Thursday, March 27, 2008

Writer Impossible: The Memoir

Since the kerfluffle with fake memoirist and gangsta-poseur Peggy Seltzer, I've read two memoirs, both oldies. First, André Leon Talley's childhood and young adulthood memoir "A.L.T." Second, Diana Vreeland's own, "D.V." (Note: It must be a sign of greatness to be able to use only one's initial for a memoir). In addition, I've also re-read Peter O'Toole's riotous romp, "Loitering With Intent, The Apprentice." Each has grand stories to tell, storytellers who could regale you with interesting tidbits for hours. The writers were and are keen observers of the world around them, and understand their place or purpose. All three also tell it in a way that is not only truthful, but compelling as well. Would I want to be a guest in a ride-along in their car? You bet!

I'll take the first three lines of each from Chapter 1:
From DV:
"I loathe nostalgia.
One night at dinner in Santo Domingo at the Oscar de la Rentas', Sifty Lazar, the literary agent, turned to me and said, "The problem with you, dollfact" --that's what he always clls me --"is that your whole world is nostalgic."
From A.L.T:
"I shall begin by writing about luxury. I can't be sure exactly what image you'll drum up, but I suspect that it will either be swathed in silk and brocade or dressed in a custom-made English suit."
From Loitering With Intent:
"Uncommonly nippy is it in this old house, where you find me loitering at the base of the stairway in the hall, glum and with iced trotter unhappy in their station on the cold slabs of black and white chequered floor."
Immediately the stage is set. Vreeland, Talley and O'Toole take the reader on a romp. Talley tells you about his childhood, where luxury meant large Sunday meals, pressed sheets, and carefully chosen clothing for church. Vreeland regales the reader with a story about back plasters and Jack Nicholson, then segues to finding the house she left in 1937 on Hanover Terrace. And O'Toole takes you into the world of his early years at RADA.

Missing are tired pity-me flags, the long explanations, the apologies --so evident in lesser memoirs. Usually the one-shots, the pity me poor mommy, pity me poor alcoholic son who has wasted all his money on boozing and drugs.
If they did, I probably wouldn't even have finished the first chapter.
I'd of scrapped them to the book heap reserved for the rats and mice to make warm bedding with for cold nights.

Vreeland, Talley and O'Toole have a wonderful ability with language with which to provide descriptions rich in variety of words and sounds (yes, you can read them aloud). This creates a visual memoir -we can see it, hear it, taste, touch and feel what they're writing about. They have the elusive gift of voice.
"Robert famously was a womanizer, drank whiskey by the bucket, could curse blisters on granite; a martinet at work, he was rollicker at leisure; erudite, theatrical, godless, practical, his industriousness was boundless, his will and determination invicible, his phrasemaking raw.."
(I'm not sure if it's because he's Irish, but O'Toole has a natural inclination for run-ons. But you get the point).

Do they take creative liberties in conveying their stories? Probably. Maybe things weren't as golden in other aspects, but they're not sharing those with the reader at this moment. And memory is a sticky thing --I'm sure I was a size five for decades. However, what they're writing about rings true because of the details given and the voice is so consistent. They aren't playing with pitch or meter, what's coming out is natural and unfettered. And to me, this is the mark of a good memoir: one that told in a compelling and amusing way that has a broad use of language to create visual descriptions.

But above all else: what's written about really did happen.