One of the best parts of living in Canberra – and there are many best parts, despite what the politicians and media seem to say! – is that we have the National Library of Australia. It presents many literary events each year, to which I only ever manage to make a few. Some of them I’ve written about here, some not – but I am going to share the latest, Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography Lecture.
The Seymour Biography Lecture, endowed by the Seymours in 2005, is an annual lecture devoted to life writing. The inaugural lecture was given by one of Australia’s most respected biographers, Brenda Niall. Later speakers have included Robert Dessaix and Drusilla Modjeska. Initially hosted by the Humanities Research Centre‘s Biography Institute, it was transferred to the National Library in 2010. When I saw that Robert Drewe was to give this year’s lecture, I had to go. While I haven’t reviewed Drewe here yet, I have mentioned him a few times, and have read some of his work in the past. He has written novels, short stories, essays and memoir. The shark net, his first memoir, was adapted to a well-regarded miniseries in 2003, and his second, Montebello, was published in 2012. (I mentioned these in my recent Monday Musings on literary autobiographies.)
The lecture will I’m sure, like those before it, be made available via the Seymour Biography page (link above), but I would like to share a few ideas that struck me.
Memoir, or autobiography?
Drewe talked about how memoir is viewed, the fact that some see it as self-absorption or as narcissistic, about revenge or self-justification. He quoted American critic William Gass (author of Autobiography in the age of narcissism) who attacked memoir for being about self-absorption. Gass ridiculed the genre: “Look, Ma, I’m breathing. See me take my initial toddle, use the potty, scratch my sister; win spin the bottle. Gee whiz, my first adultery-what a guy!” Hmm, I have friends who don’t like memoir for this very reason.
Drewe gave a brief history of memoir – particularly memoir as confession, or redemption – through the writings of St. Augustine who made memoir, he said, an interior exercise, and Rousseau who moved the confession or memoir into the literary arena. He told us that Patrick White described his Flaws in the glass as not a memoir but a “self-portrait in sketches”! Flaws, Drewe said, is regularly criticised. English critic, Richard Davenport-Hines, for example, wrote that White’s “spiteful bestseller Flaws in the Glass must rank as the most inadvertently self-diminishing memoir since Somerset Maugham’s”.
Memoirs, Drewe said – looking at works like St Augustine’s – predated autobiographies. He defined the two forms as follows: memoirs are written from a life, while autobiographies are of a life. The change in preposition here is significant. As Gore Vidal would describe it, memoirs are about memory, while autobiography and biography are about history. In a memoir, a writer can take a memory and describe or expand it to tell a story about his/her life or experiences. Facts can be played with in order to find the emotional truths. Autobiography on the other hand – despite George Bernard Shaw’s “All autobiographies are lies… deliberate lies” – are expected to be factual.
Drewe told us that Sigmund Freud, when asked to write about his life, refused, arguing that it would be a reckless project. To tell his complete life would require so much discretion, it would be an exercise in mendacity. No wonder that, as Drewe told us, 99% of memoirists wait until their parents have died. Oh dear! I do hope my writing-oriented children are among this 99%! We did our best!
All this might sound dry and boring, but Drewe’s presentation was entertaining. He told us that when he thinks of autobiography he thinks of Father’s Day – and sports (particularly cricket) and political autobiographies. He regaled us with the punning titles of cricket autobiographies, such as At the close of play; Over to me; Time to declare (two in fact); Over but not out; and No boundaries.
Before we had a chance to call him sexist, Drewe said that Mother’s Day made him think of WOTOs, that is, Women Overcoming the Odds, like, you know, widowed women running a cattle station in the outback, or a woman sailing solo around the world or saving an endangered animal!
Drewe returned several times in his talk to the issue of “facts” versus “truths”. He quoted Louise Adler who commissions political autobiographies for Melbourne University Press, including Mark Latham’s The Latham Diaries, Peter Costello’s The Costello Memoirs, Tony Abbott’s Battlelines, and Malcolm Fraser’s The Political Memoirs. Politicians have a good memory for insults and slights. Being memoirs, they are not necessarily verifiably factual. However, Adler, Drewe said, argues that their unreliability makes them riveting reading. They may be myopic, partisan, but they deliver riches. Drewe didn’t say this, but I’ll add that this requires a certain level of sophistication in the readers, that is, we readers need to understand the memoir genre and read with that understanding. I have no problem with that!
There is, however, what he called “the veracity squad”. These include the righteous readers or burgeoning historians – his descriptions – who are pedantic about facts. They don’t believe, for example, that you can remember dialogue from a family Christmas dinner twenty years ago and so they discount works that include such content. They wouldn’t approve, also, of crafting a particular person into a standout character.
Around here, Drewe referred to his first memoir, The shark net. He said he decided not to focus on the ego, but on the serial murderer with whom his family had contact, Eric Edgar Cooke. It’s basically factual he said, but he did imagine a couple of scenes – that is, he “fictionalized fact” – because he wanted to show Cooke as a human being.
I recently posted a review of Rochelle Siemienowicz’s Fallen. She tells us, in the Epilogue, that she’d initially written the story as a novel but her editor, I believe, suggested it would be better as a memoir. Drewe said in his lecture that “some stories are best kept true, some best as fiction”. The challenge is to decide which form is best. Some writers don’t make the right decision and find themselves in a literary furore, such as Norma Khouri with her fake memoir, Forbidden love. A more complex situation is Helen Demidenko with her fiction, The hand that signed the paper, which she falsely claimed was autobiographical. What both these writers failed to realise is that the first rule of memoir is that you shouldn’t lie!
Memoirs named by Drewe
During his lecture, Drewe identified a number of memoirs, some of which I’ll share as we all like lists:
Top selling Australian memoirs
- Clive James, Unreliable memoirs
- Albert Facey, A fortunate life
- Errol Flynn, My wicked, wicked ways
- Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, memory (in my TBR)
- Maya Angelou’s I know why the caged bird sings (read before blogging)
- Joan Didion’s The year of magical thinking (read before blogging)
- Anne Frank’s Diary of a young girl (read before blogging)
- Sally Morgan’s My place (read before blogging)
Towards the end of the lecture, Drewe referred to an article titled “Reflection and retrospection” by American critic Phillip Lopate. It commences:
In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.
Makes sense to me …