August 12, 2013
"How Memoirists Mold the Truth" — André Aciman
His wonderful April 6, 2013 New York Times essay appears below.
How Memoirists Mold the Truth
In the wake of horrible family rows, short of leaving my father, my mother would do something that shook the foundations of my childhood. She would step into our living room and, spurred by rage, spite and last-ditch efforts to restore order in her life, she would single-handedly move all the furniture around. The sofa was relegated to the place held by an imposing bookcase. The bookcase would be shunted over to a corner that belonged to an unassuming cabinet, now demoted to another corner where it sat in the dark under the terrified gaze of two leather armchairs squatting in the maelstrom.
To the outside world my mother was furiously rearranging furniture. To those who knew better she was trying to take control and putting a new face to her life. Since she couldn't change much of anything and had no intention of buying new furniture, perhaps she was just trying to give her life a new look. It was madness, but it taught me that if changing the layout of your problems doesn't necessarily solve them, it does make living with them easier. It also taught me that what came in the wake of any change, however terrifying, couldn't have been more thrilling.
Like my mother, memoirists, unable to erase the ugliest moments of their past or unwilling to make new ones up, can shift them around. They don't distort the truth, they nudge it. Everyone has reasons for altering the past. We may want to embellish or gloss over the past, or we may want to repress it, or to shift it just enough so as to be able to live with it. Some, in an effort to give their lives a narrative, a shape, a logic, end up altering not the facts they've known, but their layout — exactly what my mother was doing. Life as a Rubik's cube. Eventually, like someone jimmying the tumblers on a lock, she might spin things just right and find a sequence that finally made sense. She never did.
There are many things about my life that I wish had been different and that I still find difficult to live down. As a memoirist, I may claim to write the easier to remember things; but I could also just be writing to sweep them away. "Don’t bother me about my past," I'll say, "it's out in paperback now."
Writing the past is never a neutral act. Writing always asks the past to justify itself, to give its reasons... provided we can live with the reasons. What we want is a narrative, not a log; a tale, not a trial. This is why most people write memoirs using the conventions not of history, but of fiction. It's their revenge against facts that won’t go away.
Writing alters, reshuffles, intrudes on everything. As small a thing as a shifty adverb, or an adjective with attitude, or just a trivial little comma is enough to reconfigure the past.
And maybe this is why we write. We want a second chance, we want the other version of our life, the one that thrills us, the one that happened to the people we really are, not to those we just happened to be once.
And yet, after we've moved the furniture around and made peace with our little nudges, the question that no one asks is: what happens to the past after the writing process is done with it, after all our epiphanies have cast their radiance? Might as well ask, what happens to Marcel Proust once he’s done writing "Swann's Way"? Or better yet, what happens when he dips a madeleine in tea long after he’s written about the memories it triggers? Can Proust eat a madeleine after writing about it and still expect the miracle of remembrance to occur, now that writing has taken over experience? Similarly, if there is a primal layout to a living room, what happens to it once the writing process has shifted things around.
And here's a strange fact. Within a few weeks after my mother had rearranged the furniture, it was no longer possible to recall the previous configuration of our living room. Ask us to recall a store that was there two stores earlier, and we won't know whether we're remembering, trying to remember or just making things up.
Writing not only plays fast and loose with the past; it hijacks the past. Which may be why we put the past to paper. We want it hijacked.
In 1990 I published an account of a walk with my brother on our last night in Alexandria. Four years later, in my memoir "Out of Egypt," I removed my brother from the scene and, instead, described taking that same walk by myself. Today there are two competing versions of that walk floating on the Web. When I returned to Egypt in 1995, I walked along that same stretch to test whether I remembered walking there alone or with my brother. And suddenly it occurred to me that I might have made the whole thing up.
If I couldn't tell for certain that I had, it’s because the two published versions stood in the way of what had actually happened on my last night. Today I remember the walk I took alone, but only because I spent more time writing it. Ask me which of the two is truer, I'd say, "Probably the walk with my brother." Ask me again and I might admit making the whole thing up. Ask me yet again, and I won't remember.
Here we enter the spectral realm of quantum mnemonics. There is no past; there are just versions of the past. Proving one version true settles absolutely nothing, because proving another is equally possible. If I were to rewrite the scene one more time, this new version would overwrite the previous ones and, in time, become just another version among many.
Words radiate something that is more luminous, more credible and more durable than real facts, because under their stewardship, it is not truth we're after; what we want instead is something that was always there but that we weren’t seeing and are only now, with the genius of retrospection, finally seeing as it should have occurred and might as well have occurred and, better yet, is still likely to occur. In writing, the difference between the no more and the not yet is totally negligible.
We can have many pasts, just as we can have several identities at the same time, or be in two places in our mind without actually being in either. For every life we live, there are at least eight others we've gotten close to but may never know. Maybe there is no true life or false life, no remembered or imagined itinerary, no projected or revisited moments, no worthy or wasted days, just as there is no such thing as mask or face, truth or lie, right or wrong answers. Can something be and not be at the same time?
There is no answer. The only possible out is the one my mother taught me: that there is a pleasure, something so unspeakably thrilling, in uncovering the other version of our life, that, given a few days, a few weeks, a few years, this version will be the only one worth writing and, therefore, worth remembering.
André Aciman, who teaches comparative literature at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of "Harvard Square."
August 12, 2013 at 08:01 PM | Permalink
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Yep. I want the life I really should have lived.
Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Aug 13, 2013 8:24:03 AM
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