition, with religion as they knew it coming to an end (at least they thought it was coming to an end!) and the beginning of the Romantic age, and all of that exists in Rousseau. I can't think of anything very remarkable in the 19th century-John Stuart Mill is very dry, George Sand is quite boring-and then in the 20th century you begin this great accumulation of memoirs and autobiographies: Colette, Nabokov, Mary McCarthy....There's even perhaps an argument to be made that autobiographies are an American form.
IDEAS: What do all these memoirs offer to readers? Are they a sort of balm against loneliness?
GRAY: It's not that they're a balm, more that they provide a way to increase self-knowledge or understanding of one's own problems through the mirror of somebody else's problems.
IDEAS: But we can get that out of a novel, too. So why are people seemingly more able or willing to get it out of a memoir?
GRAY: Novels keep us at a distance. I get the sufferings and tribulations of childhood much more immediately from Mary McCarthy's autobiography than I do from a novel about the problems of growing up. A memoir is less mediated, and more like a patient/doctor relationship: The writer is on the couch talking; you, the doctor, are reading with passion and interest, and listening, as good doctors must listen, and at the same time putting it through the mill-as any good doctor would-of your own consciousness, memory, and experience.
IDEAS: In this book you maintain both biographical detachment and autobiographical immersion. How did you strike that balance?
GRAY: It wasn't hard. Ambivalence was built into my very feelings for my parents. They made me very angry as a child. These people who were full of both darkness and light, who were so good and so mean-it was the kind of reaction they called for. And we have to develop ambivalence for any biography, to keep us from falling into hagiography.
For years, whenever I passed that house on 70th Street, I would linger in front of it and be very moved and anxious and long for it terribly. Now I just breeze by it, as if it's just another house. People ask me if my feelings have changed about my parents, and they haven't at all. Instead, I healed more through resurrecting that house than through describing my parents. It's very odd. But I think one has to be elastic, and be able to move on, and accept the fact that we're going to be ambivalent about most things in our lives.
IDEAS: What do you gain, as a writer, from memoir that you don't from fiction?
GRAY: I don't like to think of things in term of gain-it's more that memoir enriches and is in a continuum with my dream life. I'm very Greek and old-fashioned about dreams. I think they tell us a lot. This book started with a dream about my mother. Those of us who have been very close to our parents recognize with a shudder at some point in our lives that we will die seeking their approval.
Kate Bolick is senior editor at Domino magazine and teaches writing at New York University. Her interviews appear regularly in Ideas. E-mail email@example.com.